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Child Sexual Abuse: A Supportive Resource for Parents & Caregivers

This information is intended for non-offending parents, guardians and caregivers who are supporting a child who has experienced sexual abuse. Reading about violence against children can be incredibly challenging. If you find the content overwhelming or difficult to sit with, we invite you to check in with yourself and access support that is available to you.

End Sexual Violence Newfoundland and Labrador (ESVNL) provides confidential support to anyone impacted by sexual violence. If you would like to speak with a supportive volunteer, the Support and Information Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Call or text: 1-800-726-2743

Supporting a child or youth who has experienced sexual abuse can be incredibly hard. As a parent or caregiver, you may feel self-blame, shame, guilt, or anger. You may be wondering how this happened. However you are feeling at this time is valid. There is no ‘right’ reaction when a child you love is going through this. There are resources and support available to you. If you have more questions or would like some legal support, you are welcome and encouraged to contact us at The Journey Project.

What is child sexual abuse?

Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a general term that describes a wide range of sexualized experiences that happen to a child under the age of 18 and can involve physical abuse and coercion or no physical contact at all. Abuse is a misuse of power and control.

CSA refers to any sexual misconduct committed against a child or youth by an adult or another young person. It can include one-time occurrences to multiple experiences.

Sexual abuse includes manipulating, threatening, or forcing a child into any sexual activity, which might include sexualized touching or kissing, intercourse, or sex trafficking. However, not all sexual abuse involves physical touch. Behaviours such as exposure, using a child in the making of or viewing of pornography, and grooming are also abusive.[1]

CSA is the sexual victimization of children and youth and includes a wide range of behaviours and situations. It does not have to involve physical force, restraint or penetration. It is the encouragement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful or psychologically harmful sexual activity that is intrusive, exploitive, and traumatic for the child.

CSA can include:

  • Contact sexual offences such as touching, fondling the genital area or more intrusive forms of contact including penetration.
  • Non-contact sexual offences such as exposing a child to sexually explicit acts or sexually explicit materials.
  • The use of children in audio or visual images of CSA.
  • The sharing of audio or visual images of CSA.
  • Sexual slavery, sexual exploitation in travel and tourism, trafficking and sale of children for sexual purposes and forced marriage.
  • One-time occurrences to multiple experiences.
  • One offender to multiple offenders.

Grooming

Offenders often use a process called grooming to gain trust and access children. This is really the start of the abuse process. Offenders are usually known to the child and hold positions of power, trust, or authority (i.e. a family member, close family friend, coach or teacher, tutor, spiritual leader, after school program leader, etc.). Offenders groom not only the child, but also the parents and community.

The Canadian Centre for Child Protection describes grooming as a process where the offender [2]:

  • May begin by establishing trust with adults around the child.
  • Establishes an emotional connection and gains the child’s trust.
  • Creates an emotional dependency on the offender.
  • Confuses the child into feeling as if they are equally responsible for the sexual contact.
  • Discourages and prevents the child from telling anyone about what is happening.
  • Makes the child feel obligated to (and at time, protective of) the offender.

Children under age 12 cannot consent to any sexual activity. The grooming process is coercive and abusive, even if force is not used. This process is often described as one of the most devastating parts of the abuse for the child because of the betrayal of trust.

Child Sexual Development

Sexual development is one part of the human experience. It begins at birth when the child explores their body and develops throughout childhood and puberty. Children of all ages and stages engage in behaviour that may be interpreted as sexual. However, exploring one’s body, masturbating to self-soothe, engaging in appropriate make-believe play (for example “playing doctor”), and being curious about their body are normal and healthy examples of child development. It is important to know that these behaviours are not sexual in nature. As children age and enter teenage years, their awareness of their sexuality increases and they begin to engage in sexual behaviours in private, or with peers.

Children who have experienced CSA at a very young age have no way to understand or disclose what is happening to them. The difference between healthy and problematic sexual behaviour is sometimes difficult to distinguish in childhood due to the individual’s sexual development. Some sexualized behaviour may be reflective of other stressors in a child’s life, for example if there is violence in the home, or if the child is being physically abused. However, there are some common signs and behaviours that can indicate a child has experienced CSA.

Some behaviours that can indicate that a child has experienced CSA are:

  • Having sexual knowledge or language that is inappropriate for a child’s age or developmental stage.
  • Inappropriate sexual play with toys or other children.
  • Children engaging in sexualized behaviours with other children where there is a significant age gap or with adults.
  • Sexual behaviours involving coercion or infliction of pain or harm on another child or themselves.

Sexual behaviour starts to impact engagement with regular activities.

Youth between age 12 and 17 are at more risk of experiencing online sexual exploitation, sexual abuse by a trusted person (for example a teacher or a coach), and dating violence. Relationships with signs of control or coercion are concerning and should be monitored.

