Child sex abuse and potty training: what every parent needs to know

We understand that child sex abuse may be difficult or triggering for parents to think about but we feel it important to cover this topic. If your child is being sexually abused it may show through their emotions or behaviour, especially when potty training. So what are the more common signs and what can you do if you are worried? Rebecca invited child sex abuse specialist Heather Bacon to help guide you through this difficult topic.

Why do I need to think about child sexual abuse?

Every parent should be aware that child sexual abuse is not uncommon. Even very young babies, toddlers and pre-school children can be sexually abused and almost always the child will know their abuser. Young children are most likely to be abused by a caregiver, so that whether in the family or not they will most often be a trusted person. Child sexual abuse happens in secrecy and children rarely tell, sometimes because they are simply too young to understand what is happening, and often because they simply ‘get the message’ that they must not tell.

How common of an issue is it?

Sexual abuse is usually hidden from view. The signs may not be recognised by adults and the child may be too young, too frightened, or too ashamed to tell anyone.  So we don’t know how many children experience it. However a picture can be built up from research asking adults and older young people about their childhood experiences, data from services such as the NSPCC which work with children, and child protection registers.  This suggests that around 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused.  However, many people working in the field of child protection such as social workers and child mental health practitioners would say this is likely to be an underestimate.

What is child sex abuse and how would I know?

Young children will however be affected in ways that show, and this can help guide a parent or caregiver to know when to be worried. For example, they may be affected emotionally or in their behaviour and they may also have physical signs or symptoms.

Sexual abuse of young children can involve direct sexual contact by the adult, or can be non-contact. Both types of abuse are disturbing at any age and may result in the child becoming fearful or avoidant of certain situations – sometimes this can be puzzling and inexplicable as it will relate to ‘games’ being played by the abuser to groom the child into a relationship. They may show signs of sexualised behaviour such as undue preoccupation with masturbation, acting out sexually or inappropriately with adults or other children.  But just as often it may show as a nonspecific change in sleeping or eating pattern, which shows that your child is stressed or upset.

Children being abused in the most serious ways can be physically penetrated by the abuser, orally, anally, or vaginally. Boys are as vulnerable as girls. There may be physical signs such as constipation, urine infection, physical injury, pain, soreness etc. but this often heals up quickly; and there may be no physical signs at all.

Potty training

More often you will notice a change in your child’s responses around personal care and toilet routine. They may become fearful around toileting, upset around dressing/undressing, bath-time and other personal care times, and may lose their newly acquired independence in toileting, sometimes wetting or soiling themselves when previously they were dry and clean. Wetting in the day time is unusual once children become able to toilet and should be taken seriously. Bedtimes, partings and separation might also become a source of anxiety.

What should I do if I am worried about my child?

You should not ignore worrying signs even though you are likely to tell yourself that ‘it can’t be that’.  No-one wants to believe that such a thing could be happening, this is a normal parental reaction. But, first of all, don’t keep the worry to yourself. Check who else might have noticed any changes. Other family members who care for your child, and friends whom you trust may be OK to ask but sometimes it’s best to get a more objective view. Health visitors, doctors, and nursery staff will all be helpful and know how to respond.  It may be important to have your child checked over if there are any physical symptoms but more often it’s a matter of watchful eyes over a period of time. Sometimes a child will say something that will alert an adult, entirely without the child being aware of its significance.

If you are still worried after some time and you have found no other explanation for the changes you’ve seen, it is OK to ask!! Children don’t know how to tell, and once they get a bit older are likely to believe they have to keep secrecy.  They need grownups to take the lead here. Reassurance and gentle questioning works best, perhaps about whether they are scared of anyone or if anyone has touched them in ways they shouldn’t or asked them to keep a secret. However, it’s best not to probe too much – just listen carefully and be available once you have raised the subject – your child may need space and there may be a time lag.

‘The pants rule’:  Help your child to stay safe

Every child needs to know that they should not be touched or looked at by anyone except you (or specified caregiver) where their pants cover. If you get this across from the start, then you are halfway there to being able to have the right conversation if this rule is ever broken.

help and support

If you do become the recipient of a child trusting enough to tell you about abuse, then you have a duty to pass this on. Help will be available. This will involve passing information to professionals working together in the child protection system, which can be daunting but it is there to work out the best way to help without necessarily rushing in.

It is important to remember that child sexual abuse becomes most damaging when it builds up over time and is repeated in secrecy.  If it is detected early, and the secrecy broken, there is a good chance for your child to be helped quickly and effectively so that they can recover well from their traumatic experience.   And this is important for you too!

There is lot of information available to you online. The NSPCC website is a good place to start.

heather bacon

Heather Bacon

References and further reading

Richardson, S and Bacon, H. (2001) Child Sexual Abuse: Whose Problem? Reflections from Cleveland, Venture Press

Bacon, H.  (2001a) Telling the baby crocodile’s story. In S. Richardson and H. Bacon (eds.) Creative Responses to Child Sexual abuse, Challenges and Dilemmas, Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London, pp.60-84.

Bacon, H.  (2001b) Attachment, trauma and child sexual abuse: An exploration. In S. Richardson and H. Bacon (eds.) Creative Responses to Child Sexual abuse, Challenges and Dilemmas, Jessica Kingsley: London, pp.44-59.

Bacon. H and Richardson, S (2001) Attachment Theory and Child Abuse: An Overview of the Literature for practitioners. Child Abuse Review, 10, 6, 377-397.

Bacon, H. (2008) Cleveland 20 years on: What have we learned about intervening in child sexual abuse? Child Abuse Review Vol. 17:215-229.

Richardson, S and Bacon, H. (2018) Child Sexual Abuse: whose Problem? Reflections from Cleveland, (revised) Policy Press

Bacon H, Richardson S. (2019) Management of child sexual abuse: The impact of Cleveland, Arch Dis Child Month 2019 Vol 0 No 0

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