How abuse happens

Who abuses children?

To keep children safe, we must face the reality that any child can be sexually abused.

People who sexually abuse children could be anyone. They come from all backgrounds, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, and sexes and can be married or single. They can be parents, grandparents, family friends or even other young people. They might abuse children because they want a feeling of power and control. They might know the abuse is wrong and feel unhappy about it. Or they might think their behaviour is okay and shows that they love the child.

Most people who sexually abuse children do not fit the stereotypes. They are often very ordinary, as well as intelligent and sociable. This makes them difficult to recognise. They may abuse their children, or those within their wider family, the children of friends and neighbours, or children they meet through their jobs or volunteer role.

Many people that sexually abuse children not only build relationships with them but also with their families. They are able to get close to children to have the opportunity to abuse them and to keep a child silenced. This could include offering to babysit for a family, building relationships with a particular child or presenting themselves as a responsible adult to children. The process of building trust with adults in order to harm children is called grooming and can go on for years before a disclosure is made.

Why don’t children talk about abuse?

Children don’t talk about abuse for a variety of reasons. They may be reluctant to talk about any concerns they have about another adult or child’s behaviour. This is why it’s important that children feel able to talk to a trusted adult in their life.

Children can make disclosures in many different ways, and as supportive adults, we might notice changes in their behaviour before they say anything. The process of the disclosure can be verbal or non-verbal and happen over a long period of time. It is often a journey, not one act or action. Practitioners and protective adults should always take children seriously when they try to share or make sense of their experiences.

For more information about dealing with disclosures, the NSPCC has a video resource you can watch. Most of the time, the only people who know that sexual abuse has taken place are the victim and the person abusing them. There are rarely any witnesses to speak on behalf of the child.

Starting conversations with children

We have advice on how to talk to children of different age groups about sexual abuse. Please click on the age group you’d like to receive advice on.

What stops children from disclosing?

There are many reasons why children don’t tell anyone about abuse. They might be dependent on the person abusing them or be a close family relative, friend, foster carer, boyfriend or girlfriend. They may be afraid of losing the relationship they have with the person who is sexually abusing them and may feel the need to protect them if they are a family member. For example, a child may really love their grandad, but fear the physical or sexual abuse that happens.

Sometimes children and young people feel like they haven’t got anybody they can talk to, or they can trust. This could be because of difficulties at home or because the child is socially isolated. They might feel their parents will react badly or that they won’t be listened to. Sometimes people who sexually abuse children will threaten a child or make the child believe they can’t trust others or that they won’t be believed if they tell.

Children and young people are often embarrassed and can blame themselves for the abuse they have experienced. This embarrassment and guilt often result in the child or young person not wanting their parents to find out and so they don’t tell anyone.

People who sexually abuse children might threaten and intimidate the child into silence. If they are threatening to hurt or abuse someone the child loves or respects, the child often keeps quiet to protect them. The person sexually abusing the child may also threaten further harm to them.

Children and young people may not understand that what is happening is wrong. Young children or children with a disability or additional needs may have limited understanding.

Children sometimes have difficulties communicating with adults which can make it harder for them to disclose abuse. Children with English as a second language may also face barriers to verbally disclose abuse.

What can make a child more vulnerable?

Children who are sexually abused come from all backgrounds. But some children are more at risk than others because of previous experiences, their home life or isolation.

There are also other risks to LGBTQ+ children, those from ethnic minority backgrounds or those who have learning disabilities. Leaflets are available for parents, carers and practitioners in English and Welsh, as well as 12 additional languages and easy read versions.

You can download the ‘What we all need to know’ leaflet in our resources section. The leaflet is available in multiple languages as well as easy read versions.

The impact of child sexual abuse

Adverse childhood experiences are traumatic events, particularly those in early childhood, that significantly affect the health and wellbeing of people. These experiences range from being raised in a household where domestic violence, alcohol abuse, parental separation or drug abuse is present to suffering verbal, mental, physical or sexual abuse (Public Health Wales, 2015). 

To understand more about different adverse childhood experiences, you can visit the topics area of the Public Health Wales website

Child sexual abuse affects different children in different ways. For some children the impact isn’t immediately clear. Other children display a range of emotions and behaviours. Abuse can have lasting and damaging effects on some children.

However, children who experience abuse but are made to feel safe and supported by protective adults can and do go on to recover and lead normal, happy and fulfilled lives. 

Children who experience trauma aren’t always traumatised. However, moving into adulthood some people struggle to form healthy relationships and suffer mental and physical health difficulties.

How a child copes with sexual abuse depends on them being believed, heard, and receiving support from family or friends and access to services.

Some of the effects of abuse that children and adults can experience include:

  • anger issues
  • anxiety or depression
  • low self-esteem
  • eating disorders
  • self-harming
  • suicidal thoughts
  • worrying that the person abusing them is still a threat to themselves or others
  • learning difficulties or lower educational attainment, difficulties in communicating
  • displaying obsessive behaviours (OCD)
  • poor general physical health
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • drug or alcohol dependency
  • disturbing thoughts (feelings triggered by new events) with memories that can cause distress or confusion
  • struggling with parenting
  • trouble developing healthy and positive relationships as an adult
  • behavioural problems including anti-social behaviour and criminal behaviour.
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