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Definitions of Abuse

Definitions of Abuse


Children should not be responsible for preventing sexual abuse. Adults should be. Whatever kids can do to protect themselves is great, but children do not have the understanding of the world necessary to ward off all danger from adults who want to take advantage of them. After all, we teach our children to obey adults.

A child may be reluctant to disclose abuse out of fear that they had somehow caused the abuse or did something bad to deserve the abuse. Children need help and support to understand they didn’t do anything wrong and the abuse was not their fault.

Questions like, “why didn’t you…” or “didn’t I tell you…” may communicate to your child that she/he is in some way responsible for the abuse. Although some questions and reactions are normal and understandable, you will want to help your child not blame him/herself.

Remember that your child may have said “no” and the offender did not listen, or told him/her things like: “You really like it or you wouldn’t be here.” “If you haven’t told already, who is going to believe you now?” “You went along with it before, you can’t get out of it now.”


To help your child understand that the abuse was not his/her fault, you can explain that some things are a child’s fault. It is your fault if….

  • You don’t feed the dog when it is your chore
  • You don’t keep your room clean so you can’t find your shoes
  • You leave your jacket at the baseball field and don’t find it until the next day after it rains
  • You fail a test because you didn’t study

It is not your fault if….

  • You fail a test because something bad happened to you and you couldn’t concentrate
  • There’s an earthquake
  • Your mother (or father, or stepmother, or grandmother, or babysitter) catches the flu
  • You get tripped while you are running
  • You do what an adult says and then find out he was tricking you
  • You like special attention and like being held

Adapted from: Adams, Caren, and Fay, Jennifer (1998). Helping Your Child Recover from Sexual Abuse. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.
Why children don’t disclose

Children may not disclose sexual abuse because they:

  • Fear punishment
  • Are physically, psychologically, or emotionally dependent on the abuser
  • Feel ashamed
  • Made an agreement with the offender to keep the secret (due to bribery, threats, etc.)
  • Fear they won’t be believed
  • Fear the offender will hurt another loved one if they tell
  • Feel guilty (the child assumes he/she is at fault)
  • Fear it will destroy the family
  • They are ignorant of the consequences
  • They are confused about what happened
  • They have blocked the memory (as a form of self-protection)
  • They do not have the words, concepts, or ability to articulate what happened.

Myths about child sexual abuse

Myth: Sexual abuse is rare and isolated.
Fact: As many as one in six boys, and one in four girls will be sexually molested before the age of 18.

Myth: Children are molested by strangers.
Fact: Over 90% of the perpetrators are known by the child and/or the parents

Myth: All sexual abusers are male.
Fact: The majority of sexual abusers are male, but the number of reported female abusers is increasing

Myth: Sexual abusers are violent, aggressive, senile or mentally ill.
Fact: Victimizers do not always possess those characteristics or illnesses; many are considered “normal” by family, friends, and co-workers. You would not necessarily recognize a child molester when you saw one.

Myth: Children often make up stories about sexual abuse.
Fact: Less than 2% of sexual abuse cases are made up by the child.

Myth: Victims of sexual abuse are always female.
Fact: About 55% of the victims are female and 45% male; however, studies report that reports of sexual abuse of boys is increasing.

Children always feel negatively about their abuser.
Fact: Children often have a close relationship with their abuser and may want to protect the perpetrator

Myth: Children usually tell about the abuse.
Fact: Children rarely tell, and when they do it is often delayed or they may appear tentative.

Signs of possible sexual abuse

A single indicator is not evidence of child abuse. Many children exhibit multiple indicators for a variety of reasons, not necessarily due to abuse.
Children 18 months and under:

  • Urinary and bowel problems.
  • Fretful behavior.
  • Flat affect.
  • Lacerations of sex organs.
  • Bleeding, discharge, or odors from sex organs.
  • Inappropriate fears of adults.
  • Fear of being abandoned.
  • Excessive clinging behavior, or the opposite.
  • Failure to thrive
  • Excessive crying
  • Extreme behavior change.
  • Sleep disturbance.

Toddlers and Preschool:

  • Fear of particular adult or specific places
  • Sex play with toys.
  • Poor peer relationships.
  • Lacerations of sex organs
  • Bleeding or discharge from sex organs.
  • Depersonalization.
  • Fear, guilt, or anxiety.
  • Regressive or non-age appropriate behavior
  • Increase in genital play
  • Toileting issues.
  • Fear of refusal.
  • New problems in bowel or bladder control
  • Sexual acting out that is age inappropriate
  • Advanced knowledge of detailed adult sexual activity.

School Age Children:

  • Sleep disturbances.
  • School problems.
  • Poor peer relationships (feel older than peers do).
  • Depersonalization.
  • School phobias.
  • Anorexia.
  • Role confusion.
  • Self-blame
  • Fear.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Wish for normal family.
  • Responsible for family.
  • Running away.


  • School problems
  • Drug and/or alcohol use.
  • Clinical depression.
  • Promiscuity
  • Prostitution
  • Pregnancy
  • Suicide attempts.
  • Overly compliant behavior.
  • Poor body image.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Self-harming behavior.

Common reaction to traumatic events, a normal response to an abnormal situation

The feelings and reactions below are normal and natural, even though they many seem unusual and different. As individuals, we all respond differently. The memory will always be a part of your life – the incident cannot be erased. Everyone moves at their own pace through the stages of crisis and healing – everyone has their own clock. For some people there may be on going problems.


  • Confusion Memory problems Change in appetite
  • Fatigue Religious confusion Flashbacks
  • Sleep disturbances Low resistance to illness Regression
  • Loss of trust Anniversary difficulties Despair
  • Frustration Alcohol and drug abuse Anxiety
  • Depression Anger Outrage
  • Grief Fear Excessive use of sick leave
  • Insecurity Feeling inadequate Feeling overwhelmed
  • Numbness Suicidal thoughts Concentration problems
  • Withdrawal Gallows humor Difficulty returning to normal activity level
  • Irritability Crying Guilt


  • Talk about what happened.
  • Talk about your feelings.
  • Don’t second-guess your response to – trauma we can always think of what others or we could have done differently
  • Take care of yourself physically – balanced diet, rest, exercise, maintain a routine
  • Avoid use of drugs and/or alcohol – medication should be taken sparingly and only under supervision of a physician – substances may be addictive and interfere with the healing process.
  • If symptoms persist seek a consultation from a mental health professional.

The secret of sexual abuse

Children are usually afraid to tell anyone that they have been sexually abused. Sometimes the abuser has threatened them. Often children are confused about why an adult would abuse them and worry that they themselves are to blame. Young children, in particular, often assume their parents know everything and that they would stop the abuse if it were wrong. When the abuser is a family member, children worry about what will happen to their family if the abuse is disclosed. As a result of any of these reasons, sexual abuse often remains a secret for a period of time. Some children keep the secret well into their adult lives; some may never tell at all.
Learning to recognize sexual abuse

Frequently, parents may first become aware of their child’s sexual abuse when they notice changes in their child’s behavior. It is usual for a child who has been sexually abused to show behavior problems either at home or in school. At home, children may become withdrawn and depressed, or may become overactive and belligerent. There may be noticeable changes in their child’s eating and sleeping behavior, and in how they get along with family members and friends. At school, a child who has been sexually abused may begin to exhibit acting-out problems, accompanied by a decrease in school performance. Children will often regress in their behaviors, that is, go back to behaviors more typical of when they were younger (e.g. a child may begin to suck their thumb again after having stopped).

Signs which may indicate sexual abuse:

  • Fears of certain places, people, or activities.
  • Nightmares or bedwetting.
  • Acting out sexually or show knowledge of interest in sex that is not appropriate for the child’s age.
  • Acting younger than he/she is.
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches.
  • Destructive behavior to self and/or others.
  • Forces other children to be sexual
  • Poor schoolwork and frequent absences
  • Shame about his/her body.Changes in behavior (mood swings, clinging, or withdrawal, etc.).
  • Loss of self-respect
  • Discomfort in genital area (bruises, torn, stained, or bloody underclothes, difficulty in sitting or walking).
  • Depressed, apathetic, or suicidal.

