Sexual abuse is sexual interaction with or exploitation of a child by an adult, or by another child when there is a difference in power or age. The abuse can include actual physical contact, or behaviors that involve the child without physical contact (such as inappropriately viewing a child who is undressing or exposing a child to pornography).
Sexual abuse is especially challenging to identify and prevent; it almost always occurs in secret and happens more often than we would like to believe. However, many helpful resources are available to equip parents and other adults to protect children.
Preventing sexual abuse
As homeschooling parents, we know that educating our children well is a key to their success in life. We won't always be able to keep them close by, so from their earliest years we begin teaching them how to function independently from us.
Sexuality is no exception. Proactively providing children with age-appropriate information accomplishes two things: it helps them sense when they are in a sexually inappropriate situation, and it helps them feel comfortable talking with you about any confusing or harmful situations they may experience. Educating your children in this area falls into three categories.
The birds and the bees: Give your children age-appropriate information about sex. Even the youngest children can learn the names of body parts and that it’s not okay for other people to touch the parts of their bodies that would be covered by a bathing suit (except for medical professionals, etc.). Without this basic information, a child may be unable to recognize or disclose abuse.
With each stage of maturity, there is a natural progression in the type of sexual information that is important for children to learn. For parents teaching what can be an awkward subject, it helps to remember that you are the ideal person to be providing this guidance. Children receive many confusing messages about sexuality from the media, church, and other children. They look to their parents to help them make sense of this information.
Stranger danger—and friendly foes: Children need to know about “stranger danger”—they should never go anywhere with a stranger or be alone with someone they don’t know. But they also need to know how to respond if someone they trust begins acting inappropriately toward them: say no, leave the situation, and get help from a safe adult.
Parents, please understand that sexual abuse can happen in your family, church, or community. Most sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone the victim knows. This could be a parent, sibling, relative, friend, neighbor, or church member. Know the risks and be discerning about whom you allow to supervise or be alone with your child. Maintain open, caring communication with your child, and be aware of the warning signs of possible abuse.
Healthy relationships, healthy boundaries: Your children absorb their most basic understanding of love, relationships, and sexuality from the way you and your spouse interact with each other and with them. If your children see their parents treating each other with deep respect and love, they will have a stronger understanding of how to relate with others. Talk with your children about relationships. Keep the lines of communication open so they feel comfortable asking questions and seeking guidance for their own lives.
You can also model and teach healthy boundaries, strengthening your child’s ability to understand his or her own emotions and needs and to say no when someone violates his or her limits. (For example, some families do not require their children to show physical affection to adults outside the immediate family if they feel uncomfortable doing so.)
How you discipline your children can impact their boundary development. Some discipline methods—such as those that demand instant, total obedience or rely on excessive punishment—hinder the development of good boundaries, instead training children to automatically do whatever they are told even if it harms them. For discipline advice that supports healthy boundaries, see our Additional Resources.
Responding to abuse
Sexual abuse is a crime that gravely harms its victims. If you believe your own or someone else's child is being sexually abused, please notify the police.
Sometimes children tell someone that they are being abused. Or they may disclose abuse unintentionally—such as in a conversation about something else—and may not know that what they are experiencing is abuse. You may suspect abuse even if the child has not disclosed anything. (For a list of abuse indicators, see “Warning Signs in Children and Adolescents of Possible Child Sexual Abuse.”)
In any case, it is important to remain calm, respond with compassion, and take action on the child’s behalf.
If a child has disclosed abuse to you, reassure the child that the abuse is not his or her fault and that it was okay to tell you about it. You can find out more by asking simple questions (“Who did this to you?” “What did they do?”). However, remember that children can be easily confused by complex or leading questions. Simple do’s and don’ts for talking with a child about possible abuse are available here and here.
If the abuser is another child, or if two children are interacting sexually and you are concerned the situation may be abusive, you can find relevant answers in Do Children Sexually Abuse Other Children? Preventing Sexual Abuse among Children and Youth. If you have observed an adult interacting with a child in a way that could be inappropriate, you may wish to speak directly with the adult. Let’s Talk: Adults Talking to Adults about Child Sexual Abuse provides guidelines for this approach.
Preventing and responding to child abuse can feel overwhelming. However, there is no one more qualified than you, a concerned adult, to help safeguard and guide the children in your life. You can teach and model healthy relational behavior, and you can help if a child has been victimized. Thank you for your courage and concern.
Do you need help right away?
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline
Call 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) and press 1 to speak with a hotline counselor 24/7. All calls are anonymous. The hotline counselors do not report abuse, but can tell you how to get help in your local area. For more information about the hotline, visit Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline or Help for Kids.
Focus on the Family
Focus on the Family offers a wealth of resources ranging from education to help for families in crisis. Visit Focus on the Family or call 1-855-771-HELP (4357), Monday through Friday, 6:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m. Mountain Time to speak with Focus on the Family Help Center counselors.
If there is an emergency, please call 911.
Please note: Nothing on this webpage constitutes the giving of legal advice. By including links to other websites, HSLDA does not endorse all the information found on those sites.