What Is Child Sexual Abuse?

Since some childhood sexual activity is normal, it is important to understand how child sexual abuse is defined. In the broadest definition, child sexual abuse may refer to any forced or coerced sexual activity involving a child:

  • Sexual contact between a child and another person (whether it is an adult or an older child) in which threats, treats, bribes, or other tricks are used to get the child to participate in the activity.
  • Any sexual contact between a child and an adult.
  • Touching private parts whether under or over clothing.
  • Penetration using an object.
  • Forced sexual acts between children.

Some abuse may not involve actual physical contact. This might include:

  • “sexy talk”
  • “flashing” of sexual body parts or exposure to sex acts
  • voyeurism or “peeping” activities
  • child pornography (whether it involves making the child view, read or participate in pornography)
  • encouraging or promoting child prostitution
  • Internet (i.e., pornography, sexually explicit e-mails and chat rooms, "sexting")

Often, the abuser will persuade the child to cooperate and to keep the abuse a secret. This “persuasion” may involve the promise of special treats or privileges, or threats of physical punishment and other consequences. Or, the abuser may not need to make any threats. Children are taught to obey and trust adults and the abuser may take advantage of this, especially if he is a person the child knows well and trusts.

Children tend to believe what adults tell them is true rather than to rely on their own feelings. This works against them in two ways. If the molester tells them what is being done is OK, they may doubt their own feelings that it is not OK. If a parent’s initial reaction when they hear of the abuse is “This can’t be true!” the child may wonder if his or her own feelings are mistaken. Children almost never tell about abuse in order to avoid causing problems. More often, they fear that telling will make people angry with them. It is extremely difficult for children to report abuse and the process of disclosing abuse sometimes occurs over a long period of time. Be patient with your child.

Too many times, a child will not even realize they are being abused. In other situations, the child may feel ashamed or otherwise unable to come forward. That is why it is so important that the adults treat children who come forward like the heroes they are. It takes immense bravery to disclose abuse and the child will require support to heal.

What is ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences)?

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) are traumatic events that happen to children and include all types of abuse such as violence, sexual abuse, and etc. ACES are directedly correlated with negative adult outcomes such as mental illness, substance abuse, and more. It is important to keep children safe from these bad experiences and early traumas.

The Center for Disease Control with the US government recognizes ACES as a cause for adult problems and urges communities to focus on children early so they can live better later.

To learn more, read about ACES: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about_ace.html

The Offender and Steps They Take to Access Children

People who abuse children come from all economic and ethnic groups and a variety of social and educational backgrounds.

According to research, approximately 90% of all sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by someone the child knows. Many abusers are trusted and loved by the child such as a relative, friend, or neighbor.

It is impossible to discern an abuser by their appearance alone. Most do not fit the stereotypical that probably comes to mind. Abusers may be seemingly well adjusted outstanding citizens. Some even have families of their own or are children themselves.

Children can sexually abuse other children. Often, the contact is out of curiosity but in some cases, usually when one child is much older and or bigger than the other, the behavior may be abusive. If behavior between children becomes sexually suggestive and or comes across as abuse, intervene!

Many parents find it difficult to accept that their children were abused—oftentimes right under their nose. Offenders will go to great lengths to abuse children and gain access.

They will:

  • Seek out an approachable child, one who is easy to get to such as a relative, neighbor, or friend.
  • Establish a relationship with the child by spending time playing with them, volunteering to babysit, becoming their buddy, or buying them games or presents.
  • Break down the child’s resistance to touch by playing games that involve touching such as wrestling and tickling. As a result, children are often confused when the touch becomes sexual.
  • Find ways to be alone with the child such as babysitting, inviting them to sleep over, or taking them camping.
  • Blame the child and coerce them to keep the secret by making the child feel responsible so they won’t tell. They say things like:
    “You know you like the way I touch you.”
    “If you tell, people will think you’re bad.”
    “If you tell I will go to jail.”
    “If you tell your mother, she won’t love you anymore.”

What Are the Effects of Sexual Abuse on A Child?

  1. Heightened fear or anxiety
  2. Increased tearfulness or crying
  3. Changes in sleeping patterns such as nightmares, bedwetting, fear of going to bed, fear of sleeping alone
  4. Changes in appetite
  5. Irritability, anger, mood changes
  6. Withdrawal from usual activities and friends
  7. Isolation
  8. Change in school performance such as lower grades, poor concentration, short attention span, or loss of interest in school activities
  9. Nausea or upset stomach
  10. Clinging to parents
  11. Aggressiveness
  12. Rebelliousness

Children react differently to the abuse depending on age, extent of abuse, support from others, and their relationship with the offender. You should be aware of any changes in your child’s behavior or disposition, but some children are not visibly changed by the experience. Do not look too hard for things that are not there.

The single most important factor affecting your child’s recovery is the level of support they receive from you.
Your child’s reaction depends very much on how you and other important people handle the situation. If your child feels especially loved and protected during this time, he or she may recover more quickly.

If you feel torn between loyalty to your child and loyalty to the offender, find a professional (such as a therapist, counselor, minister, or trusted friend) to help you sort out your feelings. Make sure your child knows that they are your number one priority!

How Might Parents Feel When Abuse Is Reported?

When abuse is reported, parents sometimes feel as if they are on a roller coaster of emotions. This is normal. The report can affect your life in many ways, and it takes time to adjust. Following are some of the common thoughts and feelings parents have.

  • Denial. Your first reaction may be not to believe or not to accept the fact that it really happened. Or you may believe it happened, but that no real harm was done. Parents often experience denial because it is too overwhelming to accept that the abuse occurred and that there will be aftereffects.
  • Anger. You may feel angry with yourself for not protecting your child. You may feel angry with the perpetrator for what he did. Be honest about your feelings and share them with a trusted person or group.
  • Helplessness. You probably do not know what to expect and can feel that things are out of your control. Try to stay aware of how your case is proceeding and ask questions of the professionals that are involved with you.
  • Lack of assertiveness. You may feel invisible and think there is nothing you can do to help the situation get better. You can take care of your child and be sure she is receiving all the help she needs.
  • Shock, numbness, replusion. You may have memories of being abused as a child. This can lead to shock, numbness, and repulsion. If so, you may need to seek counseling for yourself to help you recover so that you can help your child recover.
  • Guilt, self-blame. You may feel it is all your fault. Remember, the offender is responsible for the abuse, not you. The best thing you can do now is support your child and learn all you can about how to make things better.
  • Hurt and betrayal. It is normal to feel hurt from the loss of your child’s innocence. You may have lost a spouse or partner if that person was the offender. You may even have lost friends. It is very important to grieve for these losses.
  • Concern about money. You may be worried about finances because of loss of income. There are many programs available to help you.
  • Fear of violence. You may fear the offender will try to hurt you or your child. If so, there are domestic violence programs available to help you.
  • Fear of drug or alcohol abuse. You may be afraid that you or your child will abuse drugs or alcohol because of the stress. If you need help, don’t hesitate to contact a therapist, trusted person, or recovery center.

How Should I Act Toward My Child?

  • Be patient and kind. Provide safety, love, and support. Allow your child to express their feelings, and let your child know it is OK to cry or be mad. Make sure your child knows it was not their fault and they are not to blame for what happened. Explain to your child that you may get mad or cry too, but make sure your child always knows you are not mad at them.
  • Do not pressure your child to talk about the experience. If the subject comes up, discuss it honestly and openly. Answer your child’s questions to the best of your ability. Allow your child to be involved in decision making so that a sense of control over their environment can be regained.
  • Try to return to your family’s normal routine as soon as possible. A familiar and stable routine will be very helpful for you and your child. Avoid becoming overprotective of your child. Give your child safety information, but avoid causing them to become more fearful than they already are. Help them identify safe people they can go to when they are scared or sad.
  • See that your child receives therapy as soon as possible. Trying to avoid the problem will usually cause more problems because it will not go away. Your child is experiencing quite a few emotions that they may not know how to deal with. They have many questions they need answered. The sooner the child gets therapy, the better they will be able to cope in the future.
  • This kind of experience affects the whole family. Pay attention to the needs of the other children in your home as well. Understand that it is a natural reaction for siblings to blame or resent the victimized child for disruption caused following a report of abuse. Give them the support and information they need to cope with their feelings and concerns.
  • Some things you can say to your child that will really help:
    • I believe you.
    • I know it’s not your fault.
    • I’m glad I know about what happened.
    • I’m sorry this happened to you.
    • I will take care of you.
    • I’m upset, but not with you. I’m upset at the person that did this.
    • Nothing about you made this happen. It has happened to other kids too.

What Should I Say To Others?

One challenge your family will face will be what to say to others about the abuse. Your child may feel embarrassed and/or responsible. If there is no publicity or public awareness, you can decide whom you will tell. Let your child know which relatives or friends you will be discussing it with and let your child have some choice about who is told.

Sometimes an extended family member is the first person to learn of the abuse. A parent may feel hurt that someone knew before them. However, understand that your child may have been trying to protect your feelings by telling someone else. Your child may have felt that person could tell you in a less upsetting way than he or she could.

If you are especially close to your family, you will probably want to talk with them about your child’s abuse and how it has affected the family. It is important to keep in mind how these relatives usually react to stressful situations. If you know they will react in a negative way, you may not want to share the information with them unless it becomes necessary to do so.

It is important to maintain your child’s sense of privacy. On the other hand, be careful not to make it a dirty secret, as this could cause more shame in your child.

What Might Others Say To Me?

"What exactly did he do to your child?"
"Are you sure your child didn't make it up?"
"Why didn't you know it was happening?"
"If it were my child, I'd rather move away."
"Your poor child must be feeling really guilty."

Remember, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. “I’d rather not talk about it” is an acceptable response. Or simply say, “It’s been a very difficult time for us.” “I appreciate your concern” is another response you might want to use. Or it may be easier to just nod an acknowledgement of what someone says.

Keep in mind that most people have very little knowledge about sexual abuse. For example, in response to the comment about your child feeling guilty, you could say that children always feel unnecessary guilt in these cases until they are assured that they are not responsible in any way for what happened. As a parent, you might also be experiencing some guilt and, as a result, you may feel defensive.

Adults are the people most likely to say something to your child. You may want to tell your child that if someone says, “I’m sorry about what happened to you,” he doesn’t have to respond to any comments or questions. Your child could say, “My mom and/or dad told me not to talk about it now.” If other children comment or tease, your child might say, “It could happen to anyone, including you.”

The Champaign County Children’s Advocacy Center has a library of print and video materials which provide more detailed information about the effects of abuse on children and their families. We would be happy to share those resources with you. Please ask our Case Manager to help you.