How to Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse: Both Off Line and Online
54,898 sexual offences against children recorded by the police in the UK in 2015/161 . In the NSPCC report “How safe are our children? The most comprehensive overview of child protection in the UK 2017” a few key findings immerged:
- All UK nations saw an increase in the number of recorded sexual offences against children in 2015/16.
- The rate of recorded sexual offences across the UK has doubled since 2005/06, with 2015/16 seeing the highest number of offences in the past decade.
With almost daily reports of sexual offences against children appearing in the news, parents need to be aware of the risks to their child and how to mitigate these.
1.Be aware of situations which present risk
Although schools and other institutions undertake strict background checks, a few offenders do slip through the net.
Situations where children have been abused include:
- Schools, boarding schools, private tutors
- Trips away / activities / training
- Heath care professionals in clinics, hospitals
- Sports and leisure clubs
- Foster care
- Religion / Faith based groups
- Home / relatives / friends
A 'Child Sexual Abuse Situational Prevention Model' by Kaufman et al (2006) described “the situational factors that influence opportunities for child sexual abuse”. This model provides a framework for assessing what factors contribute to child sexual abuse, how offender factors may interact with them and, therefore, what prevention strategies should be employed.
If you have concerns about your child’s activities and the people involved, contact the organisation and request more background information on the organisation’s safeguarding procedures. You could volunteer to support the group or activity to obtain a greater insight on the quality of safeguarding and child safety.
Watch out for red flags
Although the circumstances and behaviour of a paedophile may vary, there is often a pattern which could involve paying special attention to a child, excessive praise and offering gifts. They may also make an effort to befriend parents in order to build trust with the child.
The danger may be closer than you think
Although society emphasises “stranger danger”, on many occasions the offender is known to the victim and their family. They could be a relative, family friend, a person in a position of trust or authority.
The abuser could also be a child. Around a third of sexual abuse is committed by other children and young people6.
2.Talking to your children
Maintain a light and fun dialogue with your kids where you share your day or any interesting observations and concerns.
Internetmattters.org makes the following recommendations:
- Start talking to your children from an early age and encourage friendship – without any secrets
- Choose regular family times to discuss things in a relaxed environment
- Model the same behaviour by sharing your day and thoughts
- Create a safe space for communication by asking open questions, listen carefully and ask questions
In order to build trust, it is best to practice non-judgement
A child is more likely to express their concerns in a supportive and open environment where they are not judged for their comments, questions or feelings.
Believe and trust your child if they have raised concerns.
Use correct and precise anatomical terms
A number of child specialists have emphasised the need to use precise anatomical words for specific body parts rather than nicknames. Although parents use these to avoid discomfort or embarrassment, using clear terms will help avoid confusion.
Safe touch vs bad touch: The NSPCC pants rule
Many parents struggle to explain the difference between ‘safe touching’ and ‘inappropriate touching” with their children, particularly if they are young. The NSPCC has created several resources for parents who would like advice on how to teach the ‘pants rule’ (also known as the underwear rule) to their children. For more information please see: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/keeping-children-safe/underwear-rule/
How to explain the 'pants rule to your children' : Advice from Uxbridge Psychotherapist, Keeley Taverner
Keeley explained the ‘pants rule’ to her her daughters by using a doll as a prop and has outlined the approach below:
“Firstly, we spoke about where babies come from, I am of the view that children should be told the truth about this matter.
I highlighted these areas on their doll. I made it clear to my daughters that there are areas on their bodies that a precious and private. I also highlighted that if anyone tells them to keep secrets about their bodies, then they must tell Mummy.
I felt that the secrecy aspect was especially important, because secrecy is a fundamental aspect that sustains abuse.
I asked if anyone had every touched them there (this was hard, but important)
I then said to them, if anybody touches them in these areas, then they most show Mummy on their dolls. I made it clear that it did not matter who it was, a teacher, friend or family member
What was important was that they showed mummy on the doll”.
For more information please see Keeley Taverner, Psychotherapist, Key4Change.com
Two different types of child sexual abuse
There are two forms of sexual abuse - contact abuse and non-contact abuse. It is also important to explain non-contact abuse to children so that that they are aware of the dangers.
Non-contact abuse involves non-touching activities, such as grooming, exploitation, persuading children to perform sexual acts over the Internet and flashing. It includes:
- encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
- not taking proper measures to prevent a child being exposed to sexual activities by others
- meeting a child following sexual grooming with the intent of abusing them
- online abuse including making, viewing or distributing child abuse images
- allowing someone else to make, view or distribute child abuse images
- showing pornography to a child
- sexually exploiting a child for money, power or status (child exploitation).
(Adapted from the NSPCC. For more information please see: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/child-sexual-abuse/legislation-policy-guidance/).
3.Protecting your child from online sexual abuse
The sexual abuse of children online is a huge concern as the internet, especially social media, encourages an ever increasing amount of screen time.
According to statistics compiled by the online safety guide, Internetmatters.org, children as young as five own a digital device. A few findings from this research include:
- 5-15 year olds spend an average 15 hours a week online
- 44% of 5-15 year olds have their own tablet
- 11-15 year olds use an average of 5 different websites and apps to communicate with their friends, with Instagram being the most popular
Steps to take when protecting your child from sexual (or other abuse) online can be focused on the following activates:
- Adding additional layers of protection on all devices i.e. settings, personal information
- Being aware of what your child is looking at online and the websites they are visiting
- Limiting friends to real ones and not virtual ones
How paedophiles operate online
Paedophiles often choose their victims carefully and take the time to ‘groom’ or build a relationship. The sexual exploitation may involve the young person:
- Being persuaded, or forced, to send or post sexually explicit images of themselves
- Being persuaded, or forced to take part in sexual activities via a webcam or smartphone
- Being persuaded, or forced to have sexual conversations by text or online
- Being unknowingly watched via their webcam
Abusers may threaten to send images, videos or copies of conversations to the young person's friends and family unless they take part in other sexual activity.
Images or videos may continue to be shared long after the sexual abuse has stopped.
(Adapted from the NSPCC)
How to increase safety: Actions for parents
Implement parental controls on a child’s device. This could involve:
- Checking devices for content locks (i.e. website restrictions / blocking)
- Setting content controls on your broadband
- Setting controls on app downloads and purchases
- Implementing security and privacy settings on all devices and social media accounts
- Implementing security and privacy settings on games consoles
- Implementing the safety modes on YouTube and Google
- Covering up any web cams with a sticker
- Disabling location settings on all devices
- Using secure sites to download music / games
- Obtaining permission from you before downloading any programs.
Discuss good online safety procedures with your children. The key rules / concepts could include:
- Not sharing personal information / contact details online
- Only talking to real life friends or family
- Explaining the risk that someone may not be who they seem
- Encouraging good online friendships and boundaries which do not involve sharing any personal information or photos
(Adapted from: Internetmatters.org)
InternetMatters.org provides parents with a variety of online security resources and guides.
4.Pay attention to changes in your child’s mood, appetite, resistance to school or an individual
Paedophiles often manipulate children through fear, shame and intimidation leaving them too afraid to open up to their family. However changes in a child’s mood, behaviour – including sexualisation, regression, withdrawal and secrecy could suggest that something is not right.
Char Rivette, director of the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Centre outlines a few changes to be aware of in your child:
- Sexual behaviour and / language that is beyond their age
- Regressive behaviour
- Increased dependency on non-abusing adults
- Withdrawal and isolation from others
- Increased aggressiveness
- Sudden fear of the dark
- Frequent nightmares
- Changes in sleep pattern
Further advice from the NSPCC has highlighted other occurrences that parents should be aware of:
Children who are being or have been sexually abused:
- may avoid being alone with specific people
- could seem frightened of a person or reluctant to socialise with them.
- have marks on their face or body eg. bruises, scratches, bleeding.
5.The effects of abuse
"There is no blueprint for defining how the effects of child abuse will mark a victim. Each case is unique and therefore predicting the likely outcome is very difficult. However there are generic effects that are likely to leave scars on individuals. Dealing with these are always a good starting point to help the victim heal".
In 2011, the NSPCC argued that “By not addressing child sexual abuse as a public health problem we are failing our children”.
The Long term effects of abuse and neglect could include:
- emotional difficulties such as anger, anxiety, sadness or low self-esteem
- mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm, suicidal thoughts
- problems with drugs or alcohol
- disturbing thoughts, emotions and memories that cause distress or confusion
- poor physical health such as obesity, aches and pains
- struggling with parenting or relationships
- worrying that their abuser is still a threat to themselves or others
- learning difficulties, lower educational attainment, difficulties in communicating
- behavioural problems including anti-social behaviour, criminal behaviour.
Healing from childhood abuse: Advice from 'Help for Adult Victims Of Child Abuse' (HAVOCA)
"Healing from childhood abuse is possible and survivors should be encouraged to seek help and support. It is important to remember that survivors should not be forced to find assistance. Recovery has been compared to the five stages of grief which is a commonly used model when dealing with bereavement issues.
Survivors move between the different stages at different rates and can jump around between each phase. Recovery is more of a process than an event.
- DENIAL: “Nothing happened”
- BARGAINING: “Something happened, but….”
- ANGER: “Something bad happened, and I don’t like it!!”
- SADNESS: “Something happened, and it cost me a lot”
- ACCEPTANCE/FORGIVENESS: “Something happened, and I have healed from it”
Coming to terms with the long and short term effects of child abuse isn’t going to be an easy process. We strongly recommend survivors seek professional help to enable the recovery, manage expectations and drive towards leading a more fulfilling life. It is possible to heal the damage.
HAVOCA is run by survivors for adult survivors of child abuse. We provide support, friendship and advice for any adult who’s life has been affected by childhood abuse".
For details please visit www.havoca.org.
An organisation known as 'MOSAC' provides support to non-abusing parents and carers of sexually abused children. MOSAC has kindly added a summary to this article.
“Protecting children from sexual abuse requires a holistic approach that needs to be continuously reviewed. In this sense:
- Families need to be encouraged to provide an environment for their kids where they feel safe to speak up and try to beware of any change from their usual behaviour
- Families don’t need to be afraid to ask for support if they ever feel is necessary
- Parents are recommended to talk to children about boundaries and sexuality
- We all need to challenge societal views regarding who can be an abuser
Mosac hopes to empower parents to achieve the best long term outcomes possible for the victim and the family. In our experience, a challenging thought around child protection is that the only person who has complete power to prevent the abuse is the abuser.
We have developed our services around this by providing parent-child attachment therapy, counselling for the non-abusing parents and carers, training and education services both for families and professionals, advocacy and specialist advice and a helpline that runs every day of the week. We have found that this multi-layered approach reflects the complexity of child sexual abuse and can enhance the resilience of the family as a whole”.
For more information on MOSAC and the services it provides please visit Mosac.org.uk
Malcolm Underhill is a legal expert on child sexual abuse and compensation at IBB Claims. Our specialists take a compassionate and caring approach to all claims for abuse, acting for both children and adults. For more information please contact us on
0333 123 9099, email firstname.lastname@example.org or complete our online form.
- Bentley, H. et al (2017) How safe are our children? The most comprehensive overview of child protection in the UK 2017)
- Hackett, S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours