Parenting a Child or Youth Who Has Been Sexually Abused
As a parent or caregiver of a child or youth who has a known or suspected history of being sexually abused, you may feel confused about the impact of
the abuse and uncertain about how you can help. It may be comforting to know that most children and youth who have been abused do not go on to abuse others, and many live happy, healthy, successful lives. At the same time, all children and youth who have been abused need to feel safe and loved in nurturing homes. As a parent or caregiver, you can play a central role in your child’s healing process, as well as in “building resilience,” which strengthens your child’s ability to adapt to or cope with adversity. This factsheet discusses how you can help children and youth in your care by educating yourself about child sexual abuse, understanding the impact of the abuse, establishing guidelines for safety and privacy in your family, and seeking help if you need it. Reading this factsheet alone will not guarantee that you will know what to do in every circumstance, but you can use it as a resource for some of the potential challenges and rewards that lie ahead.
One of the most useful steps you can take to help your child is to educate yourself about both sexual abuse and healthy sexual development in children. With this information, you will more easily recognize behaviors possibly associated with past or current abuse and avoid uncertainty if your child or youth shows uncommon sexual behaviors. Most importantly, you may gain confidence in supporting your child or youth through a variety of sensitive questions or situations that may arise. This section covers signs and behaviors that may suggest sexual abuse in children and youth, as well as common healthy sexual development behaviors.
Signs of Sexual Abuse
If you are parenting a child or youth who has been removed from his or her family, you may not know whether he or she has been sexually abused. Child welfare agencies are required to share all known information about a child’s history with his or her caregiver. However, past records of abuse may not exist, and young children or children who are nonverbal may be unable to tell you about being abused. Children and youth with disabilities,
many of whom cannot interpret or articulate abusive experiences, are at significantly higher risk of sexual abuse than their peers without disabilities (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2018). Moreover, many children do not reveal past abuse until they feel safe. For these reasons, foster or adoptive parents or kinship caregivers are sometimes the first to learn that a child has been sexually abused. Therefore, knowing the signs and behaviors of abuse is critical.
Children who have been sexually abused also may act out—that is, express feelings or sexual impulses that are odd, excessive, aggressive, or explicit. Although no one specific sign or behavior proves that sexual abuse has occurred, the following table provides examples of potential warning signs of abuse.
Signs and Behaviors That May Suggest Sexual Abuse in Children and Youth
• Imitation of sexual acts with toys or other objects, such as stuffed animals
• Behavior of a much younger child, like wetting the bed or sucking a thumb
• Refusal to take off clothing at appropriate times (e.g., bathing,
going to bed)
• Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)2 (especially in children who have not yet started puberty)
Older Children and Youth
• Unhealthy eating patterns or unusual weight gain or weight loss
• Anxiety or depression
• Changes in self-care or paying less attention to hygiene
• Self-harming behaviors or suicidal thoughts
• Alcohol or drug use
• Running away
• STIs or pregnancy
• High-risk sexual behavior
• Suddenly having money
Both Children and Youth
• Explicit sexual knowledge beyond the child’s developmental stage
• Sexual fixation indicated by language or drawings
• Nightmares, trouble sleeping, or fear of the dark
• Sudden or extreme mood swings (e.g., rage, fear, anger, crying, or
• References to a new, older friend
• Unexplained avoidance of certain people, places, or activities
• Pain, itching, or bleeding in genital areas
Healthy Sexual Development in Children and
At each developmental stage, children show a range of healthy sexual behaviors and curiosity. Children’s behaviors and curiosity may develop gradually, based on their development, and may be influenced by factors such as what they observe and the guidance they receive from parents and caregivers. Understanding healthy sexual development can provide a context in which to consider signs and behaviors of possible abuse. The table below lists common behaviors considered healthy for most children and youth, according to their developmental phases.
Impact of Sexual Abuse on Children and Youth
Sexual abuse violates physical and emotional boundaries. Children and youth who have been abused may see the world as unsafe and adults as manipulative and untrustworthy, or they may lack boundaries and be unaware when they are in unsafe situations. Many factors influence how children think and feel about the abuse they experienced, how it affects them, and how they develop resilience.
Impact of Sexual Abuse on the Family
Parenting a child or youth who has experienced sexual abuse can be stressful to marriages and relationships. It may require couples to be more open with each other and their children about sexuality in general and sexual issues specifically. If one parent is more involved in addressing
the issue than another, the imbalance can create difficulties in the parental relationship. If issues emerge, getting professional advice can be helpful.