Information for Parents

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse occurs when a child is used by an older person in a sexual way. It includes a range of behaviours from voyeurism, to the sexual touching of genitals, to sexual intercourse. Sexual abuse may be a one off incident, or may happen many times over a period of months, or even years.

Sexual abuse usually involves the use of trickery, manipulation, threats, and sometimes force. Children’s natural innocence and trust make them very vulnerable to abuse. Moreover, they are often emotionally and physically dependent on the person abusing them. Because of this, children are easily persuaded to keep the abuse a secret.

Warning signs in children and adolescents of possible child sexual abuse

Children often show us rather than tell us that something is upsetting them. There may be many reasons for changes in their behaviour, but if we notice a combination of worrying signs it may be time to call for help or advice.

What to watch out for in children:

Physical warning signs:

Physical signs of sexual abuse are rare, however, if you see these signs, take your child to a doctor. Your doctor can help you understand what may be happening and test for sexually transmitted diseases.


How can I keep my child safe from sexual abuse?

All parents need to teach personal safety skills to their children, just as we teach them water safety, fire safety, and traffic safety. It can be difficult to know how and when to begin talking to children about sexual safety. However, children who have been specifically warned about sexual abuse and who have a plan of action to call upon if they find themselves in a potentially abusive situation are less likely to be victimised.


Things you can teach your child include:

Safe/loving touching vs. unsafe/yucky touching
Good/safe/loving touches are the way we express affection, reassurance and love for one another. They make us feel nice, warm and loved. A bad/unsafe/yukky touch makes us feel uncomfortable and confused.


Bad touches include:

The importance of feelings:

Children need to learn to identify and understand the different feelings that they have. Teach children to trust their own feelings and act upon them. Recognising feelings that indicate that something is not right or comfortable can help children resist uncomfortable touches.


Different kinds of secrets:

The sexual abuse of children relies heavily on children keeping secrets. Children need to learn that not all secrets are good, and that they shouldn’t keep any secrets that hurt, frighten, worry or confuse them. It can be a good idea to distinguish between a surprise (a ‘nice secret’) and a yucky secret.


Developing a keeping safe plan:

Teach children they have the right to be assertive and say “NO” to people if they want to or when they get uncomfortable feelings. You may want to practice with your child things they can do if they feel uncomfortable about someone touching them


Identifying safe, supportive people:

Talk to your child about the safe people in their lives, with whom they can talk about their worries.


When does children’s ‘sexual play’ become sexual abuse?

Children often engage in sexual play with one another (eg. in games such as ‘Doctors and Nurses’). Children involved in such explorations are usually of a similar age and developmental level, and participate in the games voluntarily. Child sex play such as this is light-hearted and does not hurt or upset either child.


Sexual experiences between children becomes abusive if:


What the child may be feeling


Guilt and shame

Hope and relief

Is relieved that the burden of secrecy has been lifted.
Feels hopeful that the abuse will now stop.

Sexual abuse or incest within the family

When a child is abused by another family member, each family member is affected. Typically, the help of outside specialists is needed to address the emotional toll on the family and to assist the healing process of each individual.

Contradictory feelings

When sexual abuse takes place within families, the pain we experience can include conflicting and confusing emotions.  We may feel extreme anguish over what was done to the child, while still feeling love and concern for the family member who committed the abuse.


What parents and caregivers may be feeling


Rage toward the person who abused for harming the child, betraying our trust, deceiving and manipulating us.
Anger at the child for not telling sooner.


Self-blame for not having seen what was happening in time to protect the child (even when the person responsible for the abuse did all that they could to keep it hidden).

Guilt over loving or caring about the person who abused the child.


Afraid about how the abuse will impact the child.
Fearful about the family's future and the consequences for the person who abused the child.

Loneliness and loss

Grieving for the loss of the life we had, or thought we had, before we knew about the abuse.

Feeling extreme sense of isolation.

Finding support for ourselves

As protective parents and caregivers, we also need support.  Connecting with whom we can share our feelings will help us cope with the trauma and the challenges we face.