For Parents

What is sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is a sensitive and difficult topic to discuss, both between adults and especially in a discussion between a parent and their own child. However, these discussions are important because they can prevent abuse, give adults and children tools to help them avoid such situations.

Myths about sexual abuse

Perhaps precisely because it is a subject that nobody talks about with pleasure, some myths have been propagated without any real basis.

Abusers are said to be adult men, but in very many cases abuse is committed by women and especially by children and teenagers up to the age of 18. Although girls are more often sexually abused than boys, boys are almost as often victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. Boys, however, more often than girls, will seek to hide their abuse.

Probably the most common belief about abuse is that abusers are dangerous strangers who hide in parks and lure children with candy. Statistics – nationally and internationally – show that most of the sexual abuse takes place in the home and is committed by people children trust: parents, close relatives, family friends, people who have easier access to children.

What is sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in a sexual activity that the child does not understand, for which the child does not have the capacity to give informed consent, for which the child is not developmentally ready, or which violates laws or social taboos related to family roles.

Child sexual abuse involves the involvement of a child in activities carried out with the intention of satisfying the needs of an adult or another child who, by age and development, is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power with the abused child.

What effects does sexual abuse have on the child?

Short-term emotional effects

Guilt – very often, children who have experienced sexual abuse feel guilty for what happened. Adults or older children tell them to keep it a secret and threaten to hurt them or their family if they don’t.

  • Fear
  • Degradation of self-image
  • Repeated, sometimes even obsessive recall of the abusive event,
  • Depression
  • Anxiety

On a somatic level, children may experience digestive disorders, headaches, sleep disorders, nightmares, eating disorders.

Behaviourally, changes may include withdrawal, aggression towards others and themselves (abused children bite, pull their hair, cut themselves), difficulties in relating and social adjustment, hostility, fear of the dark and reduced school performance.

Some children show unusual interest in sexual matters, express affection in ways inappropriate for their age or end up engaging other children in sexual activities, thus perpetuating the abusive behaviour.

The severity of the impact is all the greater if the abuse is of greater duration and intensity, if there is an element of premeditation, threat, coercion, sadism, etc.

Possible long-term effects

If the abused child does not receive support from a trusted adult and – preferably – specialist help from a psychologist, the long-term consequences of abuse can include:

  • Emotional distress
  • Depression, suicidal tendencies
  • Running away from home
  • Prostitution
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Sexual dysfunction
  • Perpetuation of abusive behaviour
  • Social adjustment disorders
  • Compulsive sexual behaviour
  • Poor contraceptive practices, increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases
  • Somatization disorders
  • Eating and sleeping disorders
  • Chronic headaches, back and pelvic pain
  • Intolerance of intimacy or constant seeking of intimacy

What are the main needs of children who have experienced abuse?

  • Children need to talk about their experiences and feelings;
  • Children need to know they have someone to turn to when they need help;
  • Children need to be safe;
  • Children need support to recover, but not to be treated as victims and labelled for the rest of their lives.

Once a child has disclosed abuse, it is vital to have an adult, especially a protective parent or carer, who the child trusts and who can help them cope with this dramatic experience and understand what has happened to them, offering support and protection.

In such cases, psychological assessment and counselling by professionals with experience of sexual abuse is recommended.

How do you educate your child to protect themselves from abuse?

  • The advice not to talk to strangers, not to get into a car with a stranger, is helpful, but not enough, as abusers are often people children trust in their immediate circle.
  • Give your child a minimum of sex education. Explain that no one should touch the child’s private body parts. Don’t make sexuality a taboo subject. Seek out books, information or professionals to teach you how to talk to your child about sexuality if this makes you uncomfortable.
  • Tell your child that the decision about his or her own body is his or her own and that no one, not even someone close to him or her, has the right to force an inappropriate physical approach. Teach him to come to you immediately if someone tries to touch him inappropriately.
  • Talk to your child and listen to him, get him used to being open with you and telling you what is bothering him.