Information about sexual child abuse

Child sexual abuse is the exploitation or coercion of a child. Child sexual abuse involves a continuum of behavior that ranges from verbal, non-physical abuse to forcible touching offenses. It can range from a single encounter with an exhibitionist, to confusing occasional fondling by a casual acquaintance, to years of ongoing abuse by a relative or family member, to rape and/or exploitation through prostitution and pornography.

Child sexual abuse is the use of a child for sexual purposes by an adult or more powerful person, including older children and peers. It is called incest when it happens between family members. Child sexual abuse involves a continuum of behavior that ranges from verbal, non-physical abuse to forcible touching offenses. It can range from a single encounter with an exhibitionist, to confusing occasional fondling by a casual acquaintance, to years of ongoing abuse by a relative or family member, to rape and/or exploitation through prostitution and pornography.

How can I tell if a child has been sexually abused?
Children often don’t tell about sexual abuse. Watch for these signs:

  • Sudden change in the way the child acts
  • Aggression or acting out
  • Seductive behavior with friends, babysitters or other adults
  • Fear of being alone with a certain person
  • Excessive play with his or her own private body parts
  • Change in how much the child eats (more or less)
  • Unhappiness and withdrawal
  • Bedwetting and nightmares
  • Too much crying

Any one of the above does not necessarily mean sexual abuse has occurred. These are signs the child may have a problem that needs attention.

There also may be physical signs:

  • Physical pain in the area of private body parts
  • Blood-stained underwear
  • Rectal bleeding

If these signs appear, call the hotline and take your child to your doctor right away.


What Sexual Abuse Is Not.
Child sexual abuse is NOT the same as fond and playful ways of showing love. Hugs and kisses can be good—within limits.


Setting Family Safety Rules.
Here are some rules that you as a parent can help your children learn concerning touching:

  • It is never okay for grownups or older kids to touch your private body parts—except to keep you healthy and clean.
  • If someone touches your private body parts and asks you to keep it a secret, tell someone about it right away. If the first person doesn’t believe you, someone else will.
  • Anytime you feel mixed up about a touch…tell the person to stop and talk to a grownup you trust.

Repeat these rules to your child again and again. By teaching touching safety, you will NOT scare your child or make him or her afraid of good, healthy touching. You WILL be giving your child skills to stop unsafe touching. Children feel good knowing they can help themselves.

You can begin teaching touching safety rules as soon as your children can understand, even before they can talk. Don't wait until your children ask questions about sexual assault or until after something has happened.

Make a special point to:

  • Talk about names for private body parts. It's hard for children to tell about sexual abuse if they don't have the "language."
  • Listen carefully to your children when going over the safety rules. Let your children know you are open to whatever they want to share with you.
  • Practice the touching safety rules constantly. Play "what if" games.
  • Be aware of adults or older kids your children spend time with.

Let your children know that:

  • Most touching is safe. Some touching is not.
  • It is not their fault if someone touches their private body parts.
  • Your children should never keep secrets about touching.
  • Your children should tell you about unsafe touching, even if it has been going on for a while.
  • It's never too late to tell.
  • Your children have the right to say no to unsafe touching even if the person is a grownup or someone they know.

If your children tell you about a touching problem:

  • Don't panic!
  • Try not to look shocked. Controlling your feelings will help you avoid scaring your children, or causing guilt or embarrassment.
  • Tell your children you believe what they said. Children normally do not lie about sexual abuse.
  • Tell your children it is not their fault.
  • Tell your children you will protect them and how you will do it.
  • Report to the police or child protective services.
  • Be warm and caring, not mad and blaming--that way, your child can heal faster.

Here are some things you can say:
“I believe you.”
“I’m glad you told me.”
“You’re not alone.”
“I’m sorry it happened to you.”
“I don’t know what will happen next.”
“I will do my best to protect you.”
“I’m angry at the person who did this to you.”
“You can still love someone but hate what he or she did.”
“I’m not mad or upset with you.”
“This is not your fault.”
“The abuser was wrong. I don’t know what will happen to him or her.”
“There are other kids who have had abuse happen to them.”
“I’m not sorry that other people know about the abuse.”
“You don’t need to protect me. I’m the adult.”
“I don’t know why the abuser did it. It was wrong.”
“I may cry. I’m sad about this. But that’s ok.”
“I’ll take care of you.”
“I will not leave you.”


Phases of Sexual Abuse

There are multiple phases associated with the engagement in sexual abuse, some occurring before and some after the actual act of abuse, including secrecy, discovery, disclosure, and suppression.

