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About Child Sexual Abuse: A Guide for Caregivers

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

Child sexual abuse occurs when another person, adult or child, uses his or her authority or power over the child or takes advantage of the child’s trust and respect, to involve the child in sexual activity. Child sexual abuse includes a range of activities including but not limited to:

  • Fondling or touching the child’s private parts or forcing the child to touch another’s private parts
  • Penetration of the child’s genitals, anus, or mouth by the offender's fingers, penis, or other objects
  • Sexual intercourse
  • Exposing children to adult sexual activity or pornographic materials
  • Any behavior that is intended to sexually stimulate the child, or to sexually stimulate the offender through the use of the child.

Childhood Sexual Development

Some parents become embarrassed, upset, or even concerned when they see their children begin to explore their sexuality. It is natural for children to explore their genitals as they do other parts of their bodies, and it need not be considered a sexualized behavior. When children begin to explore, ask questions and/or experiment with their own bodies or with others, this is a sign to parents that they are curious and have questions. It is helpful if parents can provide guidance and information to children about their bodies in a calm, matter of fact manner. Knowledge of normal childhood sexual development can assist parents when reacting to their children’s curiosity or sexual play.

Infants and toddlers

For infants and toddlers, normal sexual development involves body sensations, cuddling and touch, and playing with toys. It is common for babies and toddlers to touch and rub their own genitals. Preschoolers are naturally interested in exploring differences between boys and girls, have a heightened preoccupation with bathroom functions and like to play house or doctor. It is normal for preschoolers to touch their genitals to explore their anatomy and sensations. Such touching may lead to masturbation. They may also show their genitals to others and may randomly, through experimentation find that they can insert objects into their genitals or anus.

School-Age Children

Early school-age children (ages 5 to 8) continue to be interested in body parts and functions. They may continue to touch their genitals in a more specific manner. They are interested in telling dirty jokes (whether or not they understand the meaning) and begin to mimic dating behaviors such as kissing and holding hands. As children move into the pre-adolescent years (ages 9-12), they are more focused on social relationships and begin to experience clearer sexual feelings. They like to talk about sex with same-sex peers. They are interested in their own organs and functions and may seek out books and pictures about sexual activity. Masturbation may become more routine, and some exhibitionistic behavior such as mooning may occur.

It is important to distinguish between age-appropriate and age-inappropriate sexual behaviors. Many children engage in sexual behaviors and show sexual interests throughout their entire childhood. Normative (or expected) sexual behaviors are more exploratory and playful in nature, are similar to those of other same-age children, are spontaneous, and experienced by the child as fun, silly, or adventurous. Age inappropriate sexual behavior is often accompanied by feelings of shame, fear, or guilt. At times, the child may feel driven or preoccupied with sexual activities, some of which may be beyond the knowledge of same age peers.

Any behavior by a child aimed at engaging other children in sexual play by means of bribery, aggression, or force, is age inappropriate and may indicate signs of sexual disturbance.

  • Parents can help foster a healthy understanding of sexuality in their children by responding to age-appropriate sexual behaviors in the following ways.
  • Remain calm when noticing the behavior. At times, it may be acceptable to ignore the behavior and/or redirect the child into another activity in a matter of fact manner.
  • It is important not to punish or yell at children, or to use words such as bad, dirty, or nasty when they are exhibiting exploratory behaviors. Simply explain to the child that the behavior is inappropriate, or that it is something that is done in private (i.e., touching their own genitals).
  • Teach children proper names for all body parts. Use words such as genitals, penis, vagina, vulva, anus, and private parts. Most children associate the uses for these body parts as related to bathroom functions. Explanations related to the sexual functions of these body parts need not be provided until the child is older or when the parents feel it is appropriate.
  • Provide information about touching private parts. Reinforce that children should respect each other and the touching of others private parts is not acceptable.
  • Stop the behavior when it is inappropriate (i.e., masturbating in public, touching others private parts, exposing genitals). Remember to remain calm, provide redirection or a short explanation that the behavior is inappropriate.

Note: The responses listed above are also applicable to age-inappropriate sexual behavior. In addition, parents should seek further assistance from mental health or medical personnel to address the reasons for the behavior. The WCAC Crisis Counselor is available to address the concerns parents have regarding their child’s sexual behavior.

Child Sexual Abuse Prevention

  • In addition to understanding normal child sexual development and fostering a healthy understanding of sexuality in their children, parents and caregivers can take further steps to help prevent child sexual abuse.
  • Teach your children about the privacy of body parts. Teach them the correct names for all body parts.
  • Explain the difference between safe and unsafe touches of all kinds. Explain that some unsafe touches will not hurt and may even feel good. Let them know it is okay to say NO.
  • Listen when your child tries to tell you something, especially when it seems hard for him/her to talk about it. Children may hint about abuse by saying things like, I don’t want to go to Uncle Bob’s house anymore, or Jenny has funny underwear.
  • Give your child enough of your time and attention.
  • Know with whom your child is spending time.
  • Encourage children to trust their feelings. Explore with them the things that make them feel safe and happy and what makes them feel scared.
  • Teach children to tell if someone touches them in an unsafe way (or makes the child touch them). For very young children, provide them with a concrete list of people that they can tell. Older children can help create this list. Teaching children to talk about abuse also involves addressing the many reasons why children do not tell.

Reasons Why Children Do Not Tell About Sexual Abuse

  • Feelings of shame, guilt, or fear
  • Fear they won’t be believed
  • Fear of punishment
  • Fear of harm to themselves or family
  • Fear of breaking up the family
  • Fear of losing the affection of the perpetrator
  • Fear of the perpetrator getting in trouble
  • Lack of vocabulary to express the experience
  • Believing that what happened is their fault
  • They have been told to keep a special secret

Reassure children that they will not be in trouble or blamed if they receive an unsafe touch. Emphasize how important it is to tell so that the abuse can stop and that they can be protected. Help them to understand that there are adults in their life that can and will protect them. Prevention strategies work best if reviewed several times throughout the child’s life. Look for teachable moments such as during bath time (teaching of body parts), before holidays such as Halloween (personal safety issues), or after a sexual education program at school (prevention, definitions of sexual abuse).

