Sexual Abuse

It is important to note that the following definitions are gender neutral:

Sexual assault is defined broadly as sexual acts that include fondling and other non-penetrating acts, as well as rape.

Sexual abuse is described as the involvement of a child in sexual activities that the child cannot comprehend, and in which the child is developmentally unprepared and cannot provide consent, and/or violate the law or social taboos of family roles. This would include incest (sexual contact between family members).

Sexual exploitation usually refers to acts without sexual contact, but which are nonetheless, viewed as potentially harmful to a child such as having: children pose for sexually explicit photographs or videos, children witness sexual acts, or adults exposing themselves to children inappropriately for the adult’s sexual gratification.

Rape is generally defined as forceful, penetrative sexual contact of the mouth, genitals and/or anus.

Symptoms of sexual abuse

Possible symptoms or problems after experiencing a traumatic event include:

  • More childlike behavior such as clinging to caregivers, bedwetting or thumb sucking
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Nightmares
  • Changes in eating patterns
  • Refusal to talk about the trauma
  • Angry outbursts/increased aggression
  • Excessive sadness
  • Excessive nervousness
  • Fears for his/her or others’ safety
  • Mood swings
  • Jumpiness or being easily startled
  • Flashbacks related to the trauma
  • Repetitive play related to the trauma
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors
  • Trying to avoid certain people, places and things
  • Thinking or acting as though wants to hurt self
  • Increased problems with school and grades

What do I do (and not do) if my child experiences sexual abuse?

If your child does disclose to you that she/he has experienced sexual abuse:


  • Reacting with shock, anger, disgust
  • Forcing a child to talk
  • Forcing a child to show injuries
  • Asking "why" questions
  • Teaching the child new terms or words
  • Interviewing the child


  • Report any suspicion of abuse
  • See a physician
  • Obtain a mental health assessment
  • Utilize support for yourself
  • Listen and support all feelings
  • Identify a plan
  • Reassure the child (and yourself) that it is not their fault
  • Maintain rules and routines

Visit the Resources for Families section for information on how to support sexual assault/abuse survivors.