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Understanding child sexual abuse

In this article we’ll explore what child sexual abuse is and what you can do to help keep your child safe.

Upset girl on bed hugging pillow, being hugged by mother

What is sexual child abuse?

Child sexual abuse happens when an adult, adolescent or child uses their power or authority to involve a child in sexual activity.

  • Sexual abuse isn’t always sex – it can also include a range of sexual behaviours that can be physical, verbal or emotional
  • Children are usually abused by someone they know and it often starts when they are very young
  • Sexual abuse is generally not an isolated one-off incident
  • Threats, tricks or bribes may be used to keep the child from telling anyone about it
  • Child sexual abuse is against the law and a serious crime
  • It causes serious harm to children and their families
  • The effects of child sexual abuse can last a lifetime

If you believe a child is in immediate danger or a life-threatening situation call Triple Zero (000).

Types of child sexual abuse

Sexual abuse can be physical, verbal or emotional. It can include but is not limited to:

Child prostitution 

Forcing a child to watch a sexual act

Having sex with a child, including oral sex

Persistently intruding on a child’s privacy

Speaking to a child in a sexually explicit way

Showing pornography or naked pics/videos to a child

Taking pics/videos of a naked or partly naked child

Exposing genitals or being naked in front of a child

Sending sexual content to a child online or through text

Kissing, holding or touching a child in a sexual way

Asking or making a child touch genitals or perform sexual acts    

Making sexual comments to a child in person, on the phone or online

People who sexually abuse children will often engage in ‘grooming’

Grooming is a gradual process used to prepare a child for sexual abuse.

It often involves persuasive and manipulative tactics to gain the trust of a child and sometimes their caregiver by developing a bond.

It often does not start with sexually abusive touch or behaviours. It is very carefully planned and it can take place over weeks, months or even years.

It can be recognised by looking out for signs such as:

  • Singling one child out and treating them as ‘special’
  • Taking an over interest in a child and buying them gifts
  • Arranging special activities or spending extra time with them
  • Isolating a child from other adults or children
  • Encouraging a child to use alcohol and drugs
  • Insisting on physical affection even when the child doesn’t want it
  • Being exceptionally helpful in supporting a family either financially, emotionally or practically

Behavioural signs of sexual abuse

A child might not verbally tell you they have been abused but they may say or do things that provide some clues. Some behavioural signs of child sexual abuse may include:

Unexplained accumulation of money or gifts

Disordered eating or preoccupation with body

Aggression, destroying property, substance use

Excessive compliance or a desire to be overly obedient

Poor self-image, poor self-care, lack of confidence

Persistent sexual themes in drawing, stories and play

Regressive behaviours (soiling or urinating in clothing)

Running away, recklessness, suicide attempts or self-harm

Sexual behaviour or knowledge that is advanced or unusual

Sleep disturbance, fear of bedtime, nightmares, bed wetting 

Not wanting to be left alone with a particular individual/s

Excessive masturbation or masturbation in public after age 5

Changes in behaviour - withdrawn, anxious, aggressive or fearful

Unusual or repetitive soothing behaviours (hand-washing, pacing)

Difficulty concentrating, memory loss or decline in school performance

Inappropriate sexual play with themselves, other children, dolls or toys

Physical signs of sexual abuse

Children may exhibit physical signs that are clues to sexual abuse.

Some signs may include :

  • Difficulty sitting, walking, bowel problems
  • Psychosomatic illness eg. abdominal pain, headaches
  • Having torn, stained or bloody clothing - especially underwear
  • Frequent urinary tract infections or yeast infections
  • Presence of sexually transmitted infections or related symptoms
  • Bruising, injury, soreness or redness around the penis, vagina, mouth or anus

Impacts of child sexual abuse

Children may experience a range of emotional, psychological and physical problems as a result of being sexually abused. These effects can cause both short and long term issues.

Short term effects may include:

Long term effects may include:

Regressive behaviours

Suicidal ideation 

Promiscuous behaviour 

Sexual difficulties 

Sleeping and eating disorders

Post-traumatic stress

Self-harm or suicidal thoughts 

Alcohol and substance misuse 

Nightmares, zoning out or not listening

Engagement in risky behaviours

Difficulty concentrating or memory loss

Development of mental health issues

Low self-esteem or lack of self-respect

Have exceedingly high expectations about themselves

Poor attendance or performance at school 

Difficulty forming trusting and positive relationships

Anger, aggression or self-destructive behaviour

Have difficulty in identifying and expressing their needs

Increased illness, body aches or other physical complaints 

Confusion around identity, their worth and their sexuality

Keeping kids safe from sexual abuse

By teaching children about body safety, healthy body boundaries and encouraging open communication about sexual matters, you can help protect them from sexual abuse. Here are some tips to help:

Talk about body parts early – Teach your child the proper anatomical names for their body parts, such as penis, vagina or anus.

Let you child know that their body belongs to them – Talk about the difference between safe and unsafe touches and teach children they can say no to touch that makes them feel scared or uncomfortable.

Teach them that some body parts are private – Tell your child that their private parts are called private because they are not for everyone to see.

Teach your child body boundaries – Explain body boundaries and that it is not OK for anyone to touch their private parts or ask them to touch theirs.

Talk about body clues – How the body can give us warning signs when we are not feeling safe.

Tell your child that body secrets are not okay  Tell your kids that no matter what anyone tells them, secrets about their body are not ok and they should always tell you if someone tries to make them keep a body secret.

Teach your child how to get out of scary or uncomfortable situation – Such as saying ‘No’ or ‘Stop’ in a loud voice. They can also tell the person that they need to leave to go to the toilet and then find an adult to talk to.

Use appropriate resources or games – To reinforce safety messages and to help children to recognise, react and report when they don’t feel safe. Visit Keeping Kids Safe for more information.

Child protection is everyone’s business! Some adults have a legal obligation to notify authorities (these obligations differ between states and territories).

Who else can help?

If you have a reason to suspect a child is experiencing harm or is at risk of experiencing harm, contact an authority in your state or territory and talk to them about your concerns.

There is support available

We’re here to help

Encourage the child in your life to contact Kids Helpline if they need some extra support to cope with what has been happening.

You may find talking to somebody outside of the situation helpful. You could try calling Parentline in your state or territory to discuss your concerns.

For some guidance on responding to disclosures of child abuse, see our article on Responding to disclosures of child abuse.

This content was last reviewed 24/07/2018

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