Indicators of Sexual Abuse

The following is a list of common behavioral and physical signs of possible sexual abuse. It is important to note that one indicator alone does not mean that sexual abuse has occurred. Also, some of these signs may occur at other stressful times in a child’s life. It is important to look for changes in behavior and more than one indicator.

  • Sleep disturbances, nightmares, bedwetting, or fear of sleeping alone
  • Depression or withdrawal from friends and family, or previously enjoyed activities
  • Imitating sexual play that is beyond developmental stage
  • Showing unusual interest in the genitals of other people or animals
  • New fears, clinging to a parent, needing more reassurance than usual
  • Loss of appetite, or sudden increase in appetite, unusual gagging
  • Expressing affection inappropriately (i.e., French kissing)
  • Regressive behavior (those associated with a younger developmental age)
  • Suicidal or self-mutilating behaviors
  • Secretiveness
  • Excessive masturbation
  • Indicating a sudden reluctance to be alone with a certain person
  • Recurring stomachaches and headaches without a medical reason
  • Sore genitals or bottom, complaining of pain during urination or bowel movements
  • Recurring infections, symptoms of venereal disease
  • Difficulty in walking or sitting
  • Torn or stained clothing

Responding to Disclosures of Sexual Abuse

Learning that one’s child may have been sexually abused is very distressful to most adults. It is normal to experience feelings of shock, panic, anger, fear, guilt, sadness, or even disgust.

It is important that parents and caregivers do their very best to control these feelings and remain calm when dealing with their child. This will help to avoid frightening your child or causing additional guilt or embarrassment.

Reassure your child that they did the right thing by telling you about the abuse. If you need clarification of what happened, be careful to ask only non-leading questions such as Tell me more or what happened next? Let them know that what happened is not their fault and assure them that you will do your best to protect them.

Accept that your child may feel fearful. Tell the child that you will need to call people whose job it is to keep children safe and that it is okay for the child to talk to these people.

Contact Child Protective Services and/or your local police department to report the abuse. Depending on the type of abuse and or when it occurred, your child may need to receive a medical exam.

Seek professional help for you and your child. Mental health professionals can assess how the sexual abuse has affected your child and other members of the family. All children and family members can benefit from immediate crisis counseling services available at the WCAC. Some children and families will need on-going counseling to deal with the trauma associated with sexual abuse. The WCAC Crisis Counselor can assist your family in finding an experienced mental health professional. Many parents find that seeking a support group or individual counseling helps them deal with their own feelings about the abuse, which in turn will help their children heal from the sexual abuse.

Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse

The severity of long-term effects associated with child sexual abuse varies greatly and is dependent on such factors as the duration and severity of the abuse, familial and systemic responses to the abuse, and the degree of other stressful circumstances in the child’s life. In cases where the abuse was not forceful, of short duration, and when the child received the proper support, counseling, and education, long-term effects of sexual abuse may not be apparent. For many, some short-term or long-term behavioral problems associated with sexual abuse will occur, and these children could benefit from counseling interventions. These behavioral problems typically include depression, anxiety, guilt, fear, sexual dysfunction, withdrawal, and acting out. Some victims may develop fear and anxiety regarding the opposite sex or display inappropriate sexual behavior. Some children will experience sleep disturbance, eating disorders, and behavior and/or performance problems at school, substance abuse issues, or regressive behaviors (such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting).

Adults who were sexually abused as children may continue to experience long-term effects of the abuse. These include depression, substance abuse problems, self-destructive behaviors, anxiety disorders, sleep disorders, and problems with adult sexual relationships. Adults who were child sexual abuse victims are more likely than non-abused adults to be victims of rape or involved in physically abusive relationships. Counseling interventions aimed at alleviating the trauma of child sexual abuse serve to reduce the negative long-term effects of child sexual abuse and reduce the incidence of revictimization. It may be necessary to seek additional counseling as your child matures. For some children, entering a new maturation phase (puberty, early adulthood) and participating in normal developmental activities (dating, sexual relations) will bring concerns related to the childhood sexual abuse that were previously felt to have been resolved. In these cases, counseling may be needed to address these concerns in the context of the new developmental stage.


Books for Parents to Read with Children
  • The Right Touch: A Read Aloud Story by Sandy Kleven
  • Do You Have a Secret? by Jennifer Moore-Mallinos
  • My Body is Private by Linda Walvoord Girard
  • No More Secrets for Me by Oralee Wachter
  • A Better Safe than Sorry Book: A Family Guide for Sexual Assault Prevention by Sol and Judith Gordon
  • What Would You Do? A Kids Guide to Tricky and Sticky Situation by Linda Schwartz
  • Asking About Sex and Growing Up by Joanna Cole
Books for Parents and Older Children
  • Stolen Innocence: Triumphing Over a Childhood Broken by Abuse: A Memoir by Erin Merryn
  • Invisible Girls: The Truth About Sexual Abuse by Dr. Patti Feuereisen
  • The Real Truth About Teens and Sex by Sabrina Weill
  • Not With My Child: Combating What Predators Do to Sexually Abuse and Silence Children by Roger Castillo
  • Sexual Abuse: Lets Talk About It by Margaret O. Hyde
  • What Only a Mother Can Tell You About Child Sexual Abuse by Karen Schaefer
Websites for Parents

Note: Check with the WCAC Crisis Counselor for the most up-to-date list.