Most people do not understand why someone would molest and rape a child and even more, arguably, do not understand why children do not tell. The answer is actually within the question: those that abuse children often choose them because of their lack of understanding of sex, the ability to easily manipulate them, and often it's about control - not just sexual gratification.  These same abusers would most likely enjoy sex with someone their age but it's a little trickier to get an adult to consent to sex without a relationship. With children, there's less complication - kids aren't that hard to connect with- they want attention, they want someone who spends time with them - someone that makes them feel special. If the child has a special need or disability it may be even easier to target them and keep the abuse hidden. So let's break it down and hopefully shed some light on that big question of why this happens so often but so few children tell. 

A is for attention 

Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! 
Watch me! Watch me! Watch me!
Come play! Come read! 
What are you doing? Can I come? 
Kids want and need attention, pretty much from birth into adulthood. Those that abuse children know this and use it to their advantage. If a child does not receive adequate attention from the people who love them, they will be more susceptible to develop a relationship with someone who intends to groom the child for sexual abuse. 

In cases of incest, whether it is an immediate family member or extended, the child most likely already receives attention from their abuser and it will seem completely normal to the family. 

It is important to be aware of who is giving attention to your child and how. Is it excessive? Does this person spend equal or more time with people their own age? Is there a lot of hugging, holding, kissing? Does the person seek 1:1 time with the child - either within the home or taking trips? Do they communicate with your child via text, email, phone calls, or via social media? Does your child seem impressed with an older child or adult - their accomplishments, connections, possessions? Do you ever get a sense that this child feels another person understands them better or sympathizes with them than you?

And please, do not discount children from being a possible abuser - often it is a sibling, cousin, peer, or other child that will target a smaller, younger, and/or less confident child. And we're not talking an innocent game of "doctor" when children are curious - children as young as 8 have been known to purposely abuse other children. Young children often look up to older kids and will strive to be accepted by them, which can enable the abuse to occur and be kept quiet because of the admiration on behalf of the child. 

A is for affection

Every child is unique in their desired level of affection. Some children are very affectionate while others prefer a greater level of personal space. 

Abusers, however, often try to develop a certain level of physical affection in order to initiate sexual touching. It may start out as hugging, kissing, holding the child on their lap etc but, in time, they will pass the boundary of acceptable touching. Maybe at first, by accident. Or a hand on their thigh or a massage of their back - they will gauge the child's reaction and often will do this right in front of family. People often think sexual abuse happens in isolated locations, but often it's occurring within the home, with people at home or a school or facility where there are other adults/children nearby. Those that abuse children can get away with it because the child often doesn't know that it's abuse. Children are not born with an innate sense of how healthy sexual relationships are developed. In most cases, it will feel good to the child, but they don't know, until they're older, that this isn't suppose to happen with a sibling, a parent, or babysitter etc. 

First off, we, as parents, need to enforce with family and others that children of all ages deserve personal space and are not required to be affectionate toward someone, if it makes them uncomfortable. Too often, a parent is afraid of offending or hurting someone's feelings and will physically force their unwilling child onto another person. How is that enjoyable for anyone? Who wants to hug or kiss a crying or squirming child? What message are we sending to our children when their own parents, the people they expect to protect them, are forcing them into an uncomfortable and frightening situation? 

Furthermore, we need to teach our children as early as possible about their private parts - what they're called and that no one should be touching them (except for diaper changes, checking out a boo-boo or a trip to the dr's, with a guardian in the room). To learn more about all the great ways to empower and protect children, hop over to our education page

If you really want to get in the heads of those that abuse children sexually, the truth is - they often convince themselves that the attention and affection that they are giving these children makes their crime less criminal. They rationalize that they are not hurting these children physically - oblivious to the psychological and emotional anguish that the children may suffer or will most likely endure for some or all of their adult life. Especially if the abuser is a child that has not been educated about healthy sexual development and behavior - they may have a sense of what they are doing is inappropriate but not to the full extent. 

B is for blackmail 

Oh the many ways in which children are made to feel like the abuse is their fault and that there is a price to be paid if they tell. The innocence of being a child is exactly what makes them incapable of seeing through empty threats. If we can make children believe they won't receive presents from Santa if they're not good, it shouldn't be hard to understand that there are a lot of ways to make a child afraid to tell. 

 It's a never-ending laundry list. Here's how it can go: 
  • "You're mom is going to be mad at you for doing this. This is all your fault."
  • "If you tell, I could go to jail and you'd never see me again. You don't want me to go away, do you?"
  • "I won't do it to your sister." 
  • "No one loves you the way I do." 
  • "I'll kill you and/or your family." 
  • "I'll tell them that you're lying - no one would believe you." 
  • "I'll buy you __________, if you let me." 
  • "I'll put these pictures up on Facebook and everyone will know that you're a slut." 
  • "If you tell, I'll have your dad fired and your family will be homeless." 
  • "Remember when I promised not to tell your parents about _______? You wouldn't want them to find out, would you?" 
  • "This is our little secret, ok?"

Since over 90% of abuse comes from a person known and trusted by the child, the child often feels a sense of responsibility for "allowing" the abuse. How confusing would it be to suddenly be touched inappropriately or shown sexual images by someone you trust or admire? You like and probably love this person, and now they're doing someone that seems wrong, but you don't know what to do. They never seemed like a "bad" person. The sexual touching may feel good, and the child often feels that they must "want" this abuse - if they didn't want it their body wouldn't react this way. Children do not understand that sexual response to stimulation is uncontrollable. They may even be blackmailed by their own fear of how people will react. They may be ashamed and not want people to know, or worse - afraid to tell and not be believed. 

