Parenting a Child who has Been Sexually Abused

What's Covered

Sexual abuse can happen to any child. The proprietors of the offense can be within the family where it could be a parent, a sibling, or another relative. It could also come from someone outside the family such as a neighbor, friend, teacher, or even a stranger.

Most children do not report that they have been sexually abused due to fear. Therefore, as a parent, you need to always be keen about your child’s behavior or how they interact with others.

This article will help you identify whether your child has been sexually abused and how to obtain healing.

Enlighten yourself on child sexual abuse

The initial and very important step in helping your child is first obtaining information relating to child sexual abuse and the development of healthy sexuality in children. This information will enable you to identify any behavior related to past or current sexual abuse.

Defining child sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse refers to any sexual contact with a child from either an adult or another older child. This contact can either be willful on both parties or a child could have been forced into it. Most often there is usually a preceding trusting relationship between the child and the offender.

There are several sexual activities involved. It can include mouth-to-mouth kissing, touching of the genitals with either hands, tongue, lips, or with an object. Sexual intercourse might also be included. There are instances where a child is not touched but is forced to perform sexual activities on an adult or another child. At times children are tricked to participate in sexual activities with other children as entertainment to adults.

Physical touching is not all that is included in child sexual abuse. It can also include any attitude or experience passed on to a child thus affecting negatively their sexual health. For example, when a child witnesses their parents conducting sexual activities like sexual intercourse. Such a scenario can be considered sexual abuse to a child.

Signs and behaviors that point to child sexual abuse

It might be difficult to know if your very young non-verbal child has been sexually abused. Children living with certain disabilities might as well not be able to interpret any sexual abuse activity done on them. In addition, it is important to note that many children will reveal any abuse when they feel safe. Therefore, it is important for you to know the signs and behaviors of sexual abuse in a child.[1]

Signs and behaviors in young children include Imitation of sexual activities with objects such as toys, bedwetting, sucking fingers, being reluctant to take off clothes while taking birth, or changing into pajamas, and STI (Sexually Transmitted infections) especially in children that are not yet at puberty.

Signs and behaviors in older children and youth include anxiety or depression, unhealthy eating habits sometimes accompanied by weight loss or weight gain, being careless with themselves, suicidal thoughts, drug abuse or alcoholism, self-isolation, pregnancy or STIs, and high-risk sexual behaviors.

Signs and behaviors in both children and youth include extreme sexual knowledge beyond a child’s stage of development, a sexual form of communication, troubled sleeping like having nightmares and fearing darkness, extreme or sudden mood changes (e.g., anger, crying, rage, fear or withdrawal), unexplained withdrawal from certain people, activities or places and pain, bleeding or itchiness in genital parts.

It is important to note that the above signs and behaviors will not always be pointing to the sexual abuse of your child. Rather, they could be indicating some other issues such as emotional or physical abuse or exposure to sexual content unintentionally. However, a professional who works with sexually abused children should be able to identify an underlying concern.

Sexual development in children

Every developmental stage that a child undergoes is characterized by certain healthy sexual behaviors. These behaviors and some levels of curiosity develop gradually in a child as they observe those around them or as they are being guided by their parents.

Being able to understand what healthy sexual behavior entails can give you a clear ground to judge signs and behaviors in a child. You will be able to know easily whether they have been sexually abused or not.

The following behaviors are considered healthy for a majority of children and youths.

Younger children: curiosity about their bodies at times characterized by some instances of musterbation, comparing their bodies with those of their agemates, sexuality questions such as “where did I come from?”.

Older children and youth: understanding the view of society towards masturbation, sharing sexual behaviors with agemates, interest in exploring adult body especially from the media, understanding pregnancy and STIs, and possessing the capacity to learn about loving, intimate and long-term relationships as well as differentiate between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

What is the impact of sexual abuse on a child?

If the assessment of your child by a professional or your observation indicates that your child has been sexually abused, understanding the impact of the sexual offense may provide crucial insights into how the offense has affected the child’s behavior.

