Child Sexual Abuse – Keeping Children Safe
The information provided here focuses on the prevention of child sexual abuse; giving children the skills to speak up if abuse is occurring; and indicators of sexual abuse.
If a disclosure of sexual abuse has been made, you will find additional information under “For Survivors” and “For Families and Friends”.
If you would like more information, please contact us.
ECPAT has published a new guide for children, Stay safe from online sexual exploitation: a guide for young people. The guide was developed to help young people understand more about the online sexual exploitation of children and ways they can fight to end it and protect themselves from this abuse.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is when another person uses a child for sexual gratification. This can be touching, sexual intercourse, oral sex, exposure, showing pornography or any other sexual act.
Sexual abuse usually involves the use of threats, coercion, manipulation, bribery or force. Frequently children are emotionally dependent on the adult who abuses them. Some offenders take a considerable length of time to develop the child’s trust before starting the abuse. All offenders take advantage of children’s powerless position in the world.
While it is difficult to gain accurate figures on the prevalence of sexual abuse in New Zealand (see Research & Statistics), we do know that it effects girls and boys across of all ages and racial groups, whether they are rich or poor, attractive or plain, disabled or without a disability. We also know that around 85% of offenders are known to the child.
Sexual abuse can cause a wide range of effects on a child’s development and wellbeing. It is well known that people abused as children can experience many difficulties in adult life. However, it is also acknowledged that these difficulties can be avoided if the abuse is stopped and treatment is received while the child is still young.
The Importance of Learning Personal Safety Skills
All children need to learn personal safety skills in the same way they learn about water safety or traffic safety.
Children who have been specifically warned about sexual abuse and have a “plan of action” to call upon if a potentially abusive situation arises are less likely to be victimized. Children who are assertive, confident and informed will be more likely to refuse to share their bodies, even if it is with someone they love and trust.
Teaching about sexual abuse and how to prevent it from happening needs to be approached in a calm, positive and matter of fact way. Scare tactics and frightening children are not advisable or effective.
It’s My Body and I Am the Boss of It.
From a very young age children need to learn that their bodies belong to them.
All children should know that their own body is special and unique and they need to learn to love it just the way it is. Remember, the more children value their bodies, the more they will care and protect themselves from harm.
Young children should be taught the proper names for all the parts of their bodies, including the private parts (e.g. penis, testicles, vagina, breasts and nipples). This can help reduce embarrassment and aid communication if they ever need to explain something about their bodies.
As they grow, children need to know that the private parts of their bodies (i.e. the parts covered by by a bathing suit) are to be kept private.
Not All Adults are Safe People
Children need to know that not all adults (or teenagers) are safe people and that there are some ‘naughty’ adults who break rules and do not know how to behave properly. Children should know that they do not have to obey an adult or older person who gives them an unsafe feeling or hurts or frightens them.
Children need to learn when and how people can touch them; and when and how they can touch others. They need to know the difference between loving/safe touching and ‘yucky’/unsafe touching
Children need to be given the right to decide when and with whom they share their bodies for hugs, cuddles and other good touching. They need to know it is okay to tell someone (even an adult they care about) that they don’t want to be touched.
Touching rules for children
- I will not touch other people’s private parts.
- I will not let anyone touch my private parts except the doctor or if I have a hurt place.
- I will only touch my private parts in private.
- If someone tries to ge me to touch them or wants to touch me I’ll say “No go away, I don’t play those yucky games!’
- If someone touches me in a yucky, unsafe way then I will tell a safe person what happened.
Good Surprises and Bad Secrets
Sexual abuse of children relies heavily on children keeping secrets. Children need to learn that not all secrets are good.
Teach your child that they should not keep any secrets that hurt, frighten, worry or confuse them.
For children to be able to tell secrets, they must be convinced that you will believe them, listen and that they will not be punished for what they tell you. Many children are scared to tell about sexual abuse because they think it is their fault, and that they will get into trouble. Reassure your child that you will believe them and that it is okay to tell even if they have been keeping the secret for a long time.
Keeping Safe Plan
Children need to know what to do if they feel unsafe with another person, just like they need to know what to do in case of a fire or they become lost.
Have simple safety rules such as, they cannot go anywhere with another person without your knowledge.
Encourage your child to move away from anyone they feel uncomfortable with (ie when they get “yucky” feelings) and find a safe person.
Make a list with your child of safe people they can go to. Try and cover the range of scenarios your child might find themselves in (e.g. school, sport, park, shopping, visiting friends).
Reassure them that there is nothing so awful they can’t talk about it to you or another safe person. And they should keep on telling “safe people” until someone listens.
A Keeping Safe Plan
- Yell “No!”
- Run away from him/her
- Tell a safe person.
- Keep telling until someone listens.
Children are naturally curious and eager to find out about all aspects of life. It does not harm children to know the truth about sex and this knowledge will help keep them safe from abuse. Children also need adequate sex education so they can understand what is happening to them as they approach puberty.
It is important that you give your child the details about sex they are seeking because it is a known fact that children will seek the answers from other sources, which may not be accurate, if necessary. Of course, information about sex needs to be appropriate to a child’s age and understanding.
Sexual Play Between Children
Many children engage in childhood sexual play. It is normal for children to touch their own bodies and sometimes those of other children. Such games as “playing doctors and nurses” and “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” are very common.
If you are concerned about sexual experiences between children you can contact a Sexual Assault Support Agency for guidance.
Unsafe Behaviour for Adults Around Children
Most adult behavior around children is safe but there may be times when adult behavior around your child causes you concern.
You should be mindful of adults or teenagers who:
- Insist on hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with or holding a child even when the child does not want this affection or attention.
- Asks lots of questions about the sexuality of a particular child or teenager, e.g. talks repeatedly about the child’s developing body or intrudes on normal teenage dating.
- Creates opportunities to get time alone or insists on having time alone with a child with little opportunity for another person to interrupt or intervene.
- Spends most of his/her spare time with children and has little interest in spending time with someone his/her own age.
- Makes you feel ‘shut-out’ as a parent or isolates your child.
- Regularly offers to baby-sit many different children for free or takes children on overnight outings or holidays alone.
- Buys children expensive gifts or food or gives them money for no apparent reason.
- Allows children or teenagers to consistently get away with inappropriate behaviours.
- Repeatedly intrudes on a child’s privacy by “accidentally” walking in on them in the toilet, in the bathroom, or when they are getting changed when it is not really necessary.
- Insists on having an older child sleep with him/her.
- Seems to demonstrate excessive control over a child, e.g. not letting the child make his/her own decisions or not letting the child be involved in activities outside of the home.
- Talks about inappropriate sexual behavior with children or calls them sexual names, even if done in a joking manner.
- Visits children’s chat rooms on the internet or collects or downloads pornography involving children.
- Nearly always wants their adult sexual partner to dress as a child or pretend they are a child during sex.
A time to be especially watchful for these sorts of behaviours and indicators in children, is when there is a new adult in the household, e.g. step-parent, boarder, babysitter, partner. If you are concerned about the behaviour of someone you know, talk to someone that can help like your local Sexual Assault Support Agency.
Indicators of Sexual Abuse
Children and young people respond in different ways to sexual abuse. Some abused children do not outwardly show any signs of distress while others may present with many symptoms. The typical signs listed below may occur as a result of sexual abuse but may also occur because of other reasons, e.g. when parents separate, bullying and teasing.
If a child has a number of the signs listed below you should begin to ask questions or seek advice from someone expert in the area of childhood or adolescent problems. Don’t jump to conclusions. Determining whether a child has been sexually abused can be very difficult in some cases, and is best left to people trained in this area.
- Emotional changes e.g. angry outbursts, sadness and crying, tantrums, insecurity and unhappiness.
- Uncharacteristic anxieties, clinginess and unwillingness to separate from parent/s.
- An older child going back to behaving like a younger child, like bed-wetting or thumb sucking.
- Becoming withdrawn from peers and social activities.
- Sleeping problems and frequent nightmares.
- Changes in toileting.
- Difficulties with concentration and a drop in school grades.
- Behavior problems at school e.g. defiance, poor concentration, disruptiveness.
- Loss of appetite or overeating.
- A change in self esteem and low self worth.
- Developing fears of certain people and places.
- Talking about having a secret that seems to worry them.
- Sexual behaviours and language with other children, adults or toys that seem out of the ordinary.
- Excessive masturbation.
- Self-harming behaviours, e.g. hitting or cutting yourself.
- Depression and suicidal thoughts/behaviours.
- Aggressive behaviours, fighting and angry outbursts.
- Running away and general withdrawal from people.
- Loss of confidence.
- Lying and stealing.
- Lack of self care and taking unnecessary risks.
- Feeling dirty and washing frequently.
- Expressing disgust about intimacy and closeness.
- Avoidance of touch.
- Acting in sexually precocious ways including prostitution.
- Alcohol and drug use.
- Sexually abusive behaviours to others.
- Cruelty to animals.
- Unexplained bruises, redness, rashes or bleeding from genitals, anus or mouth.
- Pain in the genital area, anus or mouth.
- Genital sores or milky fluids in the genital area.
- Sexually transmitted infections.
- Unexplained or persistent physical illness, e.g. chronic headaches, stomach aches.
Below is a short list of books that others have found useful. All should be available through bookshops or libraries.
Witten-Hannah, Caroline Keeping Children Safe from Sexual Abuse
Hart-Rossi, Janie 1984 Protect Your Child: A Parent’s Guide (companion to ‘It’s My Body). Parenting Press.
Freeman, Lori 1984 It’s My Body: How to Resist Uncomfortable Touch. Berkley, CA: Parenting Press
Freeman, Lori 1985 Loving Touches: A book for Children about Positive, Caring Kinds of Touch. Minneapolis, MN: Tandem Library.
Morgan, Linda 1994 Megan’s Secret
Morgan, Linda 1986 Katie’s Yucky Problem. Papers Incorporated
Cavanagh-Johnson, Toni 1999 Understanding Your Child’s Sexual Behaviour: What’s Natural and Healthy. New Harbinger Publications.