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The Blog Post

Sexual Abuse of Children, by Children

It is not always easy to tell the difference between natural sexual curiosity and potentially abusive behaviors. Children, particularly younger children, may engage in inappropriate interactions without understanding the hurtful impact it has on others. For this reason, it may be more helpful to talk about a child’s sexually “harmful” behavior rather than sexually “abusive” behavior.

Most people already are aware of the risk of sexual abuse that some adults present to our children. There is growing understanding that the vast majority of children who are sexually abused are abused by someone they know, and often trust. Unfortunately, very few adults recognize that children and adolescents also can present a risk to other children. In fact, over a third of all sexual abuse of children is committed by someone under the age of 18.

What is sexually harmful behaviour?

It is important for adults to recognize that many children will engage in some forms of sexual exploration with children of a similar age, size, social status or power.Sexually harmful behaviour by children and young people may range from experimentation that has gone too far to serious sexual assault. Sometimes a child or young person may engage in sexual play with a much younger or more vulnerable child, or use force, tricks or bribery to involve someone in sexual activity.Interactions involving both direct contact and non-touching behaviours may cause harm. Examples range from unwelcome repeated touching, to brief touching of genitals to actual intercourse, sexually charged verbal or emotional aggression, photographing a child in sexual poses or exposing a child to sexual acts or images.

Why do some children sexually harm others?

The reasons children sexually harm others are complicated, varied and not always obvious. Some children may have been emotionally, sexually or physically abused themselves, while others may have witnessed physical or emotional violence at home. Some may have come in contact with sexually explicit movies, video games, or materials that are confusing to them. In some instances, a child or adolescent may act on a passing impulse with no harmful intent, but may still cause harm to themselves or to other children.Whatever the reason, without help, some sexually- abusing youth will go on to abuse children as adults.

How do we recognize the warning signs of Sexually harmful behaviour?

One of the most difficult discoveries a parent can make is to learn that your child may have sexually harmed or abused another child. Denial, shock and anger are common reactions. Because a quick and sensitive response can help diminish the harmful effects on the whole family, it is important to get professional advice about what to do as soon as you become aware of the warning signs.

  • Regularly minimizing, justifying, or denying the impact of inappropriate behaviours on others.

  • Making others uncomfortable by consistently missing or ignoring social cues about others’ personal or sexual limits and boundaries.

  • Preferring to spend time with younger children rather than peers.

  • Insisting on physical contact with a child even when that child resists.

  • Responding sexually to typical gestures of friendliness or affection.

  • Inappropriate sexual behaviours involving another child after being told to stop.

  • Taking younger children to “secret” places or hideaways to play “special” undressing or touching games

What are the warning signs of a child being sexually abused?

Because children often find it so hard to tell us in words, it is important to be alert of the following behavioural warning signs that might indicate that they are experiencing abuse.

  • Nightmares, sleep problems, extreme fears without an obvious explanation.

  • Sudden or unexplained personality changes; seems withdrawn, angry, moody, clingy, “checked-out,” or shows significant changes in eating habits.

  • An older child behaving like a younger child, e.g. bedwetting or thumb-sucking. Develops fear of particular places or resists being alone with a particular child or young person for unknown reasons.

  • Shows resistance to routine bathing, toileting or removing clothes even in appropriate situations.

  • Play, writing, drawings that include sexual or frightening images. Refuses to talk about a secret he/she has with an adult or older child.

  • Stomach aches or illness, often with no identifiable reason. Leaves clues that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues. Uses new or adult words for body parts; engages in adult-like sexual activities with toys, objects or other children. Develops physical symptoms e.g. unexplained soreness, pain or bruises around genital or mouth; sexually-transmitted disease; pregnancy

How can adults help prevent sexually harmful behaviour between children?

Set and respect physical boundaries.

Make sure that all members of the family have rights to privacy in dressing, bathing, sleeping, and other personal activities.

Encourage children to also respect themselves and others.

Highly-sexualized images in advertising, music lyrics, video games and films can sometimes make it difficult for adolescents—or even young children—to distinguish between innocent experimentation and sexually harmful behaviours.

Demonstrate to children that it is all right to say “no” and that they need to accept “no” from others.

Teach children when it is okay to say “no”—for example when they do not want to play, or be tickled, hugged or kissed. Help them understand what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Stay aware of how children are interacting with one another.

Be alert to the warning signs that your child, or another child or young person, may be acting in ways that make it difficult for other children to set a limit, or in ways that are sexually aggressive or abusive.

Talk with children, and listen to what they have to say.

Adults and adolescents who sexually abuse children usually rely on secrecy. The first step to breaking through this secrecy is to develop an open and trusting relationship with your children. It is important to talk with them about sexuality, offer accurate answers to their questions, and to be comfortable using correct terms for parts of the body.

Set clear guidelines and keep a careful eye on children’s Internet and video game use and the TV shows and movies they watch.

Check that TV shows, films and videos are age-appropriate. Watch programs with children and use what they see as “teachable moments” to share information and values. Make agreements with other adults that the guidelines of a visiting child’s parents or guardians will be respected during play dates or visits.

Take sensible precautions about whom you choose to take care of your children.

If your child is unhappy about spending time with a particular person, talk to the child about his or her concerns.

Regularly remind children of other trusted adults whom they can talk to.

Sometimes the child or young person whose behaviour concerns us is a close family member or the son or daughter of a friend. An adult outside the immediate family is often in a better position to acknowledge concerns and to take protective actions. Our children are our future. All Adults have the added responsibility of ensuring that all children who have been involved in a harmful sexual situation, whatever their role, are given the help they need to live healthy productive lives. So take action …

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