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Sexual abuse

What to look out for and what to do if you think a child is being sexually abused

Child sexual abuse involves persuading or forcing a child to take part in sexual activities, or encouraging a child to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.

Sexual abuse can be very difficult to identify. However, there are steps you can take to help keep a child safe from sexual abuse and to protect a child if you suspect, or discover, that they have been abused.

If you are worried about a child or need advice contact the NSPCC helpline.

What is sexual abuse

The sexual abuse of children is more than just physical sexual contact and includes:

  • sexual touching of any part of the body, clothed or unclothed, including using an object
  • all penetrative sex, including penetration of the mouth with an object or part of the body
  • encouraging a child to engage in sexual activity, including
      • sexual acts with someone else
      • making a child strip or masturbate
  • intentionally engaging in sexual activity in front of a child
  • not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activity by others
  • meeting a child following sexual 'grooming', or preparation, with the intention of abusing them
  • taking, making, permitting to take, distributing, showing or advertising indecent images of children
  • paying for the sexual services of a child or encouraging them into prostitution or pornography
  • showing a child images of sexual activity including photographs, videos or via webcams.

Who sexually abuses children

Acts of child sexual abuse are committed by men, women, teenagers, and other children. Sex offenders are found in all areas of society and come from a variety of backgrounds.

We do not fully understand the causes of sexually abusive behaviour towards children, although abusers may have:

  • sexual urges and willingness to act on these,
  • power and control issues,
  • traumatic childhood experiences, or
  • troubled families.

Child sexual abuse can also be motivated by money, for example with child prostitution and pornography.

Child sexual abuse committed by adults

Significantly more men than women sexually abuse children. However, sexual abuse committed by women is under reported and is sometimes not recognised as abuse.

Contrary to the popular image, abusers usually seem quite normal to others. Friends, relatives and co-workers often find it hard to believe that someone they know has abused children.

9 out of 10 children know their abuser. They are likely to be a relative, family friend of person in a position of trust, rather than a stranger.

A child may not say anything because they think it is their fault, that no one will believe them, or that they will be teased or punished.

The child may even care for an abusing adult. They will want the abuse to stop, but they may fear the adult will go to prison or that their family will break up.

Very young children and disabled children are particularly vulnerable because they may not have the words or the ability to communicate what is happening to them to someone they trust.

Child sexual abuse committed by children and young people

Sometimes children are sexually abused by other children and young people. Two thirds of sexual abuse involving physical contact is committed by peers.

Children and young people who abuse other children, or who develop harmful sexual behaviours, have often experienced abuse and neglect themselves.

A child who is being abused by other children and young people may be very confused about their feelings and rationalise, or be persuaded, that what is happening is 'normal'.

What to look out for: signs and symptoms

Children who have been sexually abused may show a variety of signs.

They may try to tell you about abuse through hints or clues. They may also describe behaviour by an adult that suggests they are being 'groomed' for future abuse. Other signs include:

Suddenly starting to behave differently

  • aggressive behaviour
  • sleep problems
  • bed-wetting or soiling
  • risk-taking behaviour during adolescence
  • negative thoughts
  • not looking after themselves
  • problems with school, or missing school.

Avoiding particular adults

  • Avoids being alone with a particular family member
  • Fears an adult or is reluctant to socialise with them.

Sexually inappropriate behaviour

Physical symptoms

  • Anal or vaginal soreness
  • An unusual discharge
  • Pregnancy

How long these effects last depends on the individual child, the nature of the abuse and the help they receive.

What to look out for in adults
You should also be alert to any adults who pay an unusual amount of attention to your child, for example:

  • giving your child gifts, toys or favours
  • offering to take your child on trips, outings and holidays
  • seeking opportunities to be alone with your child.

What you should do

If you suspect or discover that a child is being sexually abused you must get professional advice.

DO: discuss your concerns with the NSPCC, contact your local police or children's services.

DON'T: confront the alleged abuser. It may give them the opportunity to silence, confuse or threaten the child about speaking out about the abuse. It may also place the child in danger.

If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999, or call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, without delay.

Steps you can take to help keep your child safe from sexual abuse

To help keep your child safe from sexual abuse there are several practical steps that you can take:

  • Talk to your child to help them understand about their bodies and sex:
      • Teach younger children the Underwear Rule
      • Ask your school for books or leaflets
  • Build an open and trusting relationship with them, so they feel they can talk to you about anything
  • Explain the difference between 'good' secrets - like a surprise birthday party - and 'bad' secrets that make them feel unhappy or worried.
  • Teach your child that they have the right to say no, and that they are in control of their body
  • Set and teach children to respect family boundaries:
      • every family member has a right to privacy
      • teach young children "privates are private"
  • Teach your child to respect themselves and others, this is especially important for young boys to develop healthy relationships with girls
  • Teach your child how to use the internet safely and provide appropriate supervision for the internet, television and films
  • Don't leave your child alone with anyone you aren't sure about.

Further advice and support

Find out more about sexual abuse and the services the NSPCC offers

You can also find more information at:

  • Mosac: Support for non-abusing parents and carers.
  • Sex Education Forum: Information about sex education.
  • Stop it Now: A campaign for preventing child sexual abuse.
  • AFRUCA: works in partnership with other organisations in Africa and across Europe to end cruelty against African children.

NSPCC helpline

Worried about a child?

Don’t wait until you’re certain. Contact our trained helpline counsellors for 24/7 help, advice and support.

Report a concern

Contact the helpline in:
ChildLine 0800 1111

Are you a child?

Do you need to talk? Call ChildLine on 0800 1111 or visit us online.

Get some help

Download What can I do: guide for parents

Our free guide 'What can I do?' which provides more information and advice on how to protect your child from sexual abuse.

Read our guide

Child grooming

Advice for parents on how to keep children safe from grooming online and in face to face situations.

Find out more

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Professional resources

Statistics, research, policy and guidance about child sexual abuse for professionals.

Find out more on NSPCC Inform

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Services in your area

We provide services across the UK to protect children from sexual abuse, and help those who have been affected.

See what services are available