Sexual abuse destroys the emotional and physical boundaries of a child. Such a child finds the world to be an unsafe place and adults not trustable. On the other hand, a child can lose awareness of how unsafe their environment is. There are many factors that influence the thoughts and feelings towards the abuse they underwent and the effects.

The following factors can contribute to the impact of sexual abuse in children:

  • The relationship between the child and the abuser. The extent to which trust was broken in case the abuser was the child’s father or a close person to the family. This intensifies betrayal.
  • The duration within which the offense occurred and its frequency. Did penetration take place? The longer the offense took place the more they feel that they would have sought ways to stop it. This in turn makes a child feel guilty.
  • The child’s age. Younger children tend to experience severe effects. They carry sensory or body memories of the abuse but they might not have ways of expressing their rage.
  • The social and emotional development in a child at the time of the abuse. If a child is already aware of the sexual identity, the impact of the sexual abuse will be minimal.
  • The ability of a child to handle the features of abuse such as fear and arousal.
  • The child’s ability to take responsibility after abuse for example, unwillingness to disclose the offense to an adult immediately. This may result from the child’s perception of how things shall be after they disclose the issue. For example, if a sibling is the perpetrator of the act, the victim might fear to tell the father due to the fear that the father may take the offender to jail or cause them serious injuries.
  • The kind of a response a child gets after revealing the abuse. A child that has someone to confide in freely suffers less than the one that has no one to talk to. It is important as a parent that you stay calm as much as possible to avoid further traumatization to the child. It is fine to feel the rage inside of you but expressing it to your child might be misunderstood. What a child needs is a safe and supportive environment in which to talk.
  • The abuser trying to disguise the act by befriending the child thus making the child seem like they participated in the act willingly.
  • An abuser who is full of threats. A sexually abused child who is continuously threatened not to report the incidence has double tragedy.
  • The gender of the abuser. Children will rarely report instances of sexual abuse from people of the same gender as them. In such instances, the child will be very fearful wondering whether they are homosexual or lesbians especially if the act aroused them. On the other hand, if the abuser is of the opposite gender, the victim may doubt their masculinity especially if the act didn’t arouse them.

Are there special issues in boys that have been sexually abused?

There are some additional problems that boys who have been sexually abused face. These problems are often birthed by the persistent myths in society. A male child is rarely seen as a proper fit in the victim position of a sexual abuse activity.

Whenever a boy is hurt, they are asked to control their emotions and be manly. The kind of message this portrays to a male child is that they are always supposed to be on their two feet and be completely responsible with their lives. Therefore, due to these circumstances, an abused boy is less likely not to disclose any offense done to them. This makes them not enroll in the healing process and instead might opt to be a victimizer to further the experience.

The Color of Pain
This book acts as an eye-opener for every parent that is raising the boy child. It guides the parent on being extra keen about their child since boys rarely disclose instances where they have been sexually abused. It provides hope for healing for every abused male child.

A research was conducted by the Statista Research Department in the United Kingdom between the years 2018 and 2019 regarding the number of children contacting Childline about sexual abuse. The statistic indicated that approximately 7,000 girls and 2,000 boys called the Childline with issues related to child sexual abuse.

Juvenile sex offenders

A number of the children that have been sexually abused reach out to other children and abuses them. While this would call for alarm, there are no records of the percentage of victims who abused others.

It is important to note that these children are both offenders as well as victims. Therefore, a qualified therapist would offer solutions based on the two aspects.

What the adoptive parent should know about themselves

As a prospective adoptive parent, it is crucial for you to be completely honest with yourself as well as with your adoption worker regarding several things:

Are there traces of sexual abuse in your past (for both the mother and the father)? If such exists, were those issues resolved? Did you just choose to ignore them and seem like nothing ever happened? Or were you able to obtain help from either your parents, therapist, a teacher, or a minister about how to deal with the feelings of being abused? Parents that have historical sexual abuse experiences that were never resolved are at a higher risk of either sexually abusing the child again or distancing themselves both physically and emotionally in fear of abusing the child.

To what extent as a prospective parent are you comfortable with your sexual relationships and with your sexuality? Is the topic of sex so uncomfortable to you? Is your mind free to recognize your sexual thoughts, feelings, fears, and fantasies? Do you have the capability of accepting direct as well as open-ended communication? Often, a sexually abused child will require someone to talk to about what happened to them. There are times that the child will portray blatantly sexual behavior. A parent needs to possess the ability to handle this.

In addition, an adoptive parent can consider the following issues:

Willingness to experience embarrassing moments. Most of the sexually abused children tend to behave differently towards their adoptive parents compared to the non-abused ones. For example, they can shout at you even in public places and even make you look bad in the eyes of onlookers.

The ability to patiently stay committed to the child. A sexually abused child finds it difficult to trust anyone since they are usually tied to their past. Such a child will continuously test your commitment towards them. They usually have the feeling that if you were to see their scar, you would not accept them.

Most parents believe that love can cure anything. They believe that showing love to an abused child will help the child to drop their mistrust towards the world and its adults. However, love can mean different things to an abused child. To some adopted children, love is only evident in bargaining situations. For example, a parent can promise the child to buy him/her a pet once they improve on their grades in school. When the child finally brings impressive grades home and the parent keeping their part of the deal, then that to the child is what love is. This can never be enough ground for a child to start trusting humans.

What to do when your child discloses that they were sexually abused

Here are some important things that your child will expect you to do once they have revealed to you that they were sexually abused:

When Your Child Discloses Sexual Abuse
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Stay strong

Your child will be checking your physical expressions to obtain clues that they are going to be okay. Sexual abuse can completely distort a child’s view of the world around them if left unattended. Therefore, regardless of how devastated you are, your child will require affirmations that they have not come to their end.

Believe what they say

Be thankful to the child for disclosing to you. Assure them of your unconditional love. If you find it hard believing the disclosure, keep in mind that it’s hard to come across false disclosures. In case you will need more information, let calmness be your initial goal. You can ask fact-based questions. Avoid leading questions such as “did they touch you here?”

Avoid showing disapproval or relief towards the answers given by your child. If a child detects pain and anger in you due to the disclosure, they might attempt to withdraw the disclosure. Taking back a disclosure doesn’t mean that the child was never abused.

Restore safety

Re-establishing safety is crucial hence the need for it to be prioritized. A sexually abused child feels that their control over their surroundings is taken away from them and they can as well not have faith in humans to protect them. Put into place immediately plans to ensure that that there is no unsupervised contact between the child and the abuser. Help your child understand that what was done to them was wrong and the perpetrator needs help to stay away from hurting others.

Stay keen on your child to obtain clues on the safety measures that they would prefer. The needs of your child could be different from your expectations. And what the child may want for their safety might not be appropriate. That said, it is important that you provide your child with an enhanced sense of security. No matter how irrational their safety needs seem to be, make it your constant aim to build up their confidence and their sense of security.

Protecting your child’s privacy will also indicate your willingness to make the child feel safe. The experience of being sexually abused is a personal and highly confidential thing to a child. Therefore, avoid talking about it to anyone who doesn’t deserve hearing it. Depending on a child’s age, overhearing others talking about the offense can make them feel embarrassed and exposed.

Eliminate self-blame

A child needs not feel as if they are to blame for the abuse while disclosing. They are not the ones that led to it. The child is not to blame for the failure to stop it.

At times, children feel that they are responsible for the abuse by developing some adaptive measures and fail no acknowledge their feelings of being out of control. It is natural for a child to feel liable for the feelings and behaviors of the people around them.

Always keep in mind that even if the child got into the act willingly, this never indicates consent. A child requesting or agreeing to participate in sexual activities with an adult or a teen doesn’t free the adult or teen from their responsibilities relating to the act. It is the responsibility of the adult to say “no”. A child is never held accountable. Helping your child realize that what the other person did to them is wrong, helps a child to stay away from self-blame.

Share your rage with the appropriate people

It is normal to be angry once offended by another person or when they harm your children. Be careful not to allow your child to think that they are the cause of the rage they are seeing around. You can consider expressing your reaction to persons close to you or professionals. Find a place far away from your child to express your anger and grief.

Most parents assume that a child feels better once they learn that the perpetrator was severely harmed or punished. Even if the child is full of rage, threats of violence or punishment could frighten the child even more, especially in the instances where the child still has some positive feelings towards the abuser.

Obtain help

Many parents of sexually abused kids tend to handle the disclosure privately on their own. This is common when abusers are part of the family or friends. But this might isolate the victims and keep them from obtaining proper help.

It will be in the best interests of a family when as a parent you reach out for help. Waiting too long until a community member suspects sexual child abuse in the family is dangerous. Such a person can file a report and damage the image of the family. Child sexual abuse is an offense against the law and reporting the act will reduce such cases in the community.

Reaching out for help ensures that every involved party starts on the journey toward recovery.

Seek medical help for the child

A medical exam is necessary especially if there was physical contact or touching involved. This exam should be able to address any injury or infection acquired from the abuse.

Counseling techniques for a sexually abused child

A sexually abused child will often experience fear, severe emotional distress, and anxiety. The effects of such abuse can be carried forward into adulthood if not properly attended to. Fortunately, there exist successful techniques developed by therapists to help children cope with the trauma experienced effectively.

A therapist can help your child understand that the abuse was never their fault and that they like anyone else can lead a happy, healthy, and sexual abuse-free life. A therapist also provides the child with a loving and nurturing environment and tools for handling future crises.[2]

A parent can consider these psychological techniques which can be beneficial to their sexually abused child:

Play therapy

Play therapy is recommended for young children especially those under 11 years of age. This is because these children tend to imitate their experiences and things they have undergone. During this therapy, a sexually abused child reenacts their experience through memory/guessing games, playing with dolls and dollhouses and, action figurines. Play therapy enables a therapist to figure the exact form of sexual abuse that the child underwent.

Play therapy is used by a therapist to enable a child to understand the difference between what is right and wrong behaviors, equip the child with healthy coping skills, and lead them to total healing.

The most crucial feature in play therapy is the availability of a secure, warm, and caring atmosphere. A child has to feel safe and cared for whenever they are with the therapist. Therefore, it is necessary for the therapist to provide the child with a non-threatening environment in their office.

Medical approach

A majority of symptoms related to child sexual abuse can be treated by a psychiatrist using medications. Such symptoms include anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. However, some sexually abused children will require both counseling and medication to recover from the effects of the abuse.

This technique enables a sexually abused child to obtain and maintain a healthy and productive life.

Art therapy

This form of treatment is usually used within a university and hospital setting to treat sexually abused children. Art therapy avails a platform for the children to discuss sensitive issues and express their feelings towards the abuse they underwent in a non-verbal way.

Talk therapy

This form of treatment is goal-oriented. Talk therapy aims at reducing anxiety and amending behavioral issues birthed by the trauma. It helps sexually abused children cope and understand their emotions. This kind of therapy works best with children who are capable of understanding the dynamics of sexual abuse fully. Talk therapy is used in combination with other forms of treatments such as Art therapy, medication, and support systems.

Family therapy

This technique helps both the sexually abused children and their families heal from the abuse. The issues handled by this type of therapy include rage and anger, communication breakdowns, domestic violence, substance or generational abuse.

The initial stage of family therapy is characterized by the sexually abused child attending the sessions individually. The family is later called forth to join the sessions. Family therapy aims at ensuring the wholeness of a family after the abuse of one of their own.[3]

Developmental playgroups

Developmental playgroups are very beneficial to sexually abused children. These playgroups are most effective, especially in younger children. But they also help older children who have been battling with fluctuations in their emotions resulting from abuse. Older children usually seem to do better in the company of their peers that have undergone a similar trauma.  Also, these developmental playgroups or counseling children in groups, help children understand that the abuse was never their fault. The children also get equipped with self-defense skills in case the offense attempts to repeat itself.

Stages of grief for a parent whose child was sexually abused

Discussed hereunder are the progressive stages that grief goes through as observed in a majority of parents who have had their children abused. These stages apply to the parents or family members who didn’t contribute to the abuse.


It is usually very hard at first for a parent to believe that their child was sexually abused. With more facts emerging relating to the abuse, this stage rolls away ushering the next stage.


Once the parent is fully convinced through facts and finally accepts that the abuse happened, anger sets in. A parent may either be angry with the perpetrator, with themselves, or with the child.


At this stage, the parent has fully accepted that the abuse took place. They are now struggling to determine the magnitude of its effects on the child and the entire family. They are also trying to figure out the right recovery process.

Depression and sadness

Once the parent has realized the impact of the sexual abuse, and how recovery is quite a journey, they become sad and depressed.


At this stage, a parent has accepted the impact of their child’s sexual abuse. The parent is no longer afraid of the healing process and is positive towards the recovery process.

Help for a parent whose child was sexually abused

The realization that your child has been abused can be devastating. It is crucial that you find ways of managing your feelings while creating a conducive environment for the healing of your child. Your wholeness will make it possible for the child to recover from the abuse.[4]

So then how do you manage your feelings?

Talk to a counselor

A counselor will give you a platform where you can express your concerns freely and they will help you with constructive ways of handling the offense. The counselor won’t judge you but will lead you along the path to your wholeness.

Support system

Develop a support system that can comprise of close family members, friends, or parents that have gone through the same experience. Don’t be a lone ranger. Surround yourself with people that believe in you and your child. These people will lift you whenever you feel overwhelmed or when you feel like you are losing it.

Set limits

Managing these emotions can be very draining and time-consuming. Other activities require your attention as well. Therefore, allocate time to other necessary things that are not related to sexual abuse. This will ensure that life continues despite that one trouble.


Your child looks up to you for strength. They will not lean on a weary parent. Take good care of both your mental and physical health. The two of you cannot be unwell at the same time, one has to be a strong anchor for the other. Observe your eating habits, don’t eat too much because you are stressed neither don’t deny yourself food on that same ground.  Don’t stop going to the gym either or taking that evening walk along the driveway.

Final Thoughts

Healing from child abuse is not a one-time event, rather it is an ongoing process. A child transitions gradually from being a victim to survivor, and later to a thriver as the process keeps unfolding. Such developmental stages as adolescence and young adulthood are commonly known to trigger past feelings of sexual abuse. As mentioned earlier, many factors can contribute to the extent of the effects of child sexual abuse. While as a parent you cannot erase the damage your child underwent, you have an amazing opportunity to make all things new again with healthier experiences.

[1] Pierce, Robert, and Lois Hauck Pierce. “The sexually abused child: A comparison of male and female victims.” Child Abuse & Neglect 9.2 (1985): 191-199.

[2] Porter, Frances Sarnacki, Linda Canfield Blick, and Suzanne M. Sgroi. “Treatment of the sexually abused child.” Handbook of clinical intervention in child sexual abuse (1982): 109-145.

[3] Mrazek, Patricia Beezley, and C. Henry Kempe, eds. Sexually abused children & their families. Elsevier, 2014.

[4] Cyr, Mireille, Pierre McDuff, and Martine Hébert. “Support and profiles of nonoffending mothers of sexually abused children.” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 22.2 (2013): 209-230.

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Vivian Perry

Vivian Perry

Mother of 3 kids. Enjoy reading parenting books and studied child care degree. Vivian loves to learn and write about parenting tips and help her kids to grow positively with grit mindset.