This post was written by Sakshi Kapur, PsyD, Post-Doctoral Psychology Resident.
Child sexual abuse (CSA) is an adverse childhood experience that has a significant impact on how one thinks, acts and feels throughout their lifetime, with both short- and long-term physical and mental health consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) define CSA as, “The involvement of a child (person less than 18 years old) in sexual activity that violates the laws or social taboos of society and that he/she:
- does not fully comprehend
- does not consent to
- is unable to give informed consent to
- is not developmentally prepared for and cannot give consent to
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reports that there are an estimated 42 million survivors of CSA in the United States. Statistics show that 1 in 10 children in this country will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. While these numbers paint a bleak picture, there are things we can do to prevent CSA from happening, starting with education and awareness.
Education and empowerment
Talking to children about CSA is a crucial prevention strategy. In addition to teaching children about stranger danger, parents have to consider the harsh reality that a threat could come from a family member, friend or peer. According to the HHS, 91% of the reported cases of CSA are perpetrated by someone the child knows, and a 2020 study by Gewirtz-Meydan, A. and Finkelhor, D. found that approximately 70% of the children who report being sexually abused, were victimized by their peers.
Teaching kids the difference between safe and unsafe touch and their body autonomy, as well as identifying who the safe adults are in their life and empowering them with the confidence to trust their gut can go a long way in keeping them safe.
It’s also important to discuss boundaries. Parents should never insist or force their child to give hugs or kisses to any relative or adult family and friends. When forcing a child to show affection, the implicit message that gets communicated to them is that they are not in control of their bodies, and affection and love are conditional. There are multiple ways of showing respect and affection that do not involve physical touch. Creating a rule or an expectation for children that they are in charge of their bodies and do not have to engage in physical contact is an excellent way to teach them body autonomy and healthy boundaries.
Parents should also intervene on behalf of their child if they hear a relative or family friend say something like, “I won’t let you have a cookie unless you give me a hug first.” A caregiver can step in and remind the child that they don’t have to do it. They can also give them options like “Would you like to give a hug, or do you prefer just to wave goodbye?” It should be made clear to the child that it’s okay for them to say no. Parents may need to educate friends, family members and other visitors about how they don’t force affection, and that they should respect the child's decision if they decline physical contact.
Responding to disclosures about sexual abuse
Often, children don’t disclose sexual abuse right after it happens because of the fear, shame and confusion associated with it. This is particularly important to keep in mind when the perpetrator is known to the child, because children may feel guilty about ‘tattling’ on the individual. A recent analysis of the research on child sexual abuse identified six specific factors that help children decide to disclose the abuse to a trusted adult: (1) access to someone they can trust (2) realizing sexual abuse is not normal (3) an inability to cope with the emotional distress (4) wanting something to be done about it (5) expecting to be believed and (6) being asked about it directly.
Having access to safe adults and how adults respond to such disclosures are two of the most important factors that impact how children will heal from the trauma. Letting children know the abuse is never their fault, that they aren’t responsible for what happened, that they are loved and will be protected, and that they’re incredibly brave for sharing this information are all extremely crucial when there is any disclosure of sexual abuse.
Know local, state and national resources for CSA prevention and intervention
Often, perpetrators of CSA count on the stigma and shame surrounding sexual abuse in order to keep it a secret. Reporting the abuse to the appropriate authorities is an extremely important part of both intervention and prevention because it removes any semblance of secrecy by shedding light on the problem.
If you witness a child being harmed or see evidence of abuse, it’s extremely important you report it to the Department of Child Services by calling 1-800-800-5556 or to the local police by calling 911.
- The National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800.656.HOPE (4673), provides access to professionals from your local sexual assault service provider who are trained to help.
- Call or text the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline, 800-4-A-CHILD(4454) any time, 24/7, to be connected with a trained volunteer who can help you through the process of reporting the crime.
- CDC fact sheet
- CDC prevention packet
Gewirtz-Meydan, A., & Finkelhor, D. (2020). Sexual Abuse and Assault in a Large National Sample of Children and Adolescents. Child Maltreatment, 25(2), 203–214.
The US department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration of Children, Youth, & Families, Children’s Beaurau. (2022). Child Maltreatment 2020. Available from https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/data-research/child-maltreatment
World Health Organization. (2003). Guidelines for medico-legal care for victims of sexual violence. Geneva, Swtizerland