Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is any act of a sexual nature upon or with a child.


Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors.

Researchers estimate that about one out of six boys and one out of four girls have been sexually abused.

Children respond to sexual abuse in many different ways. It depends on their age, gender, personality and family circumstances.

If a child says she or he has been abused, the first thing to remember is to try to stay calm. You may need to reassure the child that what happened is not his or her fault, and that you believe them. Take your child to see a mental health and/or medical professional. The Center for Family Safety and Healing can help.

What Symptoms Should You Look For?

Child sexual abuse can be hard to detect. The abuse often occurs in secret, and there is not always physical proof.

Primary symptoms of sexual abuse in children and adolescents include:

Mental Health Problems

Sexualized Behavior

  • Sexualized play with dolls
  • Excessive or public masturbation
  • Requesting sexual stimulation from adults or other children
  • Age-inappropriate sexual knowledge

Behavioral Problems

  • Withdrawal and mistrust of adults
  • Aggression
  • Behavioral problems in school
  • Delinquency
  • Regressive behavior (including incontinence, tantrums, and whining)
  • Running away
  • Self harm

What Are the Risks if Sexual Abuse Goes Untreated?

If the trauma from sexual abuse goes untreated, the symptoms can continue into adulthood:

  • Lingering PTSD and anxiety
  • Depression and thoughts of suicide
  • Sexual functioning concerns
  • Difficulty setting safe limits with others (e.g., saying no to people)
  • Relationship problems
  • Poor body image and low self-esteem
  • Unhealthy behaviors such as alcohol, drugs, self-harm, or eating problems

Many of these behaviors are attempts to hide painful emotions related to the abuse. The long term effects are often compounded by secrecy, fear and denial. The severe consequences of childhood sexual abuse confirm the need for early intervention.

How Is Sexual Abuse in Children Treated?

Children can and do recover from sexual abuse. That's why it is crucial for victims of sexual abuse to receive counseling to decrease or prevent the symptoms of sexual abuse trauma.

One of the most effective treatments for children with sexual abuse trauma is trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT). Children are encouraged to talk about their memories of the traumatic experiences in a gradual manner. The goal is also to increase functioning and reduce further risks for victimization.

Other therapies that have proven effective include ones that build a supportive relationship with an adult that can assure the child's safety and the opportunity to honestly talk about the abuse and how they feel about it.

When their feelings tied to the trauma are explored, those feelings tend to become less powerful and their behavior becomes easier to manage. With professional guidance and parental understanding, children can regain a sense of safety and self-control.