Providing a safe place for your children is key to prevention

Sexual abuse (and abusers themselves) come in different shapes and forms. Understanding the nature of the problem is the first step to preventing it.

Simply put, sexual abuse occurs when a person uses a child for their sexual purposes or pleasure; usually that person will be older or stronger and the abuse may involve touch or exposure to sexual talk, pictures or actions.

While once thought to be rare, the statistics surrounding this kind of abuse are high and it can happen to children from all kinds of families, cultures and socio-economic groups.

Understanding abusers and abuse

Just like anyone can be abused, the abuse can also be done by anyone – adult, teenager, child, male, female, family, friend or stranger.

Children are typically most at risk from those people who have access to them and who they trust, which is quite a contrast to the ‘stranger danger’ thinking about who they should be most wary of.

While there are cases where strangers commit sexually abusive behaviour, more often than not, the offender is known to the survivor and in a position of trust.

Some abusers have had similar problems in their childhood, or they may have trouble relating to adults and so spend a lot of time with children; this is not always the case though.

You cannot tell by looking at someone that they have sexually abused others; they do not look or dress in a certain way.

People who use harmful sexual behaviour come from various ethnic, cultural, religious and socio-economic backgrounds. They seek victims who won’t protest, won’t tell, or if they do, won’t be believed. If there are not enough people around like this, then they will “groom” someone to be abused.

Typically they begin by being friendly and inviting trust before they move on to creating a ‘special bond’ with a particular child so that they will willingly be alone with them.

The next move is often the violation of a small boundary, like inappropriate touch, which gradually increases if the child passes the test of not running off to tell.

While we, as adults, know it is never the child’s fault, they don’t understand this yet and may believe they are to blame.

Abusers of children are also masters of covering it up and many no longer believe they are even doing anything wrong or harmful.

Why it can be hard to see sexual abuse

Human nature means that it’s natural to not want to think harmful things happen to us, or our families.

When a child withdraws or becomes unhappy, sexual abuse is often not high on our list of possible reasons, despite the fact that it deserves to be. It’s also, sadly, a myth that as parents we would ‘just know’.

We often fall into the trap of expecting the signs to be as outrageous as we believe the act to be, but most children keep their pain inside and don’t outwardly react in ways that let us know the seriousness of what has occurred.

There are many reasons why children don’t tell, including loyalty to the person who hurt them, obedience, fear of not being believed, confusion or self-blame, or just because trauma compromises our ability to speak, to be articulate.

This can be when the distressed behaviour arises in other forms.

What to look out for

Unfortunately, signs of abuse are not always easy to see and can often be attributed to other problems.

Few children will have direct physical impacts and still fewer may develop prematurely sexualised behaviour, so most indicators are expressions of the emotional harm that has been caused.

No one reaction means that a child has been sexually abused, but it may mean that something distressing has happened that needs to be explored.

Emotional Reactions
These may include changes in mood and the way they react to people, a reluctance to undress, increased anxiety, sleeping problems like nightmares or bed wetting, regression to a younger age, self-harming, persistent illness or indicating that they have worries or a secret which worries them.

Sexualisation Signs
These may include sexual behaviour and language with other children, adults or toys that seem out of the ordinary. They may also have inappropriate sexual knowledge.

Physical Reactions
These may include unexplained injuries or pain around the genitals, anus or mouth or sexually transmitted infections.

Make sure that your children know that you love them, and will listen to their worries.

While this is important for many reasons, and doubtless is something that you aim to do anyway, there are several practical reasons why this can make a real difference in terms of sexual abuse.

It Reduces The Likelihood That Someone Will Choose Your Child To Abuse
Children are less likely to be approached if they don’t need a ‘new friend’ and are seen as more likely to tell and be believed. Simply put, children who feel emotionally secure and well-loved are less likely to be targeted.

You’re More Likely To Stop Any Abuse Early
If your child is used to talking about their worries with you, they are more likely to tell you if they feel scared or uncomfortable and you will be more likely to notice their feelings and changes in behaviour.

Your Child Will Be More Resilient
Good relationships make children stronger so they can cope better when things go wrong.

Have fun together

Children need warm, loving relationships with adults so they feel that they are loved and respected and that you will be available to them when they need you.

Having fun together, being affectionate and consistently emotionally responsive builds good relationships and developing a family culture of listening and talking about thoughts and feelings is a great platform for safety.


For more help on keeping young children safe, talk to us about getting our We Can Keep Safe programme into your preschool community.
We’re here for you, 24/7.

The Crisis Team is available anytime, day or night, for information, support, advocacy or referrals to other agencies.