The effects of sexual abuse

Children who have been sexually abused worry that their bodies have been damaged, and they are no longer normal. They are confused because they have been taught to trust adults, and often adults whom they have trusted hurt them. Abused children can also be very sad and/or very angry.

Children who do not receive help in understanding a coping with their sexual abuse are at risk of developing emotional and interpersonal problems. They may grow up fearful, insecure, and with a poor self-image. They may have difficulty trusting others and, as adults, they may have difficulty establishing normal sexual relationships. Without intervention, sexually abused children are at a high risk of developing drug or alcohol problems, running away from home, or suffering from depression.
Protecting children from sexual abuse

As an adult, be alert about your child’s activities. Ask children about any gifts or money that they bring home. Watch for any changes in their behavior. Talk with children about any close relationships they form with adults. Ask children about their activities when they have been with babysitters or other adults.

Let your children know that their bodies belong to them. Teach your children to know the difference between “good” touch (like a part of the back), and a “bad” touch (such as hitting, or touching of their private parts). Let your children know that it is not right for anyone to touch them in a way that makes them feel uncomfortable. Remember we usually teach our children that they must always obey adults, but we need to let them know that they should not obey and adult who is touching them in a “bad” way. Never force a child to sit on someone’s lap, or hug or kiss anyone. Doing so will let your child know that it is okay to say no to an adult if the adult is making them uncomfortable. When talking with your child, use language he/she will understand. You don’t need to nor should you discuss frightening details. You want your child to be alert, but not afraid or all adults.

Most important, your children need to know that they can talk to you at any time about anything. Having good communication with your child is the key. A child that feels comfortable discussing his/her problems with you is more likely to report abuse and to do so before it escalates to more severe levels. Let your child know that you want to know about problems he/she is having.
What to do if I suspect my child may have been abused

If your child does disclose abuse to you, you should stay calm, and above all, believe your child. The most common initial reaction to a child’s disclosure of abuse is denial. As parents you do not want to believe that your child has been harmed. Unfortunately, if you do not listen to your child and report the abuse, your child will continue to be at risk of further abuse.

Learning that your child may have been sexually abused can be very confusing and frightening to not only your child but also you. Some helpful tips to use with your child are:

  • Quietly encourage your child to tell you about the abuse.
  • Try not to overreact – your child needs support – not made to feel like they you feel mad or sad.
  • Let your child know that it is not their fault that they were abused.
  • Let your child know that you are glad that they had the courage to tell you.
  • Thank your child for sharing the information.
  • Let your child know that you will help them and protect them from the abuse happening again.
  • Let your child know that they are not in trouble.

Remember, your role as a parent is to support your child in recovering by providing reassurance, safety, and love. Children who have someone understanding and supportive suffer fewer negative effects than do children without such help.

If your child has been sexually abused…

What should I say when others ask about my child’s abuse?

It is often difficult to know how to respond to the questions of concerned friends and family members about your child’s abuse. It is important to remember that you do want to have to answer anyone’s questions about the incident if you do no want to. You really only need to tell those people who have a reason to know what happened (caseworkers, law enforcement, siblings, parents).

When deciding whom to tell, keep in mind how a person usually reacts to stressful situations. If a person tends to become over-emotional (crying, threatening) in stressful situations, it may not be wise to tell them about the incident. You do have the right to ask those you do share information with not to discuss what happened with others.

You also have the right to tell family and friends what would be helpful to you or not helpful. Many people may want to help, but are not sure of what to do or say. You can tell people what you need, such as help cooking, baby-sitting, or just someone to listen.

If a friend or relative asks you for more information than you feel comfortable sharing, you may tell them you would rather not discuss it. You may express appreciation for a person’s concern, but it is most important to protect your child and his/her privacy. Depending on your child’s age, you may want to let them help decide who should be told and what should be told.

You should help your child decide who are appropriate and inappropriate people for him/her to discuss the abuse with. For example, a therapist or a trusted teacher may be appropriate while telling every child at school would be inappropriate. Your child may need help preparing for the reactions or questions and comments from others. He/she may need help understanding why a friend no longer wants to play or knowing how to respond when another child asks detailed questions about the abuse. Again, you or your child do not have to share information about the abuse with anyone who does not have a right to know.

Finally, if there are other children and families involved in this investigation, it is recommended that you do not discuss the specifics of what happened to your child with them. Although it may be comforting to you to discuss the details, it may not be beneficial to your child’s case or the other families’ case. If you need to talk, you can call the Crime Victims Assistance Program at (845) 452-1110
Take a minute

You could take a minute now and review what went through your head as you learned your child has been sexually abuse, and what you said to your child. Is there anything you want to change now? It is okay to say, “I was upset when I heard, and I want to be sure you know: I believe you, I am sorry it happened to you, I don’t believe it was your fault, and I am going to do the best for you that I can.”

If you hesitated before acting, your child may not understand why. You may want to explain now.

What to say

  • I’m sorry I didn’t act faster. I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t have anything to do with doubting you or what you said.
  • I was confused. It was a total surprise.
  • I am sad and angry this happened to you, but I am not angry with you.
  • You may see me cry sometimes or be upset, but we will be okay. I will take care of you and myself.

Remember that your child will look to you to determine how he/she should be feeling. Your reactions may have given an unintended message to your child, or your child may be confused about how you reacted. Nonetheless, it is never to late to talk with your child about your reaction, and your support is important for your child’s healing and recovery.

Taking care of your own feelings

It is important that you have someone to talk to about your own feelings – another adult, not your child. Also, if you have begun to remember sexual abuse in your own childhood, finding an abuse survivors’ group or counselor knowledgeable about adult survivors may be necessary to separate your needed recovery from your child’s recovery process. Taking care of your own feelings will allow you to take care of your child and give him/her support he/she needs.
Rebuilding self-esteem

Abused children do not feel as good about themselves as children who have not been victimized. Children with lower self-esteem do not do as well in school and are hesitant about new activities, making friends, and do not expect to be treated well. Children may come to the conclusion they are bad because they believe:

  • Bad things happen to bad people.
  • Sex is bad
  • Bad things happen to me when I am in bed.
  • I feel bad, so I must be bad.

Parents can rebuild self-esteem by helping children understand that:

  • They are not “bad” because they were abused.
  • They are not at fault.
  • They do not need to feel ashamed, different, or isolated

To help prevent children understand rules, adults often make statements linking a child’s misbehavior to a later painful outcome: “I told you if you went barefoot, you would cut your foot.” Unfortunately, as a result, children who are sexually abused often expect to be blamed. They may ever think adults knew what was happening, and let it continue because they were being punished.

Your child may also look to you to know how to react. If your child gets the message from you that he/she is “damaged”, he/she might internalize the message. Or if your child senses from your reaction that the world is never safe, he/she might cling to you and become overly fearful. Similarly, if your child senses you feel differently about her, she might conclude there is something wrong with her. Help your child know they are the same and you love them just the same as always.

Some things you can talk to your child about are:

  • Sometimes bad things happen to good children. It is not fair, but it happens.
  • Children are not responsible for controlling other people, especially adults.
  • If children knew everything adults did, they would not be children
  • Adults are responsible for controlling their own behavior. It would be wrong for an adult to steal something, even if a kid asked them to. The adults should know better. If an adult tricks a child, the adult is the one who is at fault.
  • You did the best you could with what you knew
  • You did not cause this to happen.

Remember that bad things do not only happen to bad people! Help your child to know that the abuse didn’t happen because he/she was bad, nor does it mean there is anything wrong with them now.

Grieving: You and your child

It did not happen because of you or your child. It happened because the offender decided to do it. A lot of time can be spent trying to figure out what you might have done, or “if only”, but blaming yourself for no suspecting the abuser or blaming your child for not telling or not resisting is counter productive. Place the blame where it belongs, with the abuser. Child sexual abuse brings with it a terrible feeling of helplessness. Sometimes we imagine that there were things we could have done to prevent it just to avoid felling helpless.

If you are in a two-parent home, stress of this kind causes trouble in relationships. Sometimes there are clashes of coping styles between one parent and another. One mother, for instance, felt it was sinful for her husband to feel that he would like to kill the molester, a teenage boy baby-sitter. She felt that her husband’s expressed aggression was frightening. He thought that she was too forgiving of the offender. Sometimes differences in coping methods like these can cause a split between the couple. Each partner needs to recognize that the other may have an entirely different way of dealing with the sexual abuse of the child. It does not mean one response is better than another is. They are just different

How can my child grieve the loss of someone who did something so awful? Although many children feel only relief when the abuser is no longer part of the daily life, it can be source of pain if the offender was a close friend or relative. It is hard for children to understand that you can love someone yet not be able to live with him, and still have to hold him responsible for the sexual abuse. It helps children to understand if you separate the person from his actions: you do not like what he/she did, although you like him/her.

This issue comes up again if the child is permitted to visit an abusing parent who has gone through treatment. Kids do not know whether they love or hate him/her. They need help in resolving these feelings or help in knowing that it is okay to wait and see how they feel about him/her. Some things to say:

  • I know you miss _________.
  • I miss ___________ too.
  • I feel badly about your missing _________when what she/he did was so bad.
  • But I don’t miss the bad stuff. I miss the good stuff, like when he/she took me to the movies.
  • It is okay to like someone and be angry at them
  • You can still love someone though they have a serious problem. Sometimes that problem means you cannot live with them though.
  • I know it took me a long time to understand this.

Remember that your child may have mixed feelings about the person who abused them. He/she may remember good things as well as bad things. Your child may need your support in understanding that he/she is not to blame for the “abuser” getting into trouble. Your child may also need reassurance that there is nothing wrong with them just because they miss the abuser or because they have positive feelings towards that person. It is okay to grieve the loss.
Children’s reactions and everyday life

How do you treat your child now?

Treat your child as normally as you can. Do not throw out all that you know about raising children. Do not stop expecting your child to obey the family rules. Remember you have been raising your child for a long time now and you have a lot of strengths and qualities that have gotten you this far.
Angry Outbursts

Angry outbursts, temper tantrums or words of hate are common. Let them happen; but make the distinction between feeling and action and set limits on how the anger gets expressed.

Children may be particularly angry with a non-abusing parent. The anger may come from the child’s reasoning that if the parents are powerful and all knowing they must have “let” the abuse happen. Sometimes, kids feel that they have told about the abuse, not in so many words, but no one got the message.
Confused Feelings

Children may have many confused feelings about the abuse and what has happened since it. Try to discover and listen to those feelings without interrogating or grilling for answers. What the child is feeling is most likely not the same as what you are feeling. Don not be judgmental or try to “correct” the way the child feels or pressure him/her. Just provide the opportunity. Feelings are not right or wrong. It is best if someone who cares hears those feelings.

Keep your own feelings separate from those of your child. Many younger children feel mainly confusion and need adult help. They do not need to take on your feelings of distress about the abuse. For instance, many times parents are most concerned about sexuality issues. (Will he be gay? Will she be able to have a normal marital relationship?) For kids, depending on their developmental stage, concerns are more related to control, or body integrity or feelings of helplessness.
What to say

  • It is okay to be upset. It is not okay to hit the family dog or break furniture while you are upset.
  • It is okay to be angry, or be sad or not feel good. You are okay when you feel that way. But it is not okay to kick the cat or break vases because you feel sad. There are other ways to let those feelings out (e.g., you can throw pillows on the floor).
  • Other kids have felt that way too, when this kind of thing happened to them.
  • That makes sense to me- I can understand why you feel that way.
  • You have every right to be angry.

Remember that your child is going to have a lot of emotions and as uncomfortable as they may be to see your child will need to express them.