Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse

It is difficult, but parents and caregivers must understand the impact that child sexual abuse can have on children and families so that they can better support their children and loved ones. All parents and caregivers need to understand what child sexual abuse is, the risk factors, and how to identify and report suspected abuse.

young boy crying

Be Aware and Know Risks

Being aware is the first step to preventing child sexual abuse and in helping to protect our children.

1 in 10 children experience child sexual abuse. It is highly likely that you know a child who has been or is being abused.

Children are often abused by people they know – family members, people the family trusts, and sometimes by older children. Research shows that the greatest risk to children for sexual abuse isn’t from strangers, but from friends and family. People who abuse children often appear trustworthy and/or are in positions or situations where they interact regularly with children or a particular child.

People who abuse children look and act like everyone else. There are people affiliated with schools, sports programs, childcare, churches, clubs, etc. who have sexually abused children. They are friends, family members, neighbors, mentors, coaches, partners, and even other children. As many as 90% of children who are abused know their abuser. As many as 60% of children who are sexually abused are abused by people the family trusts.

Reduce Risk and Be Protective

Eliminating or reducing isolated, one-on-one situations between children and adults, as well as children and other youth, can dramatically reduce the risk of abuse.

The following actions are recommended:

Think very carefully about the safety of any one-on-one settings and situations between children and adults. Choose group situations when possible.

Think very carefully about the safety of situations where older youth have access to younger children. Make sure multiple adults are present who can supervise.

Set an example by personally avoiding isolated, one-on-one situations with children other than your own.

Monitor your children’s whereabouts, company, and activities. Monitor children’s phone and internet use as well. Abusers may contact and communicate with children by text, online, and through social media.

Understand that abusers often become friendly or close with children and their families – getting involved, earning trust, and gaining time alone with children.

Ask about and insist on policies that reduce risk for schools, daycares, youth groups, sports teams, clubs, mentoring programs, etc.

Insist on screenings that include criminal background checks, personal interviews, and professional recommendations for all adults who serve children. Avoid programs that do not use ALL of these methods.

Insist that youth serving organizations train their staff and volunteers to prevent, recognize, and react responsibly to child sexual abuse.

Ensure that youth serving organizations have policies for dealing with suspicious situations and reports of abuse.

Talk with program administrators about the supervision of older youth who have responsibility for the care of children.

Parents and caregivers can still help protect children while nurturing healthy relationships with trusted adults.

Drop in unexpectedly when the child is alone with an adult or another youth, even if it is a trusted family member.

Make sure interactions, activities, and outings with adults or other youth are observable – if not by you, then by others.

Ask adults about the specifics of planned activities before the child leaves your care. Notice their ability to be specific. Make sure you feel the activities are appropriate and will be in public, observable, safe settings.

Talk with the child following the activity. Notice the child’s mood and whether he or she can tell you with confidence how the time was spent.

Communicate with Your Children

Talk to your child. Know your child's friends and their friends' parents. Know their teachers. Keep an open line of communication with your child so they know they can come to you about whatever is happening in their life. Talk to your child about their world and daily happenings.

For children who have more independence, ask questions:

  • Where are you going?
  • Who are you hanging out with?
  • Who else will be there?
  • How long are you going to be?

Ask specific questions. Has anyone ever touched you in a way that made you feel uncomfortable? Has anyone ever asked you to keep a secret from me? Has anyone ever invited you into their home?

Listen to your child. Trust your gut and your child's gut instinct as well. If your child tells you they feel uncomfortable around a particular person or in a particular place, believe them and ask questions. If your child tells you they have been abused, believe them and take action by making a report. Make sure children understand that no matter what has happened, they can tell you without fear of being blamed or punished.

Educate your child. Teach your child from a very young age about their bodies, and when age appropriate, about sex. Tell them which parts of the body are private and should not be touched by others. Explain that their mouth is also a private part. Use examples with situations and people in their lives. Explain these touching boundaries are for everyone - even parents, family members, older youth, babysitters, coaches and friends. Teach children the proper names for their body parts. Teach them they have your permission and the right to say "NO" to unwanted or uncomfortable touch. Demonstrate appropriate boundaries by never forcing them to give affection if they do not want to.

Are There Signs That Parents Can Look For?

Changes in emotions and behavior are more common signs of abuse. If your child is acting very differently and something seems wrong, try talking to them and find out what is happening in their life. Other signs and behaviors to be aware of:

  • Anxiety, chronic stomach pain, and headaches
  • Sexual behavior and language that is not age appropriate
  • Nightmares, bedwetting, falling grades, cruelty to animals, bullying, being bullied, fire setting, running away from home, and any kind of self-harm
  • Use of alcohol or drugs at an early age
  • Perfectionism, withdrawal, fear, depression, unexplained anger, and rebelliousness

Note any physical injuries or problems such as bruising, bleeding, redness, urinary tract infections, or STDs. Physical signs are not as common but have your child immediately examined by a medical professional if you notice anything different.

What should you do if you know or suspect a child is being or has been abused?

  • Call 911 if there is any immediate threat of danger.
  • Call the Texas statewide child abuse hotline at 1-800-252-5400. You do not need to have proof of abuse to make a good faith report. If you suspect abuse, make a report.
  • To report child abuse in a different state, please call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453.

For More Information and Assistance

For more information about making a report or talking to a child who has disclosed, please see Darkness to Light’s guide for reporting abuse. Also visit the Darkness to Light website for additional parent resources, information, and training resources.

Darkness to Light: Child Sexual Abuse Statistics; Identifying Child Sexual Abuse; Reporting Child Sexual Abuse.
Center for Child Protection: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse: Know The Facts & Signs.