If your child is showing any of these signs or behaviours, or if you suspect your child has experienced child sexual abuse, there are supports available.

Disclosure or Discovery of Child Sexual Abuse

Disclosure is when a child or youth tells a trusted person that they have experienced sexual abuse. Disclosure can happen in many different ways, and it is usually more of a process than a one-time event. The process may take hours, days, weeks, or even years. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection notes that disclosure often begins with a few hints to test the reaction of the person the child is trying to tell . For youth, many will tell their friends if they disclose. It is very difficult for children who have experienced abuse to tell someone what happened to them. Young children may not have the language ability, or even understand that what they have experienced is abuse. Most children who experience CSA do not disclose until they are adults. There are several reasons why children don’t tell, including:

  • They have been manipulated to feel responsible for the abuse.
  • They have been told that if they disclose it will disrupt their family life.
  • Children may perceive a sense of responsibility for the abuse.
  • The abuser is often someone of significance to the child.
  • They are concerned that there will be negative consequences for themselves, their families, and others if they disclose.
  • Many children feel enormous shame about this type of experience.
  • Younger children do not always understand what is happening to them.
  • They have disclosed before and and were not believed or their experiences were minimized.

If a child does disclose to you, or if you discover that your child has experienced CSA, it can take a toll on you as a parent or caregiver. It is important to know that this is not your fault, and there are supports available to both you and your child.

How to support your child

Children who are supported and believed when they disclose statistically have the best outcomes [2]. If your child, or a child close to you, tells you that they have been sexually abused, there are helpful things you can say and do to support them.

Stay Calm

Take a deep breath and allow a few moments to gather your thoughts. Hearing a disclosure can be very difficult. However, it is important to control your reaction and remember that the child confided in you because they see you as someone they trust and feel safe with.

Listen

Let the child tell you what happened in their own words. Try not to interrupt them or press them for details. This can be overwhelming for a child and may make them feel blame or shame.

Believe Them

The most important thing you can do is believe a child when they tell you they have been hurt or abused. How you respond will have a great impact on the child. Some helpful responses are:

“Thank you for telling me.”
“I believe you.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“You did nothing wrong.”
“You aren’t in trouble.”
“Thank you for trusting me.”
“You are very brave for telling me.”

It’s important to know that recanting, or ‘taking back’ the disclosure, is a common occurrence after a child has disclosed sexual abuse, especially if the abuser was a family member, or person close to the family. Recanting does not mean the child was lying. Many times, the child may be fearful of the abuser, feel shame, want to protect a family member, or may be trying to make it all go away.

Provide Reassurance

Let the child know that the abuse is not their fault. Nothing they did caused it, and they are not to blame. The offender holds all the blame, never the child.

Let the child know that they are not in trouble, but that you have to share this information with another trusted adult to make sure they are safe. Thank them for their bravery in coming forward.

Sharing Information

It is important to be honest with the child or youth and let them know that you will have to tell another trusted adult about what they have shared with you. Letting the child know what is happening to their information and experience gives them a sense of control and maintains trust. Sharing information without the child’s knowledge can have a very negative impact on the child. The Canadian Centre for Child Protection suggests giving them the option to be present when you share the information or make a report, or the option to make the report themselves. Make sure that you use age-appropropriate language to explain what is going on, and the steps that are happening so they can understand and have a sense of control over what is happening.

Take Care of Yourself

When a child discloses abuse it can be very difficult to process. You may experience feelings of shock, anger, sadness, disbelief, guilt, or confusion. Take time for yourself for self-care, connecting with your community, spiritual care, speaking with an elder, or counselling. Know that you are not alone, and there are resources in the community to help parents, caregivers, and people close to the child in the circle of support.

Impacts of child sexual abuse

The impact of sexual abuse can vary from person to person. Each child is unique, and their healing may look different, or not what you expected. This can be challenging for parents and supportive people in the child’s life. Some reactions and responses that you might see in the child you are supporting may include [3]:

  • Being angry at you for not protecting them.
  • Being angry at you for removing the perpetrator from the home.
  • Confiding in someone who isn’t you.
  • Not talking about it, or talking about the abuse all the time.

Sexual abuse can affect children’s emotional, psychological, mental, and physical well-being. Symptoms can also occur for children in high stress situations. Some symptoms may (but do not always) include [4]:

  • Learning difficulties due to changes in concentration, attention, memory, impulse control, and organization.
  • Emotional imbalance (i.e. extreme moods, anxiety, depression, numbness, or being zoned out).
  • Difficulty forming relationships and trusting others.
  • Physical complaints (i.e. headaches, stomach aches, chronic pain).
  • Change in appetite.
  • Disruptions in sleeping patterns (i.e. can’t sleep at night, can’t get up in morning, sleeping more during the day).
  • Self-harming behaviour (i.e. cutting, drugs, alcohol, smoking, promiscuity, recklessness).
  • Sensitivities to touch, taste, movements, or a lack of coordination.

