Sexual abuse of a child by an adult or older adolescent can be crippling and have life-long effects. Learning how to recognize child sexual abuse and respond effectively as parents and caregivers, and later as adult partners, can help empower and facilitate healing for survivors.

Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse involves an adult or older and more powerful adolescent’s deliberate exposure of a child to sexual activity for his/her own gratification. Children can never legally consent to sexual acts. (See age of consent). Sexual abuse can involve direct contact, but may also happen through behaviours that don’t involve physical contact. Abuse may consist of a single incident or many acts over a long period of time.

Contact sexual abuse can involve:

  • Touching or fondling a child’s breasts, vagina, penis, butt
  • Oral sex
  • Vaginal or anal penetration with a part of the body (e.g. finger, penis) or with an object

Non-contact sexual abuse can involve:

  • Asking children to touch another person’s genitals, or their own
  • Voyeurism – watching a child undress or use the bathroom
  • Encouraging or forcing a child to masturbate, or to watch others masturbate
  • Deliberately exposing an adult’s genitals to a child
  • Involving children in the viewing or production of pornography, or in watching sexual activities
  • Encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways
  • Taking photos of children naked, or in a sexualized pose

Most sexual abusers are known by the victim, and so the child is often trapped between their loyalty towards the abuser and the sense that what is happening is wrong. Children may be afraid to tell someone because:

  • They’re afraid of getting in trouble, being judged, or are feeling ashamed
  • They worry that no one will believe them
  • They are afraid for themselves, or someone they love, due to threats from the abuser
  • They don’t want to see their family break up
  • They worry about losing love

Children may be abused in many ways including:

  • A relationship involving one abuser and one victim
  • Group sex – with one or more abusers and one or more victims
  • Sex rings
  • Child pornography
  • Prostitution or human trafficking
  • Abuse as part of a ritual

Sexual abusers may groom children so that they are less likely to disclose the abuse. Abusers may:

  • Exploit the child’s affection or adoration for them. While children can be lured by strangers, most perpetrators are someone the child knows;
  • Take advantage of their position of authority and trust to intimidate or coerce children into sexual activities. This includes coaches, clergy, scout leaders, or parents of children that youth babysit;
  • Bribe, entice and manipulate children with candy, money, drugs, alcohol, video games, cell phones or other technology, to engage in sexual contact and activity;
  • Use compliments to make the child feel special, beautiful and unique;
  • Make offers of special privileges, job offers, fame or fortune;
  • Suggest seemingly innocent contact games, like tickling or wrestling, to facilitate sexual contact;
  • Use other children or youth to encourage or coerce a child into an abusive situation;
  • Expose children to pornography to normalize sexual activity between adults and children or youth;
  • Blackmail or threaten children into cooperation or silence;
  • Use drugs or alcohol to incapacitate or seduce children;
  • Entice children online through chat rooms, video games, or Facebook;
  • Appeal to an adolescent or teen’s sense of maturity or rebellion to engage them in sexual activity.

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse

Signs of abuse can manifest in childhood or in adulthood.

Physical Signs

  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Bloody, torn, or stained underwear
  • Bleeding, bruises, or swelling in genital area
  • Pain, itching, or burning in genital area
  • Frequent urinary or yeast infections
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Pregnancy

Behavioral Signs

  • Inappropriate sexual knowledge for age or development
  • Inappropriate sexualized behaviour
  • Nightmares or bed-wetting
  • Large weight changes/major changes in appetite
  • Suicide attempts or self-harming, especially in adolescents
  • Threatened by physical contact
  • Runs away
  • Overly protective and concerned for siblings
  • Post- traumatic stress disorder
  • Acting out aggressively, or harming others
  • At-risk behaviours as teens or adults, including having too many or unsafe sexual partners
  • Difficulty setting safe and healthy boundaries.
  • Being unable to say no to people

Common Reactions

  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Depression and lack of interest in things a child used to love
  • Sleeping and eating disorders
  • Self-harm through cutting, substance abuse, and others
  • Phobias
  • Psychosomatic symptoms like stomachaches or headaches
  • School problems like absences or a drop in grades
  • Poor hygiene or excessive bathing
  • Anxiety
  • Feelings of guilt or shame
  • Regressive behaviors like thumb-sucking or bed wetting

PTSD in Children

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in children and adolescents may occur as a result of one or more major traumatic events including sexual assault or abuse. Some of the common PTSD symptoms include:

  • Re-experiencing the trauma through nightmares or flashbacks
  • Avoiding memories or situations that remind the child of the abuse
  • Sleep problems
  • Emotional numbing
  • Increased vigilance and attentiveness to environmental signs and sounds, anxiety and concern for safety (hyper-vigilance)
  • Inhibited behaviour
  • Regression from current developmental stage like wetting the bed or sucking a thumb
  • Trouble with physical contact

Children may re-experience traumatic events through:

  • Flashbacks and memories
  • Reenacting the abuse or enacting it through play

Crisis intervention can provide comfort and support, let children know their reactions are normal, and teach calming and problem solving skills to deal with their feelings. For some children, PTSD symptoms may go away on their own over time. However some children may need professional support and treatment to help them mitigate the effects of PTSD. Trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is just one treatment method that has been effective in helping children. CBT helps children to learn to change their thoughts and beliefs about the trauma.

