Unlike with physical abuse or neglect, there are often no clear physical signs that a child is being sexually abused.
Changes to the way a child behaves can indicate a possible trauma and there are several factors which, when found in conjunction with one another, may indicate child sexual abuse.
Sudden emotional or behavioural changes especially a fear of being alone or sleep disturbances and nightmares could be a result of sexual abuse. New problems at school such as difficulty learning, poor concentration and declining grades can also signify that something has happened to upset a child.
Other signs that a child may be suffering sexual abuse include:
A young person may exhibit a range of types of behaviour or warning signs that might indicate that they’re a victim or at risk of child sexual exploitation. If you know a young person who is showing some of these signs and you’re worried about them please report it now.
Victims of sexual abuse can show a range of symptoms during and for years after the abuse has occurred. Physical signs and symptoms are still given precedence in the literature but often it is the emotional and psychological effects that do more long term damage to victims.
Alexander (2011) calls sexual abuse a chronic neurologic disease and goes on to discuss how the effects create decades of negative consequences for victims. The consequences of child sexual abuse can include depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress and an impaired ability to cope with stress or emotions (Allnock et al 2009). However, up to 40% of victims of sexual abuse exhibit no long-term negative consequences of their experience (Finkelhor and Berliner 1995).
Self-blame, self-harm and suicide are commonly mentioned as consequences of sexual abuse. Children who are sexually abused can be manipulated by their abuser to believe that the abuse is their fault. The feelings of shame and guilt that come from the abuse can reduce the likelihood of that child making a disclosure (Allnock 2010). A study by Calder (2010) also found that participants sexually abused in childhood were more than twice as likely to consider committing suicide in later life.
Child sexual abuse can have a more fundamental effect on brain functioning, where a child’s brain becomes damaged by the abuse they have suffered (Mizenberg et al 2008). The effects of sexual abuse can include dissociation, memory impairment and reduced social functioning (Whitehead 2011).
Being sexually abused as a child, especially where that abuse is not discovered, can lead to confused ideas about appropriate relationships and behaviour. It can lead some victims to block out the abuse so that they do not remember parts of their childhood. It can also lead to post traumatic stress symptoms. Where the abuse is not disclosed or discovered or where the children do not receive adequate help and support following a disclosure, the damage and negative effects can be life-long (Goodyear-Brown 2012).
Sexual abuse can also have physical consequences for victims from sexually transmitted diseases to pregnancy. These physical consequences compound the significant emotional and psychological damage inflicted by the abuse (Whitehead 2010).
Estimating the prevalence of child sexual abuse has been difficult because of the number of instances that go unreported.
Dagon (2012) and Pemberton (2011) both use three distinct models for abuser-victim relationships.
An NSPCC study (Radford et al 2011) found that nearly a quarter of young adults (24.1%) had experienced sexual abuse (contact and non-contact), by an adult or peer during childhood. Around 11% of young adults said that they had experienced contact sexual abuse during their childhood.
Perpetrators of sexual abuse are more likely to be a family friend or acquainted with the child rather than being a parent or stranger. Girls are at a greater risk than boys of being abused by a family member, while boys are at a higher risk than girls of being abused by a stranger (Maikovich-Fong and Jafee 2010).
The majority of reported abuse is carried out by male abusers but there is some discussion as to whether abuse by female abusers is underreported. An analysis of the calls to ChildLine where children talked about being sexually abused found that 17% of the calls concerned a female abuser. Where the victim of the abuse was a boy then the proportion of male and female abusers was roughly the same. For girls, over two thirds of the perpetrators were male (Mariathasan 2009).
Sexual abuse can happen to any child but there may be certain circumstances that can increase a child’s vulnerability.
Experiencing other forms of abuse, especially previous sexual abuse or a disrupted home life can lead to a child being more susceptible to being sexually abused. Some abusers target children who are neglected by their parents or children who don’t have many friends as they are more likely to be receptive to the attentions of an adult (Elliot et al 1995).
A disrupted home life can make children particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Domestic violence can push children out of the home and make them susceptible to people who seem kind and show them affection (Goodyear-Brown 2012).
Children of parents who misuse substances may have homes where lots of adults are coming and going or they may be left alone for long periods of time while their parents are out. This can leave those children vulnerable, especially when the adults in the house may be under the influence of drugs or alcohol (Goodyear-Brown 2012).
Children with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Sullivan and Knutson (2000) found that disabled children were up to three times more likely to be abused than non-disabled children. This can be because there are fewer people to tell, fewer ways to tell someone or that some disabled children may find it difficult to make themselves understood.
Children can also be at risk when using the internet. Social media, chat rooms and web forums are places where children could be groomed, persuaded to meet an abuser in person or persuaded to send pictures of themselves or perform sexual acts in front of webcams. However, it should be recognised that the internet has also brought huge benefits for children (Leonard 2010).
Stopping sexual abuse relies primarily on children making a disclosure to an adult who can act to protect them.
Unlike with physical abuse or neglect, there are often no clear signs that a child is being sexually abused so detection often relies on a child being brave enough to tell someone (Goodyear-Brown 2012; Allnock 2010). Child sexual abuse remains largely hidden with many victims waiting years before telling anyone (Cawson 2000). Research suggests that one in three children who have been sexually abused do not report it at the time (Radford et al 2011).
In order to make a disclosure a child has to find someone they can trust and who they feel safe telling. Victims of sexual abuse can be reluctant to tell anyone because their abuser may have told them that they will not be believed (Allnock 2010). Much of the control an abuser has over their victim can be based on this fear that they will not be believed, that the abuse is their fault or a fear of what their abuser may do if the child tells. Providing a safe space for a child to talk can be key to preventing further abuse.
If you work with or come into contact with young people, it is your responsibility to make sure that you:
Make sure you know who the child protection / safeguarding lead in your agency is and be aware of the procedure to follow if you have concerns about a young person. If you are worried or in any doubt, get help.
The NSPCC website hosts a range of resources for professionals about child abuse and neglect, including research, statistics, factsheets and briefings. They also provide expert training and consultancy services to professionals as well as freely accessible library and information services. Visit the NSPCC website
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