Finding out your child has been sexually exploited can be distressing and you might not know what to do next. Young people often trust their abuser and don’t know that what’s happening is wrong or are unable to tell anyone due to fear, intimidation and violence. We have advice to help you keep children and young people safe from sexual exploitation.
Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a type of sexual abuse. When a child or young person is exploited they're given things, like gifts, drugs, money, status and affection, in exchange for performing sexual activities. Children and young people are often tricked into believing they're in a loving and consensual relationship. This is called grooming. They may trust their abuser and not understand that they're being abused.
Children and young people can be trafficked into or within the UK to be sexually exploited. They're moved around the country and abused by being forced to take part in sexual activities, often with more than one person. Young people in gangs can also be sexually exploited.
Sometimes abusers use violence and intimidation to frighten or force a child or young person, making them feel as if they've no choice. They may lend them large sums of money they know can't be repaid or use financial abuse to control them.
Anybody can be a perpetrator of CSE, no matter their age, gender or race. The relationship could be framed as friendship, someone to look up to or romantic. Children and young people who are exploited may also be used to 'find' or coerce others to join groups.
CSE can happen in person or online. An abuser will gain a child's trust or control them through violence or blackmail before moving onto sexually abusing them. This can happen in a short period of time.
When a child is sexually exploited online they might be persuaded or forced to:
- send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
- film or stream sexual activities
- have sexual conversations.
Once an abuser has images, video or copies of conversations, they might use threats and blackmail to force a young person to take part in other sexual activity. They may also share the images and videos with others or circulate them online.
Gangs use sexual exploitation:
- to exert power and control
- for initiation
- to use sexual violence as a weapon.
Children or young people might be invited to parties or gatherings with others their own age or adults and given drugs and alcohol. They may be assaulted and sexually abused by one person or multiple perpetrators. The sexual assaults and abuse can be violent, humiliating and degrading.
Sexual exploitation can be difficult to spot and sometimes mistaken for "normal" teenage behaviour. Knowing the signs can help protect children and help them when they've no one else to turn to.
- Unhealthy or inappropriate sexual behaviour.
- Being frightened of some people, places or situations.
- Bring secretive.
- Sharp changes in mood or character.
- Having money or things they can't or won't explain.
- Physical signs of abuse, like bruises or bleeding in their genital or anal area.
- Alcohol or drug misuse.
- Sexually transmitted infections.
- Having an older boyfriend or girlfriend.
- Staying out late or overnight.
- Having a new group of friends.
- Missing from home or care, or stopping going to school or college.
- Hanging out with older people, other vulnerable people or in antisocial groups.
- Involved in a gang.
- Involved in criminal activities like selling drugs or shoplifting..
They may not know where they are, because they've been moved around the country, and seem frightened, confused or angry.
A child might know they're being sexually exploited. They might be worried or confused and less likely to speak to an adult they trust. If you're worried about a child and want to talk to them, we have advice on having difficult conversations.
If a child talks to you about sexual exploitation it's important to:
- listen carefully to what they're saying
- let them know they've done the right thing by telling you
- tell them it's not their fault
- say you'll take them seriously
- don't confront the alleged abuser
- explain what you'll do next
- report what the child has told you as soon as possible.
Both sexual exploitation in person and online can have long-term effects on a child or young person. They may:
- struggle with trust and be fearful of forming new relationships
- become isolated from family and friends
- fail exams or drop out of education
- become pregnant at a young age
- experience unemployment
- have mental health problems
- make suicide attempts
- abuse alcohol and drugs
- take part in criminal behaviour
- experience homelessness.
Our services can support children and young people who have experienced sexual exploitation to help them move on and receive the care they need.
For parents and carers
Finding out your child has been sexually exploited can be frightening and distressing. But there's help for you and your family.
Barnardo's can support parents through their services across the UK.
We run therapeutic services for children who have experienced, or are at risk of, sexual exploitation and abuse:
- Hear and Now
- In Ctrl
- Letting the Future In
- Protect and Respect
Find out more about all our services for children, including how to get in touch with ones in your area.
Barnardo’s Wud U? app shows children how to make safe decisions.
Children and young people can contact:
- Fearless to report crime anonymously
- Gangsline for free advice and support from ex-gang members
- Victim Support if they've experienced crime.
We understand how difficult it is for children to talk about sexual exploitation and abuse. Whether it's happening now or happened in the past, Childline can be contacted 24/7. Calls to 0800 1111 are free and confidential. Children can also contact Childline online.
Childline has information and advice for children and young people about:
There are lots of ways to help prevent child sexual exploitation.
Teaching children and young people about healthy relationships and how to stay safe online can help prevent sexual exploitation. These foundations can be laid from a young age. Our PANTS rules are a simple way to teach younger children how to stay safe from abuse. And we've got tips and advice on how to have difficult conversations.
It's also important to make sure children and young people know there are trusted adults they can speak to about their worries, including Childline.
You can ask your child's school to book a free Speak out Stay safe assembly for primary school children. Our specially trained staff and volunteers hold assemblies and workshops, covering topics like bullying and abuse, but without using any scary words or adult language.
If you're worried about gangs, it can be difficult to know what to do to help protect young people. Whether they're thinking about joining a gang, are already involved or want to leave, they need help and support. You can contact our helpline for details of organisations near you that can give you support and advice. Call us on 0808 800 5000, email email@example.com or fill in our online form.
Encourage transparency in what your children are doing online. You can keep gaming devices and computers and laptops with webcams in the living room or family spaces. Use parental controls and keep up-to-date on the apps and games children and young people are using. NetAware is regularly updated and has age ratings, information and advice.
We know parents and carers of d/Deaf and disabled children and young people can worry about keeping their children safe from abuse. Some children and young people may not be aware of the dangers of abuse. Or aren't able to let someone know they're not safe because it may be harder for them to show or tell someone.
We have a range of guides you can download to help children learn the PANTS rules without using any scary words. You can look at these together and talk about what PANTS means. We've also got tips and advice to help you answer some of the common questions children and young people ask.
For d/Deaf children and young people we have a video in British Sign Language (BSL) with subtitles to help you share the PANTS rules. Our video on contacting Childline using SignVideo is a useful tool to help you explain different types of abuse and give children and young people the knowledge of who they can contact if they're worried.
If you're worried about your behaviour, help is available.
If you are, or think you might, sexually exploit or abuse a child or young person, contact Stop it now!, a free helpline offering information, guidance and support.
- Call Stop it now!
People living in the UK and Ireland can call for free on 0808 1000 900 (Monday – Thursday 9am-9pm and Friday 9am-5pm).
- Message online
Stop it now! have a secure messaging service available 24-hours a day.
If you work or volunteer with children
Visit NSPCC Learning to find information, resources and training on child sexual exploitation.