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Preventing Sexual Child Abuse

One of the greatest fears many parents have is that their child might be sexually molested or abused. Prevent Child Abuse America defines sexual abuse as inappropriately exposing or subjecting a child to sexual contact, activity or behavior for the benefit of the offender.

Experts estimate 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused before reaching adulthood. Girls are the most common targets (65-75%), boys are (25-35%) of cases. Sex offenders are most often adults or adolescents known to the child, not strangers. While parents cannot guarantee that bad things will never happen to their children, here are some strategies to help protect your child:

Prevention Tips:

  • Know who your child is with and what they are doing. In over 80% of cases, abuse occurs when a child is alone with an adult or teen.
  • Choose activities where children are not alone with an adult or teen.
  • Monitor one-on-one time with a trusted adult or mentor. Abusers often work to win your confidence. Generally adults should interact with a child in a public/semi-public place. Any alone time should be planned and clearly explained. Observe a child’s behavior and mood after such time and promptly scrutinize any change.
  • Make it easy for your child to confide in you, especially if confused, embarrassed or asked by someone older to keep “secrets”.
  • Create opportunities for peer interaction. Children who are targeted are often isolated or lonely. Role play and problem-solve when your child is having difficulty with friendships.
  • Talk in an age-appropriate way about acceptable sexual behavior. Use words that help your child discuss sexual issues comfortably with you. Tell them it is wrong for an adult or older child to behave in a sexual way with them, even those they know and trust. Show them the “bathing suit area” that others should not touch.

How would I know if it happened to my child?
Children who have been or are being abused may not directly talk about their experience. Physical signs can include pain, bleeding, itching, or swelling in the genital areas. Your knowledge of normal behavior and your instincts are very important. Extreme emotional and/or behavioral changes (i.e., sudden excessive clinginess, aggressiveness, withdrawal), recurring nightmares, or fears of being alone with a particular person can be indicators of sexual abuse. While excessive or detailed sexual behavior can be a sign of abuse, it is important to distinguish problematic behavior from that which is normal and age-appropriate.

If you suspect your child may have been abused, seek immediate help from a medical professional (i.e., pediatrician, mental health expert knowledgeable about sexual abuse). Report suspicions to your child protective agency (in Illinois, 800-25-ABUSE). These experts can help you thoroughly investigate and deal with the situation. For additional help, try these resources:

Books for children:

  • Uncle Willy's Tickles: A Child's Right to Say No, by Marcie Aboff, 2003.
  • The Right Touch: A Read-Aloud Story to Help Prevent Child Sexual Abuse, by Sandy Kleven, 1998.
  • Your Body Belongs to You, by Cornelia Spelman, 2000.

For parents:

Author: Angela Wiley, Ph.D., Family Life Specialist, 2006

Editor: Patti Faughn, Family Life Educator, Springfield Center, 2006.