When Parents or Caregivers Deny or Minimize the Abuse

Having a child tell you that they have been sexually abused can be devastating. Parents and caregivers can feel tremendous guilt that they didn’t protect their child or foresee the abuse. In some cases however when children disclose, parents or caregivers minimize or deny the abuse happened at all. This can happen for many reasons:

  • Denial is a powerful defense mechanism. If the non-abusive partner or family member is dependent on the abuser, frightened of him or her, or wants to maintain the relationship with the abuser, they may fail to act to prevent the abuse or even deny it ever happened.
  • Sometimes both the abuser and their partner can be mentally ill and get pleasure out of treating children abusively or seeing them suffer.
  • Chronic drug or alcohol use can lower inhibitions and enable parents or caregivers to justify the abuse.
  • Parents raised in strict and abusive environments may repeat the pattern again when they are parents. The cycle of abuse becomes normalized and continues.
  • A parent may be a survivor of abuse themselves and weren’t helped as a child
  • Non-offending parents or caregivers may not know how to help or feel incredibly guilty for the abuse
  • A parent may have been threatened by the abuser
  • Parents may be worried about what other people will think or what will happen to them as a family

Having parents minimize or deny the abuse can be devastating for kids. And, this is amplified when parents or caregivers blame a child for the abuse, or accuse them of “seducing” their abuser. As a result, children can feel depressed, angry, confused, numb, or may even harm themselves. It may also heighten feelings of powerlessness and increase their risk of further victimization in the future.

How to Support a Child Who Has Been Sexually Abused

If a child tells you that he or she has been abused, try to stay calm. Reassure the child that what happened is not her fault, that you believe him, that you are proud of her for telling you (or another person), and that you are there to keep him safe. Take your child to your family doctor or Regional Sexual Assault Centre. Some cities may also have child and youth advocacy centres where a child and her family can get help. These centres interview children and family members in a sensitive, warm, caring, and safe place. They can help you report the abuse to police, and often do forensic examination and counselling. And, they can link children to other programs and services within the community. As a parent or caregiver, you may also need counselling or other kinds of support, and you may want to consider getting help for yourself.

Important to remember:

  • Give support and love to your child
  • Actively listen to your child
  • Tell your child that you believe him or her
  • Thank them for trusting you and coming to you with their story. Let them know they did the right thing by telling you what happened.
  • Accept that you won’t be able to “fix it”, however you can support your child on their journey
  • Try to control your own emotions and focus on the needs of your child. Only share your feelings when it’s appropriate to do so.
  • Don’t force your child to talk about the abuse if they don’t want to
  • Don’t blame your child or make them feel responsible for the abuse. It is never a child’s fault.
  • Don’t judge your child no matter what they tell you
  • Don’t try to hasten the healing process and don’t tell them to “get over it”. Trauma and grief have their own timetable.
  • Try to minimize the disruption in your child’s life – familiar routines can help children feel safe
  • Ask permission before you touch him or her
  • Know your limits and when to seek outside help
  • Take care of yourself
  • Be patient and positive
  • Tell them if something important is happening that they need to know
  • Keep to yourself anything that may be especially upsetting for them or that may impede their healing

Duty to Report

In Ontario, as in other jurisdictions, if a person has reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is, or may be, in need of protection they have a duty to report directly to a Children’s Aid Society. This is an ongoing obligation with any child in need of protection. This applies to any form of abuse and neglect, including sexual abuse where:

  • A child has been sexually molested or sexually exploited by a parent or caregiver or by another person, or where they should know of the possibility of sexual abuse and they fail to protect the child.
  • There is risk that the child is likely to be sexually abused or exploited
  • The child needs medical treatment to cure, prevent or alleviate harm or suffering and the child’s parent or caregiver doesn’t provide it, refuses to provide it, or is unavailable or unable to consent to treatment.
  • The perpetrator is less than 12 years old and the child’s parent or caregiver is unavailable or unable to consent to services and treatment, refuses to provide them, or if the abuse is a result of the parent or caregiver’s failure or inability to supervise the child adequately.

Age of Consent

The Criminal Code of Canada was amended in 2008 and the age of consent for sexual activity is now 16 years old. By law, adults (18 or older) may not legally have sexual relations with anyone under 16.