This is why it's our job, as the adults, to teach and remind children often, that it's never their fault. That it's always right to tell and to make sure that they understand that this is something that can happen to any child - they would not be the first person to have had this happen to them, and it doesn't make them bad or any less valuable. No matter how much we do to protect our children, the threat will always be there. To learn more about how abusers work and how to identify signs of abuse: click here

C is for control & Cover

In the end, it's all about control. Abusers prey on children because they are easily controlled. And it's not just the children they're manipulating, but the very adults that care and want to protect these children. Here are a few points to consider: 

  • Abusers need our trust. They need us to trust them with our children. How do they do this? They either exploit a relationship that already exists (family/friend/respected community member), or they establish one - a new romantic interest, a new friend of the family or child, a person who has established themselves in a position of authority/control - babysitter, teacher, medical worker, coach/leader etc. The very people we trust most with our children are, most often, the ones that betray that trust. Right here and now I will say that I, personally, think I married a great guy. Do I honestly think he would abuse a child, or our own children for that matter? The answer is no. But that doesn't mean that I don't observe his body language or remind my kids that not even daddy (or myself, for that matter) can touch their private parts. I don't consider myself "over-protective" I consider myself open-minded. 
  • Abusers need backup. They need someone to say "he'd never do that." They need someone to take their side and work with them to minimize the accusations of the child/protective guardian. To do this - they often work very hard at maintaining a "good guy" image. Often, there is no physical evidence. Sexual abuse is one of the hardest crimes to convict on because it's most often one person's word against another's. There are many ways that an abuser can turn it around on the child and be believed. They may target a "troubled" child because it would be easier for people to assume the child was lying. Often, if the abuser is a parent, it's nothing for them to say that the protective parent has been "feeding" these stories to the child to be vindictive - especially in custody disputes. (More about that here.
  • They may use their authority and may purposely seek authoritative positions for the goal of abusing children. They will often have a "perfect record" and do their job very well. They are often charitable, community-focused citizens. They are using their position of authority and not enough is being done to reduce the risk to children. Doctors of all kinds are abusing kids under the guise that they need to be alone with the child - without any form of remote supervision. School teachers are abusing kids during recess and after school because the administrators have not conducted an inspection and review of how to reduce and minimize risk. The worst part: we trust these people to protect our children and not enough people are asking and demanding better safeguards for children. Do you know what your school's protocol are for reducing the risk of abuse? Would you allow your child to be examined, tutored, or coached in an isolated situation? Are you capable of considering that the people you love and trust most may be capable of sexually abusing a child? Are you afraid of offending someone by asking these very questions? We have allowed other people to take responsibility for our children's safety and they are not doing the job well enough. 

The ABC's of ending child sexual abuse

A. Affirm your children: that they are loved, that you are their protector, that they have rights, that sexual abuse is never their fault, that it is always the right thing to tell. 
Attention: pay attention to every relationship that your child has with an older child or adult. Trust your instinct and observe the body language and how people communicate with you and your child. 
B. Break down the taboo: lets be the people that don't pretend that children are not sexual beings, that they don't need our support through the journey into adulthood. While too many parents have their heads in the sand about the benefits of talking to their children in an open, truthful, loving way about their bodies and sex - society and mass-media are selling sex to them in a very untruthful and unloving way. 
C. Communicate! Talk about it! To your friends & family, to your kids, to your community. There are a lot of people out there that are simply unaware of this reality and all the great ways to empower and protect children. For many parents, hindsight is 20/20 if their child does finally disclose their abuse - but it doesn't have to be that way.  There are too many youth-serving organization that have not analyzed their protocol and procedures and invested time in educating staff. Schools are only mandated to have a policy for reporting abuse - there are no mandated policies for minimizing abuse. This is a major problem - but who is complaining about it? The answer: not enough people. 

Can we do this? I think we can. Starting with our families. Spreading the word to people we know. Speaking out for the better of our own communities. This is for the safety of children - yes, we can do this. 


08/28/2013 6:12pm

Thank you for this beautifully written, painfully clear article.

Survivor's Sis
08/28/2013 6:28pm

My little sister was horribly and repeatedly sexually abused in our home by our brother. She was 6, I was 8, our other sister was 10, and our brother was 16. NOBODY KNEW. My parents should have known and I made it my business to talk to my own kids from the time they were tiny that nobody had the right to touch them, not even me, unless it was for a diaper change or because something was bothering them and they wanted my help. They're grown now and safe so far. I swear I will never let what happened to my sister happen to any other child if I can help it. She's 60 years old and it ruined her life.

Rita Wilson
08/29/2013 12:46am

I'm nearly 70 and only recently have opened my heart to my mind and soul. I still can't fully deal with my sexual abuse and that of my sisters. Hate sex. Hate marriage (tried and failed three times). Love people. Love hugs. Love communication. Wonder if I'll ever be freed from this ball & chain? My sisters mostly deny. We don't talk about it. We are letting our abuser win. We really have false sibling relationships. It's all deceit still. Deceiving ourselves of the truth and the ability to walk a strong and clear path toward healing.

09/15/2013 7:34am

As a victim of sexual abuse, I found this article to be spot on. It was well written, and very informative. Thank you so much.

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