What to do if your child’s been sexually abused

Why are we talking about child sexual abuse?

Black and white photo of a child who is peering from a hole, appears to be in hiding
Sexually abused child? — Image from Pixabay.com

I’d recently posted We need to talk about child sexual abuse, and the follow-up post was to include what to do, who’s at risk and more about support agencies. So here we are. *Trigger warning: this article contains information that might make you feel uncomfortable or distressed. Please read with caution.

Discovering your child has been sexually abused is a terribly distressing and traumatic experience.

Parents or carers who discover that their child has been sexually abused must often find themselves experiencing a range of feelings from shock, anger and confusion to grief, disgust, and betrayal. Many will feel helpless and frustrated, and some find themselves feeling a sense of numbness.

Naturally, there are no right or wrong ways to feel in this situation – the most important things are finding some ways of processing your feelings and offering effective support to your child” says Dr Elly Hanson, clinical psychologist, for thinkyouknow.co.uk.

FACT — the NHS

Signs to be aware of

Grey scale image of young peron holding handing up, palm forward with the word 'stop' written in bold black ink
Knowing the signs of sexual abuse

The National Society for the Prevention of Children (NSPCC) say “Knowing the signs of sexual abuse can help give a voice to children. Sometimes children won’t understand that what’s happening to them is wrong. Or they might be scared to speak out.”

Trust your own knowledge and gut feelings about your child and note any changes to their body or behaviour.

The physical signs of sexual abuse can include:

  • getting a sexually transmitted disease
  • pregnancy.
  • injuries to private areas—mouth, breasts, buttocks, inner thighs, and genitals
  • discomfort when going to the toilet
  • inflammation and infection of genital areas
  • frequent urinary tract infections/bowel problems

The likelihood that abuse is happening increases if there is more than one sign.

Other signs of sexual abuse include:

Young boy crying after sexual abuse by stepdad
Sad child, sexually abused? — image by Kat at unsplash.com
  • telling someone that sexual abuse has happened
  • hinting that something has happened
  • avoiding the perpetrator
  • acting out sexual behaviour with children or siblings, toys and dolls
  • explicit sexual behaviour and knowledge that is not age-appropriate
  • changes in behaviour when personal care needs are attended to e.g. being bathed, nappy changed or during toileting
  • sleep disturbances or night terrors
  • abnormal wetting and soiling problems
  • obsessive and compulsive washing
  • aggression, withdrawal or crying
  • hurting themselves
  • out-of-character behaviours
  • increased anxiety
  • loss of appetite
  • other changes in behaviour like not wanting to go to school or their school might report behavioural problems

These lists are not exhaustive and there may be other signs.

One lone sign might be an indicator that sexual abuse is happening or there might not be any indicators at all. The likelihood that abuse is occurring increases if there is more than one sign. It is important to remember that these behaviours may not be connected to sexual abuse. They might be connected to other problems for which the child needs help.

Who’s at risk of child sexual abuse?

Colour image of lady hugging a young boy
Has this boy been sexually abused? — Image by Jordan Whitt at Unsplash.com

According to the NSPCC, any child is at risk of being sexually abused. It’s important to remember that both boys and girls can be sexually abused.

  • Most children who’ve been sexually abused were abused by someone they know. This could be a family member, a friend or someone who has targeted them – like a teacher or sports coach.
  • Children who are sexually abused online could be abused by someone they know. They could also be abused by someone who commits a one-off sexually abusive act or a stranger who builds a relationship with them.
  • Some children are more at risk of sexual abuse. Children with disabilities are more likely to be sexually abused – especially those who are unable to tell someone what’s happening or don’t understand what’s happening to them is abuse.
  • Some abusers target children who are isolated or being neglected by their parents or carers. If a family is going through a tough time, they might not be able to give their child enough attention or supervision, putting them in unsafe situations.

Web of deceit depends on secrecy

Anger is common in kids who have been sexually abused
A sexually abused child won’t always tell — image by Damir Spanic at unsplash.com

The Conversation, 2014 wrote, “Research shows offenders typically plan their sexual abuse of children with care. They may “groom” children by offering presents and compliments. The offender often establishes a trusting relationship with the family and friends of the child, tricking and manipulating them to reduce the likelihood of them discovering the abuse.

The result of this web of deceit is to divide and isolate the child from siblings, friends and especially non-offending parents. In this way abusers protect themselves, ensure ongoing access to the child and secure power over the child and others in the child’s life.

Secrecy is fundamental to the success of these grooming techniques and has powerful effects on the child.”

Why children may not tell they have been abused

Young girl hiding from a sexual perpetrator
Why children don’t tell — Image by Benjamin Voros at unsplash.com

There are lots of reasons why children might not disclose the abuse immediately. According to Thinkuknow.co.uk, If your child didn’t tell you about the abuse or delayed in telling you, this is normal and is likely to be for one or more of the following reasons.

  1. They have felt ashamed, or embarrassed, powerless, self-blame, or they’re afraid of the perpetrator
  2. They didn’t how to talk about it, when best to talk about it or couldn’t find a space to talk
  3. The perpetrator is a family member or known to the family
  4. They were worried about how others might respond and what was going to happen. They might have thought:
  • ‘I might be seen as different.’
  • ‘This is going to cause problems in my family/community/school.’
  • ‘ taken away from home.’
  • ‘I don’t want the police or social services involved in my life.’
  • ‘I don’t want the abuser to get in trouble’ (because of feelings of loyalty, love, fear etc).
  • ‘I’m going to be blamed.’
  • ‘Images will be found which I’m embarrassed about.’
  • ‘I won’t be believed.’
  • ‘I won’t be taken seriously.’
  • ‘He/she is going to hurt or embarrass me or my family or someone else.’

What to do if you discover your child has been abused

Child sexual abuse is on the rise
Avoiding the perpetrator – child sexual abuse?

If you are concerned about a child, you can ask questions such as: “are you okay?” or “are you worried about anything?”, and “what can I do to help/support you?”

If a child tells you that they are being abused, it’s important that you listen to them and believe them, as this is critical to their psychological well-being. They’ll need immediate comfort and support and your undivided attention. However, refrain from questioning them about the abuse and leave that for the police or other professional.

What’s the best approach?

Allow them to use their own words, to take their time, and assure them that they’ve done the right thing by telling. The important thing now is to be supportive, listen and keep the child safe.

As soon as you can, write down a few notes about what the child actually said to you and include the date and time they told you. These notes will be of use if there is a criminal investigation. Remember to use the actual words they said to describe the abuse and when it might have happened. If they’re unable to speak, describe how they explained the abuse.

Do not contact the person named as the suspected abuser. Instead, contact the Police or Child Protection immediately; do not delay. The police can help to arrange a medical assessment and make sure you have all the support you need.

  • contact the children’s social care team at their local council.
  • call 999 if the child is at immediate risk or call 101 if you think a crime has been committed
  • call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111 or online.
  • NSPCC 0808 800 5000 to report concerns about a child
  • Childline call 0800 1111 for advice and support
  • NAPAC because the damage caused by child abuse doesn’t always end in childhood. NAPAC offer support to adult survivors and training for those who support them. Call 0808 801 0331

Support for parents

Finding out your child has been sexually abused can be frightening and distressing. But there’s help for you and your family.

MOSAC supports non-abusing parents and carers whose children have been sexually abused.

Over to you

What do you think?

While this is a difficult topic to research, write and read about, it’s important that we talk about child sexual abuse, because it happens and we want it to stop. By talking and sharing our comments or opinions, we can get the message out there — that it’s not okay and it has to stop! So I look forward to hearing from you, reading your comments and answering any questions.

This is the fifth and final in a series of five posts about abuse. We’ve previously looked at:

Other posts: Child sexual abuse is sharply on the rise (1). Triggered (2).

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