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Parenting a Sexually Abused Child

A sexually abused child may act fearful, act aggressive, or act out sexually towards other children or adults. Parenting a child who acts this way is not easy. A sexually abused child may be reacting to the abuse, not just misbehaving. Let your child know that some of the things he does are not OK but that you still love him.

Fearful Behaviors

Fearful behaviors may be more common where physical pain, violence, or threats have been part of the abuse. Signs of fear you may see in your child include:

  • Having nightmares
  • Being on guard all the time or startling easily
  • Fearing a certain person or one type of person (for example, men with beards)
  • Having trouble concentrating and not doing well in school
  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • Acting younger than his age (thumbsucking, bedwetting, baby talk).

As a parent you should:

  • Accept your child's fears as real fears.
  • Encourage your child to return gradually to his normal activities.
  • Give your child choices in situations where he is afraid. For example, if your child is afraid of the dark, ask if he would rather sleep with a night-light on or have the door open.
  • Reassure your child that you will protect him as much as you can.

You should not:

  • Force your child to do things he is really afraid of.
  • Punish your child for being afraid.
  • Tell your child his fears are silly or stupid.

Aggressive Behaviors

There are several ways that your child may act out anger:

  • Getting frustrated very easily
  • Having temper tantrums
  • Hitting or fighting other children
  • Setting fires
  • Abusing animals
  • Cutting or burning himself

As a parent you should:

  • Make clear rules about not hitting others or destroying property.
  • Create healthy ways for your child to release anger, such as exercise or art. For example, you could ask your child to draw a picture of why he is mad.
  • Use consistent, fair consequences for aggressive behavior.

Do not hit your child as punishment. Use time-outs or other ways to correct behavior.

Sexual Behaviors

A sexually abused child may act sexually because:

  • He has learned it is a way to please people.
  • He may confuse sexual behavior with affection.
  • He may see it as a way to be "in charge", unlike when he was sexually abused.
  • He may have learned that sexual touch can feel good.

Sexual behaviors include:

  • Masturbating often
  • Putting objects inside the vagina or rectum
  • Touching other children in a sexual way, particularly children younger or smaller than your child
  • Being overly affectionate or flirting with adults.

As a parent you should:

  • Make sure your child knows that the abuse was not his fault.
  • Teach your child that it is important to keep private parts private. Make clear rules about not showing his private parts to others or touching others' private parts.
  • Gently remind your child that no one likes to be touched against their will.
  • Depending on your child's age, talk about healthy sex and the relationship between sex and love.
  • Learn what are natural and normal sexual behaviors for children at different ages.
  • Supervise your child’s play. Make every effort to protect your child from further abuse. A child showing sexual behaviors is at high risk for further abuse.

Sexual Abuse in Older Children and Teens

An older child or teen may:

  • Run away
  • Miss days of school
  • Develop eating problems such as bulimia or anorexia
  • Abuse drugs or alcohol
  • Act depressed or talk about suicide

A sexually abused child may act fearful, sexual, or aggressive. Children who see abuse but are not victims themselves may also show some of these same symptoms. These symptoms could also be caused by something other than abuse. For example, a divorce, physical abuse, death in the family, or seeing violence. If you think that your child has been sexually abused, contact your child’s healthcare provider, your child protection agency or a mental health professional.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-29
Last reviewed: 2014-09-29
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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