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Parenting a Sexually Abused Child

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KEY POINTS

  • 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.
  • Let your child know that some of his behavior is not OK but that you still love him.
  • Reassure a fearful child that you will protect him as much as you can. Make clear rules and use consistent, fair consequences for unwanted behavior.
  • Make every effort to protect your child from further abuse.

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A sexually abused child may hide his feelings and not show any behavior changes. Or the child may be 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 child’s behavior is not OK but that you still love him. Tell him often that you love him and will support him as he recovers from the abuse. Make sure he knows that the abuse is not his fault.

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 and not sleeping well
  • Being on guard all the time or startling easily
  • Fearing a certain person or one type of person such as men with beards
  • Having trouble concentrating and not doing well in school
  • Having a lot of headaches or stomach aches
  • Withdrawing from family or friends
  • Acting younger than his age by thumb sucking, bedwetting, or being clingy

As a parent you should:

  • Accept your child's fears as real fears.
  • Help your child slowly return to normal activities.
  • Give your child choices 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 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 mood swings or 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 running, drawing pictures, or singing to music.
  • Use consistent, fair consequences for aggressive behavior.

Do not hit your child as punishment. This teaches your child that it’s OK to hit. Use time-outs, loss of toys or privileges, 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. Make sure your child knows what “private parts” mean.
  • 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 anorexia, bulimia, or compulsive eating
  • Abuse drugs or alcohol
  • Act depressed or talk about suicide

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 such as a divorce, physical abuse, death in the family, or seeing violence.

If your child is having behavior problems after being sexually abused or after seeing abuse, contact your child’s healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Get emergency care if your child or teen has ideas of suicide or harming others or harming himself.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2018-10-02
Last reviewed: 2018-10-02
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.
© 2018 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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