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How can you tell if a child is being (or has been) sexually abused?
Children who have been sexually abused may display a range of emotional and behavioral reactions, many of which are characteristic of children who have experienced other types of trauma. These reactions include:
An increase in nightmares and/or other sleeping difficulties
Not wanting to be left alone with a particular individual(s)
Sexual knowledge, language, and/or behaviors that are inappropriate for the child’s age
Although many children who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioral and emotional
changes, many others do not. It is therefore critical to focus not only on detection, but on prevention
and communication—by teaching children about body safety and healthy body boundaries, and by
encouraging open communication about sexual matters.
Why don’t children tell about sexual abuse?
There are many reasons children do not disclose being sexually abused, including:
Threats of bodily harm (to the child and/or the child’s family)
Fear of being removed from the home
Fear of not being believed
Shame or guilt
If the abuser is someone the child or the family cares about, the child may worry about getting that
person in trouble. In addition, children often believe that the sexual abuse was their own fault and
may not disclose for fear of getting in trouble themselves.
Very young children may not have the
language skills to communicate about the abuse or may not understand that the actions of the
perpetrator are abusive, particularly if the sexual abuse is made into a game.
If a child discloses abuse, it
is critical to stay calm, listen
carefully, and NEVER blame
What can you do if a child discloses
that he or she is being (or has been)
If a child discloses abuse, it is critical to stay calm,
listen carefully, and NEVER blame the child. Thank
the child for telling you and reassure him or her of your
support. Please remember to call for help immediately.
If you know or suspect that a child is being or has
been sexually abused, please call the Childhelp®
National Child Abuse Hotline at 1.800.4.A.CHILD
(1.800.422.4453) or visit the federally funded Child
Welfare Information Gateway at:
If you need immediate assistance, call 911.
Many communities also have local Children’s Advocacy
Centers (CACs) that offer coordinated support and
services to victims of child abuse (including sexual
abuse). For a state-by-state listing of accredited CACs,
visit the website of the National Children’s Alliance
Child Sexual Abuse Myths and Facts
Myth: Child sexual abuse is a rare experience.
Fact: Child sexual abuse is not rare. Retrospective research indicates that as many as 1 out of 4 girls
and 1 out of 6 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.
However, because child sexual abuse is by its very nature secretive, many of these cases are never reported.
Myth: A child is most likely to be sexually abused by a stranger.
Fact: Children are most often sexually abused by someone they know and trust. Approximately three quarters of reported cases of child sexual abuse are committed by family members or other
individuals who are considered part of the victim’s “circle of trust.”
Myth: Preschoolers do not need to know about child
sexual abuse and would be frightened if educated about it.
Fact: Numerous educational programs are available to
teach young children about body safety skills and the
difference between “okay” and “not okay” touches. These
programs can help children develop basic safety skills
in a way that is helpful rather than frightening. For more
information on educating young children, see Let’s talk
about taking care of you: An educational book about body
safety for young children, available at www.hope4families.
Myth: Children who are sexually abused will never recover.
Fact: Many children are quite resilient, and with a
combination of effective counseling and support from
their parents or caregivers, children can and do recover
from such experiences.
Myth: Child sexual abuse is always perpetrated by adults.
Fact: Twenty-three percent of reported cases of child
sexual abuse are perpetrated by individuals under the
age of 18.
While some degree of sexual curiosity and exploration is to be expected between children of about the same age, when one child coerces another to engage in adult-like sexual activities, the behavior is unhealthy and abusive. Both the abuser and the victim can benefit from counseling.
Myth: Talking about sexual abuse with a child who has suffered such an experience will only make it worse.
Fact: Although children often choose not to talk about their abuse, there is no evidence that encouraging children to talk about sexual abuse will make them feel worse. On the contrary, treatment from a mental health professional can minimize the physical, emotional, and social problems of these children by allowing them to process their feelings and fears related to the abuse.
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