Child sexual abuse awareness and prevention

We believe that we can partner with you to help prevent child sexual abuse. The greater number of adults who are aware of what child sexual abuse is, how to recognize it, and how to respond, the greater chance we have of keeping young people safe. Below you’ll find information and resources relating to awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse. Please note that any external resources listed are not endorsed by USC, nor should this be considered an exhaustive list.

Warning: The following includes information about child sexual abuse that may be difficult or distressing to read.

Child Sexual Abuse Awareness and Prevention FAQ

What is child sexual abuse?

Each state defines child sexual abuse differently, but it is generally referred to as a form of abuse that involves sexual misconduct, whether it be pressuring, coercing, forcing, or manipulating a child to engage in (or become exposed to) sexual acts, and/or the sexual exploitation of children, including child sexual abuse material, i.e., child pornography.

How big is the problem?

Many children wait to report or never report child sexual abuse at all, which makes it difficult to fully capture the prevalence of child sexual abuse in our society. However, research estimates the following:

  • One in four girls and one in 13 boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • 91% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known and trusted by the child or the child’s family members (Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention)
  • Almost 65,000 children are sexually abused in the U.S. each year (Source: Prevent Child Abuse, North Carolina chapter)
  • Approximately one third of sexual abuse is committed by minors, often by a child who is older or in a position of authority (Source: National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children)
  • Individuals with disabilities experience abuse at more than twice the rate of those without a disability (Source: 2009 Report Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report on Crime Against People with Disabilities)

Could my child be at risk?

While we often think of abusers as strangers, abuse is most often perpetrated by people in our lives that our families know and trust, as well as by a child’s peers. That’s why it is important we understand what behavior is appropriate and empower young people to assert their boundaries and talk to us about anything that makes them uncomfortable.

What is grooming, and how do I recognize it?

Grooming is a process where an offender will slowly and carefully develop a relationship with a child (and in many cases, the child’s family and/or other adults in their life), gradually gaining trust while often at the same time initiating more inappropriate, intimate contact.

Grooming can be difficult to recognize because it can sometimes look like normal, caring behavior. But because it may not be, it’s helpful to look for patterns of certain behaviors and to intervene early – even if you think what you’re seeing may be trivial.

Some grooming behaviors may include:

  • Giving the child (or their family) special attention and/or gifts, making them feel special or indebted to the adult
  • Bending the rules for one child
  • Isolating the child from others, including their friends or family
  • Creating opportunities (often insisting) to get the child alone (offering to take the child home, taking them on outings, etc.)
  • Physical touch and gradual crossing of boundaries
  • Exposing a child to inappropriate conduct or materials
  • Using secrecy, blame or threats to maintain control

What barriers might keep a child from reporting boundary violations, or abuse?

  • Shame, guilt, embarrassment
  • Fear of letting down someone they care about
  • Fear of negative consequences or retaliation
  • Afraid of not being believed, or fear they are responsible for the abuse
  • Fear of getting someone they, or their family, care(s) about in trouble

What are some signs a child may be experiencing harm?

Signs that a child is being sexually abused are not always obvious, and there may be many reasons for a child’s change in behavior. But if you notice a combination of concerning signs, don’t be afraid to seek help or advice. Examples include:

  • Sudden change in social behavior (e.g., spending less time with friends or family, reluctance to spend time with a certain person, no longer wanting to participate in something they enjoyed, etc.)
    • Changes in eating behaviors.
    • Withdrawal, delinquency, or aggression (sometimes overlooked as “typical teenage behavior”).
    • Depression, anxiety.
    • Recurring stomach aches, headaches, etc.

What should I do if I suspect a child may be experiencing abuse?

If you suspect a child may be experiencing abuse, you should consider taking the following actions:

  • Report immediately – immediately or as soon as is practically possible report any concerns, whether it’s potential grooming behavior or suspected child abuse, to the appropriate authorities who can help determine next steps. For information about USC’s reporting protocols and how to report concerns, refer to the Office of Youth Protection and Programming’s Reporting page.
  • Make open communication your priority – encourage your child to come to you whenever they feel uncomfortable, or when someone has crossed a boundary.
  • Remain calm – if any child confides in you that they’ve been abused or harmed, staying calm is important, as your initial reaction can have a significant impact on what happens next. For example, you don’t want them to feel as though they shouldn’t have said something, or that they shouldn’t share more. Also, in some cases, remember that the person who harmed them may be someone they care about.
  • Use broad, open-ended questions – doing so will allow them the space to share their concerns with you. Avoid “why” questions, which tend to imply blame and guilt on someone’s part.
  • Be supportive – reiterate that that they did the right thing by telling you about their concerns, and that their safety is your priority.

How can I approach a conversation about a topic this sensitive with my child?

Clear, open, and supportive communication is the cornerstone of effective prevention. Statistics show that having informative, age-appropriate conversations about boundaries and body safety can help protect children from experiencing abuse. However, it can be difficult to know what to say, or to know when it’s an appropriate time to have these conversations. The following organizations have compiled helpful information to equip you for these important conversations: