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This information comes to you from Sanford Health Dakota Children’s Advocacy Center.
Child sexual abuse overview
Child sexual abuse is a national epidemic. It affects boys and girls of all ages. In fact, this is a problem that directly affects millions of children around the world. Child sexual abuse is not rare. There is an estimated 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse in America today, and based on prevalence data from adults, about 500,000 children are sexually abused each year in the US. In contrast, each year in the United States, there are 12,400 new cases of childhood cancer diagnosed and 18,000 new cases of juvenile diabetes diagnosed. It also affects more children than those diagnosed with asthma or ADHD.
What is child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse is any interaction between a child and an adult or another child in which the child is use for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. Sexual abuse can include:
- Touching of the vagina, penis, breasts or buttocks
- Oral-genital contact
- Sexual intercourse
- Voyeurism (trying to look at a child’s naked body)
- Exposing the child to pornography
Abusers often do not use physical force, but may use play, deception, threats or other forms of coercion to engage children and maintain their silence. Children can be sexually abused by another child or adolescent. Activity in which there is a clear power difference between them and one child is coercing the other—usually to engage in adult-like sexual behavior—generally would be viewed as abuse. This is very different from behavior in children of about the same age that reflects normal sexual curiosity and mutual exploration (such as playing doctor). 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.
Disclosure can be a scary and difficult process for children. Some children who have been sexually abused may take weeks, months or even years to fully reveal what was done to them. Many children never tell anyone about the abuse. In general:
- Girls are more likely to disclose than boys
- Very young children tend to accidentally reveal abuse, because they don’t have as much understanding of what occurred or the words to explain it
- School-aged children tend to tell a caregiver
- Adolescents are more likely to tell friends
Disclosure is often a difficult process for children. It is rarely a one-time event in which an interviewer sits down with a child and the child tells everything. Children often tell their stories over a period of time and some never fully tell what happened. Delayed disclosures are more common then not. Many children will never tell. Reasons many children don’t disclose include:
- Fear the abuser may hurt them or their families
- Fear of not being believed, or will be blamed and get in trouble
- Worry that their parents will be upset or angry
- Shame or guilt
- Fear that disclosing will disrupt the family, especially if the perpetrator is a family member or friend
- Fear that if they tell, they will be taken away and separated from their family
Additionally, to most children telling means something very different then it does to adults. Children will say “Uncle Joe hurt me” and will assume adults know what they are talking about and will react to keep them safe. They don’t understand or comprehend why adults would need more information.
What do I do if a child discloses?
- Listen. Do not fill in words for the child.
- If the child is having a difficult time talking—don’t help the child with words that you think the child is going to say. Allow the child to tell you what happened in their own words.
- Tell the child that you are glad that they told you.
- Tell the child “It was not your fault.”
- Reassure the child that they are not in trouble.
- If the child asks you not to tell anyone, remind the child that it is your job to help keep them safe and you will do whatever you may need to do to keep them safe.
- Do not be overly critical of the offender. Children are protective of people they care about, even if they are being abused.
- Tell the child you believe them.
- Don’t express panic or shock.
- Use the child’s vocabulary to the child and when reporting.
- Be aware of your own feelings about abuse so that hopefully you will not project these onto the child.
- Do not ask probing questions.
- Remember you must report suspected abuse.
Recantation is common among children who disclose sexual abuse; approximately 23 percent of children who disclose sexual abuse later recant. Studies show that most children who recant are telling the truth when they originally disclose. Recantation is largely a result of familial adult influences rather than a result of false allegations. Children are more likely to recant when they are younger, abused by a parent figure and who lacked support from the non-offending caregiver. Interestingly, children who were placed in foster care immediately following the disclosure of sexual abuse were slightly less likely to recant then those children who remained with family members. Finally, when looking at reaffirmation rates, the researchers noted that 48.3 percent of the children who recanted their statements of sexual abuse eventually reaffirmed at least some part of those statements.
Children with no emotional reaction
Often there are times when you will encounter children who have been abused and they are emotionally upset, angry about the abuse or show extreme embarrassment. This will most often occur with children who are abused by strangers or when the abuse is a one-time incident. Children who are abused by someone they know and/or are victims of chronic abuse may suffer from depression and thus present with no emotion or a matter-of-fact stance. Sometimes it can be difficult to believe that the incident occurred, especially violent abuse, when the child’s disclosure does not involve any emotion. The fact that the child may be depressed should be taken into account when making the assessment of the child’s statements.
Common myths about child sexual abuse
Children who have a normal medical exam were not sexually abused.
False: The majority of children who have been sexually abused do not have conclusive medical findings that substantiate sexual abuse.
Children make these types of things up for attention.
False: Most victims are very reluctant to disclose abuse; they attach a sense of shame to their victim status, and blame themselves for the abuse.
Only female children are abused.
False: Many boys are victims of sexual abuse.
You will be able to tell if your child has been sexually abused.
False: There is no foolproof way to tell if your child has been sexually abused.
All children who have been sexually abused will become abusers in the future.
False: Appropriate counseling may help prevent the cycle from continuing.Children who have been abused need help dealing with the trauma of abuse.
Children will tell someone when they have been abused.
False: Children are often afraid or ashamed to tell someone about their abuse. Many children are threatened not to tell.
Children are always angry with the abuser.
False: Children can have feelings of anger, fear, love and concern for their abusers. Children can love the abuser but hate what the abuser did.
A child who has been sexually abused once will not let it happen again.
False: Children do not let abuse happen and often cannot protect themselves against adults.
Gentle sexual activities that aren’t forced or don’t involve penetration will not harm the child.
False: Any sexual activity with a child can be emotionally and physically harmful.
Sexual assault by a stranger is more traumatic than sexual abuse by a known adult.
False: Children can be more traumatized when an adult the child knows commits the abuse; because the child’s trust in the adult has been broken.
All sexual offenders are men.
False: Women as well as other children can be sexual offenders.
If an alleged offender insists he or she did not abuse the child, the child must be lying.
False: Most offenders deny that they abuse children. The police and Child Protection services will carefully investigate cases of alleged abuse.
Men who sexually abuse children do not have relationships with women.
False: Men who sexually abuse can be married, have children of their own or be in serious relationships with adult women, it doesn’t make a difference.
You can tell if a person would molest a child by their personality or their appearance.
False: There is no foolproof way to tell if a person would abuse a child. People of all incomes, education levels and professions have been convicted of child sexual abuse.
People who sexually abuse children do so only to achieve sexual pleasure.
False: Many times sexual abuse involves issues of control and power. In other cases, sexual abuse involves unresolved issues of past abuse.
Most offenders groom their victims; in other words, they spend time making themselves look nice to their victims and their victims’ families. Many times offenders appear as charming, smart, caring, warm and helpful. Grooming is a process that sometimes occurs over years. It starts by building relationships with potential victims that an offender targets. They may do this by hanging out where children are: schools, malls, playgrounds and parks. They often target children who feel unloved and unpopular and will welcome any adult attention. Children with family problems, who spend time alone and unsupervised, who lack confidence and self-esteem and who are isolated from their peers are all likely targets.
Grooming also often involves building trusting relationships with adults who are in charge of children and may be overwhelmed. Single parents, homes where parents have to work more then one job and caregivers who are sick or disabled may be seen as easy targets by offenders because there is less time and resources to spend on the child. Often this includes helping out the parent by offering to babysit, give rides and even becoming physically involved with the caretaker. Offenders do whatever they have to do to become a trusted part of their life and gain access to their victim. Successful predators find and fill voids in a child’s life.
Once the offender has built that trust and has access to the child, grooming moves in another direction. They start to prepare the child for a physical relationship. The first physical contact between offender and victim is often non-sexual touching designed to break down boundaries: They may hug the child too long, start to play tickle games or have the child sit on their lap. Non-sexual touching desensitizes the child. It breaks down inhibitions and leads to more overt sexual touching—the offender’s ultimate goal. They may “accidently” leave out pornography or start making comments about a child’s physical appearance. An offender will usually introduce secrecy at some point during the grooming process. Initially, secrecy binds the victim to the offender: “Here’s some candy but don’t tell your mother.” Later on, secrecy often includes threats: “If you tell your mother what happened, she’ll hate you. I’ll get in trouble and we’ll never see each other again.”
Eventually the touching moves to sexualized touches. The offender may “accidentally” move his hand up the child’s shirt while tickling them, or put their hand down a child’s pants “to keep them warm”. Children most often react confused and unsure of what to do.
Grooming signs to watch for:
- Having a “special relationship” with the child. Often wanting alone time and spending unusual amounts of time with them.
- Offering drugs or alcohol to older children or teenagers.
- Secrets between the adult and child.
- Becoming “indispensible” to the caregiver; offering to babysitting and/or having the child sleep over night.
- Buying their victim and/or caregiver gifts or money for no apparent reason (toys, dolls).
- Pornography in the house that is “left out” or where the child can see or reach.
- Commenting on the child’s appearance: how beautiful they are, how grown up they look, how they are developing and even how sexy they are.
- Talking about sexual topics or participating in sexual acts where the child can see or hear.
- Talking about problems normally discussed between adults, including marital problems and other conflicts.
- Having a non-sexual physical relationship with the child such as having the child always sit on their lap, tickling the child or rubbing their back constantly.
- And they almost always offer a sympathetic, understanding ear. “Your parents don’t understand or respect you? I do. I respect you. I care for you more than anybody else. And I love you. I’m here for you.” They take an undue interest in someone else’s child, to be the child’s “special” friend to gain the child’s trust.
What you need to know about sex offenders
The majority of sex offenders are male, although a small percentage is female. The average age of the sex offender is 31. Sexual offenders usually don’t fit the stereotypes of being dirty old men or strangers lurking in alleys. More often, they are known and trusted by the children they victimize. They may be members of the family, such as parents, siblings, cousins or non-relatives, including family friends, neighbors, babysitters or older peers. There’s no clear-cut profile of a sex offender. About 20—30 percent of offenders were sexually abused as children, but others have no such history. Some are unable to function sexually with adult partners and so prey on children, while others also have sexual relations with adults.
Child sexual abuse is so hard for most people to comprehend because people want to believe it only happens when an offender is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, but that’s not usually the case. Very frequently, abusers are repeat offenders and a significant percent are adolescents.
- Family members commit 39% of the reported sexual assaults on children (Snyder, 2000).
- 56% of those that sexually abuse a child are acquaintances of either the child or the family (Snyder, 2000).
- Only 5% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by a stranger (Snyder, 2000).
- The younger the victim, the more likely it is that the abuser is a family member. 50% of those molesting a child under 6 were family members. 23% of those abusing a 12—17 year-old child were family members (Snyder, 2000). 34% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by juveniles. In fact, 7% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by youth under the age of 12 (Snyder, 2000).
- The younger the child victim, the more likely it is that the perpetrator is a juvenile. Juveniles are the offenders in 43% of assaults on children under age 6. 14% of these offenders are under the age of 12 (Snyder, 2000). Homosexual individuals are no more likely to sexually abuse children than heterosexual individuals. (Jenny, et. al., 1994).
The impact of child sexual abuse on adolescents
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. A number of factors influence how a child reacts to a specific traumatic event including:
- Severity of the trauma
- Extent of exposure to the event
- History of or presence of other stressors
- Multiple episodes of abuse or exposure to violence
- Proximity to the trauma
- Preexisting mental health issues
- Personal significance of the trauma
- Separation from a caregiver during the trauma
- Extent of disruption in support systems during and after the trauma
- Parental mental health issues and parent distress
- Support available from family members
- Presence of supportive role models in the child’s life
- There is a growing body of literature that suggests that genetic factors may influence the strength of an individual’s response to any given traumatic event, producing more extreme responses in some children.
- Although many children who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioral and emotional changes, many others do not.
Traumatized may report vague physical complaints, seek attention from parents and teachers, withdraw from others, experience sleep difficulties, avoid school, show a decrease in school performance and even show regressive behaviors, like the inability to handle tasks and chores that they used to be able to handle. Traumatized adolescents may isolate themselves, resist authority, and become highly disruptive. Because adolescents may experience feelings of immortality, they may experiment with high-risk behaviors such as substance use, promiscuous sexual behavior, cutting, and suicidal behaviors or other risky behaviors, like driving at high speeds or picking fights. Coping behaviors don’t always appear to be negative. Adolescents that internalize things may become perfectionists and over achievers. Always having to prove themselves or be the best. They become good at hiding their pain by always being perfect.
Adolescents may also feel extreme guilt due to not preventing injury or loss to loved ones. They may fantasize about revenge against those they feel caused the trauma. Adolescents typically feel a very strong need to fit in with their peers. This may result in a reluctance to discuss their feelings, even denial of any emotional reactions. Finally, due to their increased maturity, adolescents may show traumatic responses similar to those seen in adults. These responses could include flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing, avoidance of reminders of the trauma, depression, suicidal thoughts, difficulties with peer relationships and anti-social behavior (e.g., criminal acts).
A list of other behaviors that traumatized adolescents may show includes:
- Withdrawal from peers/family
- Substance abuse
- Delinquent behaviors
- Change in school performance
- Self-destructive behaviors
- Detachment and denial
- Shame about their fear and vulnerability
- Abrupt changes in or abandonment of friendships
- Sexual promiscuity
- “Pseudo mature” actions such as getting pregnant, leaving school and getting married