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.

Conversation starters for children aged 0-4

Talking with children under four can be particularly hard. They are young and may not have the understanding you feel is necessary to deal with the topic of sexual abuse. However, using these conversation starters at an appropriate time, opens up communication in a suitable way.

Bath or shower time

This is a perfect opportunity to discuss body parts and private areas. We recommend that from birth you use the correct names for body parts and not nicknames. You could progress on to talking about areas of the body that are ‘no touch’ zones or ‘private’ parts.

You could use bath crayons to draw a silhouette of a child and show or ask the child to identify areas that belong to them. You could then ask the child where those areas are on their own bodies.

Toileting and nappy changing times

This is a naturally occurring opportunity to start a conversation about consent. It can be useful to ask permission of a child, even when they are very young, to change their nappy or give them help to use toilet. This can also apply to any other personal care that children may need.

Conversation starters for children aged 5-11

Children in this age group are starting to become more aware of their own body and paying more attention to the world around them. They are also more likely to stop talking if they feel uncomfortable with a conversation.

Using a subtle approach to talk to them opens up more conversations. Forcing them to talk may well have the opposite effect. The following advice will help you to have the conversation you need to have.

Bear in mind that children may choose to talk about issues that may seem trivial to you, but to your child they could be really important. It means that they know they can talk to you should they have any worry or concerns, including abuse.

On the way home from school

Children differ, but many are talkative and inquisitive while walking or driving home from school. This is an ideal time to approach the topic of keeping themselves safe. Using the words ‘sexual abuse’ isn’t necessary. Times when there is limited eye contact can allow children to be more relaxed and talk about difficult topics, such as being side by side walking or in the car.

Find similar examples

You could start by asking your child how to safely cross the road, and then lead the conversation into other ways of keeping safe. For example, how to keep safe from strangers, games they don’t like with other children, anybody touching them if they are uncomfortable. Also talk to your child about saying “no”. Teaching children that it is ok to say “no” to anybody touching them – even if it’s someone they love or feel close to – is so important.

Identify safe people

A child friendly activity is to draw around their hand and use each of the finger and thumb spaces to name safe and trusted people that your child

can identify with when they are worried or scared about anything. Children choosing people from different situations can offer a good level of support in many environments, such as family and school.

Talk about their fears

Talking to children about things that scare or worry them is a good thing. It opens the lines of communication between you and your children. Open discussions enable a child to have a voice and not be afraid to use it.

Conversation starters for children aged 12-16

Teenagers can be tricky to talk to. They are going through so many changes, so talking to their parents may be the last thing they want to do. However, it is important to keep those lines of communication open.

Talking with teenagers will require a different approach to talking with younger children.

Talk about sex

Talking about sex can be awkward and uncomfortable for parents and children, but it’s important pre-teens and teenagers know about sex and what a normal, healthy sexual relationship is.

Look for a naturally occurring opportunity for a discussion to present itself. We recommend that parents talk about sex with their children a little at a time and as often as possible.

A natural way to do this would be to talk to your young person about age related physical changes to their bodies and what they can expect to happen or how they may feel.

For example, talking your daughter about menstruation and what to expect. Similarly, having a conversation with your son about what changes he can expect to his body, talking about erections will open up the lines of communication for you to discuss the importance of safe sex and consent.

Watching television

Sometimes it is easier to broach a subject when your child is relaxed and watching television. We recommend choosing your time carefully, though!

You might want to think about referring to a current storyline of abuse while watching a soap opera or choose an episode of a show that has a storyline which allows for conversation.

Alternatively, you might want to look at podcasts, music (song lyrics can open up lots of topics for conversation) or social media to find your hook.

Answer their questions honestly

Often teenagers will use the internet, their friends or pornography to answer their questions about sex. However, if parents can ensure the lines of communication are always open – that it’s always okay to ask any question – then they can decide to ask you. Being open and not making a big deal of any subject can help ensure your child will talk to you. If they have a question, you should answer it as best you can or research it together.

If at first you don’t succeed…

keep trying! Teenagers can be reluctant to talk to their parents about everything, but it’s important they know they can turn to you about absolutely anything. Children need to know that they are going to be listened to without judgement.

Conversation starters for children aged 16+

This can be a difficult age to communicate with. Young people are at an age where they are more grown-up but not yet adults. Many young people over 16 won’t see the risk in many situations or will become reluctant to talk to their parents.

Be open and honest

Most young adults will appreciate their parents being open and honest about their own experiences, as well as being open about difficult situations.

This might be difficult for parents, but it’s important to remember that young people are only just finding their way in the world and still need, and very often want, help and guidance. Parents should be aware that their young person might not want to open up themselves at first, but with time and a relaxed approach, they soon will.

Treat them as a young adult

Sometimes when a young person chooses not to open up it is because they feel like they are being treated as a child. To most parents, treating their 16-year-old as a young adult might seem daunting, because in their eyes they are still a child. However, by trusting their young person and allowing them to feel respected, parents will see that they will open up to them more.