Reporting Child Sexual Abuse

When a person becomes aware that a child (under age 16) or youth (age 16 and 17) is being sexually abused and in need of protective intervention, they are ethically and legally required to report it. Abuse can be reported to either the police or a social worker with the Department of Children, Seniors, and Social Development (CSSD).

The Children, Youth and Families Act states that a child or youth is in need of protective intervention if they have experienced, or are at risk of experiencing, abuse or neglect due to an action or lack of action by a parent.

CSSD defines sexual abuse as any sexual contact between an individual and a child/youth regardless of whether the sexual contact occurs by force, coercion, duress, and deception or whether the child/youth understands the sexual nature of the activity. Sexual contact includes sexual penetration, touching, harassment, invitation to sexual touching, sexual acts such as exposure, voyeurism, or sexually exploiting the child/youth by involving the child/youth in the sex trade or pornography. (https://www.gov.nl.ca/cssd/files/NL-Policy-and-Procedures-Manual-1.pdf)

 A plain language definition of a child or youth in need of protection can be found here: https://www.gov.nl.ca/cssd/childprotection/report/#Newfoundland

The legal definition of a child or youth indeed of protection can be found here: https://www.assembly.nl.ca/legislation/sr/statutes/c12-3.htm#10_

To report a concern, contact CSSD toll-free at 1-833-552-2368 or contact your local police.

If a child is in immediate danger, call 911 or your local police.

What happens after I report child sexual abuse?

After the police and/or child protection have been called, you may have questions about next steps. Child protection services are required by law to investigate whether a child is in need of protective intervention.

Your child may be interviewed by a police officer, a specially trained social worker, or both. People who are close to your child (for example, teachers, guidance counsellors, family members) may also be interviewed during the investigation.

Following the investigation, the social worker will complete their assessment. There are specific guidelines that a child protection social worker must follow during this process.

To understand more about the child protection system in Newfoundland and Labrador, visit: https://www.gov.nl.ca/cssd/childprotection/

An Introduction to Child Protection in Newfoundland and Labrador by Public Legal Information Association of Newfoundland and Labrador is another helpful resource. It can be found here: https://publiclegalinfo.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/PLIAN-Child-Protection-Publication-2020-Final.pdf

Additional Support

Victim Services

Supports through Victim Services are available to children, youth, or witnesses under age 16  who will be testifying in criminal proceedings. A caregiver or legal guardian must consent to services.

Victim Services may provide:

  • General information about the criminal justice system.
  • Information on your specific case.
  • Safety planning.
  • Court preparation.
  • Assistance writing your victim impact statement.
  • Referrals to other community organizations and agencies.
  • Emotional support and short-term counselling as you prepare to go to court.

Victim Services Coordinators can not provide legal advice. When you call Victim Services to request information about your case, you will likely need to provide your police file number. If you do not have one, or do not know it, they may ask you for some identifying information, like the name of the offender(s).

For additional information, visit: https://www.gov.nl.ca/victimservices/

Telephone: 709-729-7970
Email: victimservices@gov.nl.ca

Support for Non-Offending Parents & Caregivers

Discovering that your child has experienced sexual abuse can bring up strong, confusing, overwhelming emotions and feelings. If the perpetrator was part of your family or your partner, this can present some additional challenges. The safety of the child is priority. And know there are supports available to you as well.

Doorways

Single-session counselling services offers drop-in, same-day, next-day, in-person appointments.

For more information, visit: https://mha.easternhealth.ca/doorways/

End Sexual Violence Newfoundland and Labrador (ESVNL)

The ESVNL provides confidential support to anyone impacted by sexual violence. If you would like to speak with a supportive volunteer, the Support and Information Line is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. 

Call or text: 1-800-726-2743

Family Resource Centres (FRC)

FRCs are community based organizations that deliver programs to promote positive parent-child interactions intended to support healthy child development.

For more information, or to find a FRC near you, visit: https://www.childcare.gov.nl.ca/public/ccr/centres

Wellness Together

Wellness Together is a mental health and substance use website. They support people in Canada and Canadians who live abroad in both English and French. Their services are available for free. They offer immediate text support, individual phone, phone, or text counselling.

Call: 1-866-585-0445
https://www.wellnesstogether.ca/en-CA

First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Help Line

The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers immediate help to all Indigenous peoples across Canada. Experienced and culturally competent counsellors are reachable by telephone and online chat 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

Call: 1-855-242-3310
https://www.hopeforwellness.ca/