Prelude to childhood sexual abuse

  • The abuse is rarely unplanned.
  • The abuser is most often known to your child, usually in the family or tangentially associated with the family or the child's daily routine such as a neighbor, coach, the clergy.
  • The perpetrator uses the privacy of the home or other secret place to inflict the injury.
  • The perpetrator usually watches for, or orchestrates an environment of privacy to make the assault.

Enticement of your child

  • Most often, the perpetrator presents the abuse as a non-threatening "game" or "fun activity" to lure your child.
  • The perpetrator usually knows something about the child - perhaps a spot of vulnerability -- to create a specific "trap," and he/she may provide enticements or bribes to solicit your child's cooperation.
  • Covert, subtle coercion will most probably accompany the abuse.

Sexual contact with your child

  • Any child who reports to you such an act at the hands of an post adolescent teen or adult has been sexually abused and is a victim.
  • Many times, the predator is engaging in sexual contact not out of need for sexual fulfillment, but rather to exert his/her need to be important and desirable.
  • Your child, who at a young age is incapable of reasoning beyond simple black and white, and may have no ability to reason that the sexual acts being imposed upon them are inappropriate.
  • In reality, the contact may at first feel good and pleasurable; this can be especially true if the predator is someone your child loves or admires.


  • Perpetrators most often encourage or coerce the victim to keep the sexual abuse a "secret just between them."
  • Children usually "do" keep the secret during childhood, and many, forever.
  • Some finally disclose the events as adults after much psychological damage has been done.
  • Threats to the child if he/she discloses the abuse can figure in the continued secrecy of the abuse:
  • Threats made do not have to be of a violent nature; to the child target/victim, the threat of abandonment, or of disappointing the admired adult can be just as manipulative and coercive as threats of a physical nature.


  • Disclosure can be accidental or consciously premeditated:
    • Accidental disclosure occurs when neither perpetrator or child intends to reveal the abuse; such common cases include:
      • Unexpected observation by a third party.
      • Physical injury is inflicted upon the child.
      • A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is contracted by the child.
      • Pregnancy.
      • Startling and unexpected sexual activity is initiated by the victimized child.
    • Premeditated disclosure occurs when the victim makes a conscious decision to reveal the abuse to a parent or outsider, and can happen for numerous reasons:
      • Victimized child starts feeling stifled or smothered by the abuse and wants to seek the safe haven of her/his peers.
      • Child is trying to escape dysfunctional family dynamics.
      • Child may be fearful of getting pregnant or catching an STD.
    • Reactions to disclosure vary depending by role, and by the relationship of the abuser to the child:
      • Perpetrators will most likely react: with alarm, defensiveness, hostility towards the child and family; to create doubt and undermine the child's credibility to neutralize the damage of the allegations.
      • Your reactions as parents (where parent is not the perpetrator) may include: panic; anger; being protective, conflicted; feeling guilt over the failure to protect the child; being fearful of negative effects of public disclosure; reluctance to acknowledge the child's premature introduction to sexual activities, or simply going into denial.

It is critical that you do never blame the child and create further harm if she or he comes to you with this revelation.


Process of Disclosure

Denial—The child’s initial statement to any individual that he or she had not been sexually abused.  Usually the child does not feel comfortable talking about the abuse.

Tentative Disclosure—The child’s partial, vague, or vacillating acknowledgement of sexual abusive activity. The child discloses some details of the abuse.

Active Disclosure—The child admits having experienced a specific sexually abusive activity.  The child gives more details.

Recanting—The child retracts a previous allegations of abuse that was formally made and maintained over a period of time.  A child may recant for several reasons including secrecy, inducements by perpetrators, lack of support from the non-offending caregiver, societal attitudes regarding the sexual abuse of children, or the child’s interactions with professionals within the criminal justice system.  At this time the consequences of telling and maintaining the allegations seem worse than continuing to endure the sexual abuse.

Reaffirmation—The child’s reassertion of the validity of a pervious statement of sexual abuse that had been recanted.  The child once more tells the truth about the abuse and confirms his/her earlier disclosures were accurate.  The child sees that he/she did the right thing by telling and that there are people who want to help.

Some reasons why children may not tell that they are being abused.

  • They do have the language to do so (i.e., developmental ability and/or words to
  • describe sexual acts, sexual organs, etc.)
  • They do not recognize the inappropriateness of the activity.
  • After discovering the inappropriateness of the activity, they are too embarrassed.
  • They fear they will get in trouble.
  • They do not want to disrupt their relationship with the perpetrator and other
  • family members.
  • They want to protect their parents from being hurt emotionally.
  • They are afraid the perpetrator will carry out his or her threats.


Suppression, repression and the journey to recovery

Consider the injury inflicted upon your ten year old girl or boy who has been coerced, fondled, penetrated and perhaps threatened by an adult who is loved, trusted, or admired. The long term consequences can be devastating:

  • Suppression: The truth is suppressed or denied by one or several of the parties involved borne, in part, out of denial, fear, desire for child to "forget" embarrassment, guilt, shame, and to undermine the credibility of the child.
  • Repression: Many victims bury their "dirty little secret" so deeply in their psyche that the truth never surfaces--or surfaces years later during therapy or due to some cataclysmic event that shakes lose the truth. By then, inordinate psychological injury may have been sustained by the victim rendering him/her compromised when asked to trust, or trying to enter into and succeed in healthy professional, social and sexual relationships.
  • Denial: Once the truth surfaces, there can be a period of strong denial by the victim--"this did not happen to me."
  • Shame and Guilt: When realizing it "did" happen, there can be a prolonged phase where the victim feels shame and guilt--"I let this dirty thing happen to me; I'm so ashamed; I am the guilty party for allowing this to have continued; I should have known to say no."


Who are the Offenders?
Child sexual abusers are likely to be people we know, and could even care about. Most child abusers are fathers, stepparents, grandparents and other family members. Older children and peers also abuse children. Offenders may be neighbors, babysitters, ministers, teachers, coaches, or anyone else who has close contact with our children. Eighty to ninety percent of all cases include an offender who is someone the child knows or trusts. In approximately half of these cases, the trusted adult is a father or stepfather.

Information About Sex Offenders:

What to look for in people who want to hurt your children.

First it is important to define the terms “child molester” and “pedophile”. 

A pedophile is someone that has enduring preferential feelings of sexual attraction for pre-pubescent children or adolescents.

A child molester is classified by observable behaviors and legal criteria.  They are people who have interacted sexually with a person under the legal age of consent.

Not all child molesters are pedophiles and not all pedophiles molest children.

Many studies show that the majority of child molesters are not just sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children, but that they engage in sex with children because of situational factors ( www.mhamic.org).


Myths About Sexual Offenders

Strangers represent the greatest danger to our children. 
The studies show that 75 % to 90% of offenders are known to the child.  They are often members of our community that are well respected, often in positions of authority.  It is because of family ties and close friendships that people have a difficult time believing something happened.  In some cases people will even feel guilty and not report the person to the police because of their relationship.   By placing himself in a position of trust, the offender is also able to undermine the child’s ability to view the behavior as abusive.  It is important to talk to your kids about the right they have to question or tell about any adult behavior that they are uncomfortable with.  Unfortunately, abuse within the family or among step or extended families is common and often poses the greatest challenge to victims due to the confusion, betrayal, and sense of loss associated with family-based child sexual abuse. 

Child molesters are “dirty old men”
This is another myth that does not hold true.  Although the majority of sex offenders are men, most typically commit their first offense in their late 20s or early 30s.  “They come from all walks of life.  Some are married, some single; some professional, some blue-collar, some young and some are old” (www.childlures.com).  Child molesters are not the monsters that we envision them to be.  In fact, many often have their own children or seek out families with young children to attach themselves to.  If an abuser presented himself as a sex offender, kids and families could protect themselves—the trick is that they do not fit our stereotyped images.

Child sexual abuse occurs once
In most cases the abuse occurs over a long period of time and gradually builds from minor to more serious behaviors.  This process is referred to as “grooming”.  After building a relationship with the child and his/her family, an offender may begin to desensitize the child and to normalize sexual talk and contact.  “Most child molesters are able to molest dozens of children before they are caught and have a three percent chance of being apprehended for their crimes”. (Understanding and Protecting Your Children from Child Molesters and Predators)  Sometimes children have to tell numerous people before they are believed and someone reports the abuse to the police, which then allows the offender more time to have access to the child or to destroy evidence.     


On the Lookout: Eight Signs of a Potential Sexual Abuse Perpetrator

The following are red flags that may be alerting you to a potential sexual offender who may be trying to prey upon your child.  Listening to what your inner voice says is often the key to heeding these signs, so if you hear it, do not ignore it and keep these tips in mind, especially if you feel strange or uncomfortable about anyone in your child’s life.

They can talk the talk. 
Child molesters are often good at fitting in with the child.  They will act like a child and often use the same language that the child uses.  They often have the same likes and dislikes as the child to reassure the child that they have a lot in common.  They will do most anything to get on the same level as the child.

A simple touch. 
Watch out for adults that go out of their way to touch children.  Child molesters may be “grooming” a child with hugs that are too close, when they offer to tuck a child in, or help a child adjust clothing—grooming is often the first step in the abuser’s plan of working up to more serious sexual offenses.

Special attention. 
Be cautious when your child begins to receive special attention from adults.  Child molesters will single their victim out with abundant flattery to make the child feel important to them.  They also may give the child extra gifts or money to win the child over.

The fun house. 
Be aware if you know of adults that have a house where all the kids hang out to play even though no children live there.  Many times a child molester will use toys, video games, and other kid stuff to lure children to their home.  They want the child to view them as a playmate and a friend.

The leader. 
Don’t assume that those adults in positions of authority won’t hurt your child.  Child molesters often seek out roles like coach and youth group leader in order to get close to children.  They will also use the position to manipulate the child by saying “I know what is best for you”.  Adults expect youth leaders to be trustworthy, and most are—however this is a trick many offenders have used.

It’s natural. 
Nudity may be introduced to your child as a very natural thing by a child molester.  They may show the child pornography or introduce activities like skinny dipping and make the child feel that the activity is common by saying it is art, or that they are “educating” the child.

Alone time. 
Be aware of adults that want to spend more time alone with your child than you do.

Always there to help. 
Be cautious of an adult who is always offering to help with the child.  The molester will seem like Mr. Wonderful, always offering to baby-sit or help with special project.  A child molester wants to be viewed as a good guy and makes opportunities to commit abuse by being the trusted and dependable friend.

Note to Parents
If you sense or become suspicious of someone do not over react.  It is more important to remove your child from the situation than to make a scene.  Do not confront the person.  Once your child is safe, report the person to the proper authorities such as law enforcement or Children’s Division.  Do not make any accusations with out their help —it is what they are there for. 

It is important while keeping these warning signs in mind to try and maintain a balance of safety/caution and trust, especially if sexual abuse has already affected your family.  It is easy to become paranoid and to loose the ability to trust or allow your children to live a normal life.  Most of all, remember that children are never to blame for their sexual abuse, the offending adults are always the responsible ones.


Adolescents who sexually abuse are very different from adult sex offenders in several ways:

  • Are considered to be more responsive to treatment than adult sex offenders and do not appear to continue re-offending into adulthood, especially when provided with appropriate treatment.
  • Have fewer numbers of victims than adult offenders and, on average, engage in less serious and aggressive behaviors
  • Most do not have deviant sexual arousal and/or deviant sexual fantasies that many adult offenders have.
  • Most are not sexual predators nor do they meet accepted criteria for pedophilia.
  • Few appear to have the same long-term tendencies to commit sexual offenses as some adult offenders.
  • Across a number of treatment studies, the overall sexual recidivism rate for adolescent sex offenders who receive treatment is low compared to adults.
  • Adolescents who offend against young children tend to have slightly lower sexual recidivism rates than adolescents who sexually offend against other teens

Review Of Research On Adolescents Who Sexually Abuse

Juveniles commit approximately one-third of all sex offenses against children.

              —Snyder, H.N., & Sickmund, M.(1999)
Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report.
        Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

Adolescents do not typically commit sex offenses against adults, although the risk of offending against adults increases slightly after an adolescent reaches the age of 16.

              —National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth, July 2003

Approximately one-third of sexual offenses against children are committed by teenagers. Sexual offenses against young children, under 12 years of age, aretypically committed by boys between the ages of 12 and 15 years of age.

   —Snyder, H.N., & Sickmund, M.(1999)
Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report.
        Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention


Treatment and Recidivism rates

  • In a recent study of 23,393 offenders surveyed, a minority of 13.4% was known to have committed a new sexual offense within the average 4-5 year follow-up period examined in the study
  • Recent studies show treatment can work. In a study of 11,000 sex offenders participating in 79 offender-treatment studies, those completing treatment showed a 7.2% recidivism rate.
  • Over 17.6% of untreated offenders re-offended. Most studies had a 3-5 year follow-up component
  • Other research has shown that sex offenders who fail to complete treatment programs are at increased risk of offending sexually and generally