Empower them 

Let your young person know that it is okay to say “no” and that they do not need to do anything they don’t want to. Discuss peer pressure and their rights to be in charge of their own bodies. Young people may experiment sexually as they grow up but providing them with the tools to make informed decisions and the knowledge that they can confide in you is essential to their emotional and social wellbeing.

Understanding consent

It is a parent’s responsibility to have a conversation about sexual relationships and consent issues with their young person. It is vital that all young people fully understand the law in relation to sexual relationships. When young people are entering into sexual relationships they should be clear about boundaries and the decisions they take. You can find out more on the Parents Protect website.

Listen without judgement

Young people often don’t confide in their parents because they are afraid of being judged. Listening is just as important as talking with young people. Sometimes sitting quietly while a young person offloads can be just as effective as giving advice.

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.

Case study 1

A parent shares with you that her six-year-old child has been sexually abused by an older cousin who is 12-years-old.

This has already been reported to the police and an investigation is ongoing. The parent is struggling with her own feelings and worried about her child, how he will be affected by what happened and how best to help him.

Suggested advice: You should reassure the parent that it is perfectly normal to feel worried or angry in this situation. Many children experience sexual abuse and have no short-term or long-term negative consequences. Children recover best if they see their parent coping well, so they need protecting from any signs of parental distress.

Stop It Now! Wales has a guide to support parents and carers of children or young people who have experienced abuse and guide them through the investigation process. This parent might benefit from calling the Stop It Now! helpline, to provide her with information, support and reassurance, both now and into the future. You could suggest that the parent has an open conversation with her child around respectful and safe boundaries, perhaps using the NSPCC PANTS rule to help with this conversation. It is important that the parent feels supported emotionally in this situation, as that will help her child’s recovery.

Case study 2

A parent raises a worry with you that her 15-year-old son is looking at adult pornography online and has sent a sexual image to a peer.

This has already been brought to the attention of school, who notified the police. The boy received advice from the police regarding this behaviour. The parent is looking for help and support to be able to understand the behaviour and also to be better equipped to have difficult conversations about sex and relationship education and about viewing pornography.

Suggested advice: This will be a worrying time for the parent, and it is great that they are seeking advice and support. These are issues that need addressing and not ignoring, however awkward or embarrassing it may feel. It is positive that the school and police are already aware and that the police have spoken to the boy. It is important that the parent understands from their son what advice the police have given, so it can be reinforced at home.

You could encourage the parent to visit the Parents Protect website to look at ‘What’s the Problem’, a guide for parents and carers of children and young people who have got into trouble online. It tries to answer some of the immediate question’s parents may have after discovering problems in their child’s online life. It also has helpful information, advice and discussion ideas for talking to young people about pornography. There are also links to other organisations, including Family Lives, which provides information about teenagers and pornography; Internet Matters has credible advice for parents and carers on children’s online safety, and BISH UK, a guide to healthy sex and love for anyone over 14.

The experienced advisors on the Stop It Now! helpline can also help parents and professionals in this situation. It is a safe and confidential place for adults to call and discuss any worries, and you don’t have to give them your real name or any contact details.

Case study 3

A parent of three children (4, 9 and 11 years old) is worried that some of their play behaviour isn’t age-appropriate.

The parent is unsure about what behaviours are and are not age appropriate for her different children. The 9 and 11-year-old have more sexual awareness than the 4-year-old and have been overheard using rude words and engaging in roleplay games.

Suggested advice: The parent should be praised for seeking help and advice from you. The Parents Protect traffic light tool will help in this situation. These resources give guidance and information to help understand the difference between healthy and developmentally expected sexual exploration and play in children of different ages and behaviours that are not appropriate and can harm others or themselves. You could use the traffic light leaflets to start a conversation about what worrying behaviours the parent has seen in their children and how they could respond in future.

Many families have these concerns and so it might be useful for the parent to share the traffic light leaflets with family and friends.

Case study 4

The mother of a four-year-old boy tells you that her partner has been convicted of viewing extreme pornography and sexual images of children.

He has received a two-year suspended prison sentence and placed on the sex offenders register for ten years. He is also meeting with his probation officer on a weekly basis. The parents are not able to live together right now, but the mother is worried about the impact the conviction is having on her and her child.

Suggested advice: Discovering that a loved one has been viewing sexual images of children can be distressing and confusing, and often leaves those affected feeling incredibly isolated or even traumatised. You should advise the parent to contact the Stop It Now! helpline where they can get confidential support from experienced advisors who speak to hundreds of people in this position each year. You could also show them the Stop It Now! website, which has a vital information for people in this situation, and hosts a forum for families affected by the arrest of a loved one for their offending behaviour.

It is great that the parent sought your support with this sensitive situation. There will likely be a number of challenges and dilemmas to face over the weeks and months ahead, and it is best if places of ongoing support can be identified now.

It is important that the parent feels supported emotionally in this situation, both to meet her own needs but also to help her son to thrive. In these circumstances you could also consider a referral into the Stop It Now! Wales Early Intervention programme.

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.
Back to top