Peer group exceptions apply for those youth close in age to make sure that the law doesn’t label consensual sexual activities between young people as criminal offences. It is not a criminal offence if:

  • A young person aged 14-15 consents to sexual activity with someone less than 5 years older;
  • A young person aged 12 or 13 consents to sexual activity with someone less than 2 years older.

These exceptions only apply if the older person is not in a position of authority or trust over a younger child, and there is no exploitation or coercion.

By law, adults may not legally have sexual relations with a person aged 16 or 17 within a relationship of trust, authority, dependency, or where there is other exploitation. This could include coaches, teachers, and employers, among others. As well, 16 and 17 year olds can’t consent to sexual activity that involves prostitution or pornography.

The law is clear that young people under the age of 12 can not give consent at all. Ever.

Sexual activity includes any sexual behaviour, from touching for a sexual purpose (kissing, for example), to sexual intercourse.

Sexual exploitation happens when someone older, or in a position of trust or authority, takes advantage of a younger or more vulnerable person for sexual purposes.

A sexual relationship can be exploitative even if the young person is older than 16. The age of the individual, the age difference between the people, how the relationship developed, and the amount of control or influence the older person has over the younger person are all considered when deciding if a sexual relationship is exploitative: It’s a crime to involve people under the age of 18 in exploitative sexual activity, including prostitution and pornography.

Families of Sexual Abuse Survivors

Family members of child sexual abuse survivors are often ill equipped to cope with the aftermath of abuse, and can feel at a loss to know how to support the child in addition to dealing with their own feelings of anger, grief, and loss.

There is no right or wrong way to respond to a disclosure of sexual abuse. Family and friends may feel:

  • Shock and disbelief – sometimes it’s hard to accept what you’re hearing so you may try to find other explanations to explain the reality of what you’re being told
  • Powerlessness – you may feel overwhelmed and powerless to “fix” the situation
  • Anger – you may feel outraged at the reality of your child having been sexually abused, and you may acutely feel their vulnerability and pain
  • Guilt – you may blame yourself for not knowing what was happening, like you let him or her down, that you should have recognized the signs or better understood what your child was trying to tell you
  • Frustration – you may feel frustrated by the legal process, with the sentence that the perpetrator received, or in trying to find the right services to help your child
  • Shame – you may feel deep shame and worry about people thinking you’re a bad parent for not protecting your child
  • Fear – you may be afraid if the abuser has threatened to harm you, your family, or the child again
  • Grief and loss – you may feel tremendous grief about the loss of innocence of your child, less trust in the world, impaired feelings of safety, or reduced confidence as a parent

Feelings may become confusing and overwhelming, and each person responds differently. Child sexual abuse is not just a crisis for the child, but can be a devastating experience for non-abusing parents and other family members. Parents, caregivers and other family members may need professional support and counselling to deal with their feelings, in order to be able to appropriately support the abused child. Some communities have support groups or networks of families whose children have been sexually abused. Connecting with them can provide important support and help families understand that they are not alone. Feel free not to share the details with anyone who doesn’t need to know, but look to friends or family members whom you trust and who can support you. Trust yourself. Don’t let feelings of shame, guilt or inadequacy consume you and make you forget all the strengths and positives in your family life and your relationship with your child. Remember to put the blame where it belongs – on the perpetrator. Then, try to be patient and positive.

Partners of Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse

If your partner has disclosed that they were sexually abused as a child, you might feel angry and powerless, especially if he or she is just beginning to come to terms with it. Childhood sexual abuse can profoundly impact intimate relationships, and survivors often have trouble with intimacy, trust, and boundaries, in addition to experiencing addictions and depression, among other things. This can take a toll on the relationships of survivors and the people who love them.

Recovery can take a long time – in fact, for most survivors it’s a lifetime process – and sometimes things can get worse before they get better. A partner can feel adrift and on the outside of the healing process, and may feel like an ineffective spectator.

Helping someone you love come to terms with their sexual abuse can be a difficult and emotional process. As a support person, it’s important to take care of yourself and recognize your limits. You may want to connect with a support network, close family or friends, or a helping professional, if you’re having a hard time and need some assistance.

Things that might help:

  • Accept your partner for who they are and where they are in their healing journey. Don’t pressure him or her to “move on” or “get better”
  • Always create safety in a conversation or an intimate situation. Take a break if things get too intense or if your partner is struggling in the moment.
  • Try not to take things personally if your partner is angry, or if he or she rejects intimacy or closeness, as their anger is likely about the abuser.
  • Listen attentively and try not to judge or blame your partner. If you’re not sure what to say then remain silent
  • Try to stay in the moment and deal with the issue before you, rather than being overwhelmed by the stress and immensity of the issue. Be creative, open and sensitive to your partner.
  • Supporting a survivor requires a lot of emotional energy and you won’t always get everything right. Try to keep perspective and remain optimistic.
  • Remember that you’re on the journey of healing together. This can bring a couple closer together with shared learning, acceptance, and growth.