Vol. 12, No. 1• November 2007

Helpling children who have been sexually abused

It is not uncommon for children placed in foster care to have been sexually abused. Often social workers placing these children are not aware of the sexual abuse.

In many cases, this abuse is first discovered by the child’s foster family. Night time and bath time are scary for many children who have experienced sexual abuse. Having a caregiver there to console them and listen to them may bring forth birth family secrets. As children feel more secure, they may gradually share details of things that have happened to them.

Given this, foster and adoptive parents must learn all they can about the needs of the child in care.

Child Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse is the interaction, including non-physical contact (such as verbal abuse, exposure, or pornographic photos) and physical contact between a child and a person in a power position, in which the child is used for sexual gratification of the abuser and/or others. Child sexual abuse can be perpetrated by anyone, but we will focus on family abuse (incest).

Children who have been sexually abused by a family member are often enveloped into a secret life. There are many reasons these children don’t tell, including:

  1. They don’t understand that it is wrong. It is a family cycle. Children are kept in seclusion without outside interactions to sustain the secret.
  2. The child may not have the verbal capacity to tell. Words like “vagina” could have been replaced by the offender with “knee” to disguise sexual abuse if disclosed by the young child.
  3. Children are taught to respect and obey adults. Adults forget to explain that there are limits to this obedience.
  4. Children feel guilty if telling could cause their loved one (abuser) to go to jail or their family to be broken apart.
  5. Boys feel ashamed because they are taught to fight and take control. They may worry the abuse will “make them” homosexual. Society makes it hard for boys to tell.

Sometimes there is a parent in the home who did not know about the abuse. Abusers work very hard to keep the incest a secret, setting up private time with the child and pressuring them with words or actions not to tell anyone. If the non-offending parent did know about or suspect the sexual abuse, she or he may have been too ashamed to seek help. Or, the parent may have feared the break-up of the family or the loss of the abuser’s love or support.

Women sexually abuse children, too. We seldom catch them because we openly accept their “nurturing behaviors.” A woman bathing, sleeping with, dressing, and touching children seems normal to society. We do not easily suspect a woman may be crossing the line from nurturing to sexual abuse. In other cases, a woman may not abuse the child herself, but may allow or set up access to the child.

Addressing Behaviors
How can caregivers help a child feel safe, not over-controlled and not guilty? There are common behaviors of sexually abused children that challenge caregivers. Excessive masturbating in public, lack of boundaries, and sexually playing with toys are a few examples. These are “learned” behaviors and can be replaced with more appropriate ones if patiently taught by caring foster or adoptive parents. But this isn’t one person’s job: it is the treatment team’s responsibility to do this together.

In the box below you will find some suggestions for ways to address certain behaviors and make children who have been sexually abused feel safe.

Ways to Help Sexually Abused Children


  1. Be friendly but clear with your household rules. Develop a plan that spells out how to live in your home. Don’t assume children know these things. Write it down and give a copy to your social worker so he or she is aware how your family functions. This can be helpful if anyone questions your life-style.

    Note: Rules are developed only when there is a need. For example, masturbation is a common and natural way for children to soothe themselves. It can become an excessive need for a child who has been sexually stimulated over a long time period. It can show up when the child is insecure, deep in thought, etc. Many times, the child isn’t aware of what he or she is doing. Instead of shaming the child, establish guidelines for what children should do if they find they need to “touch themselves.” Suggested Guidelines: Must be alone with door shut and shades closed, don’t cause pain or bleeding, no objects can be used, time alone is limited to 15 minutes. Add the guidelines you feel are important. Then give children the opportunity to develop self-esteem and other interests. Their need to masturbate will usually lessen.

  2. Listen to the child when he or she is disclosing; don’t tell the child how to feel or what to say. Children don’t always need advice, but they do need to vent. Let them use their own words, even if they are offensive to you. You can help them replace their offensive words with more acceptable ones later when they aren’t opening their souls up to you. Build trust. Do not promise not to tell anyone what is shared. Rather, say, “I won’t share the information unless I feel there is someone who can help. I will tell you who I feel we need to share this information with.”

  3. Don’t talk badly about the child’s birth family. A child’s family is part of her identity; these connections are vital to the outcome of her life. If she is currently separated from the non-offender and her siblings, she may feel isolated and afraid. Helping the child to visit her family will help build the child’s trust in you.

  4. Record any information, such as birth parents’ behavior with child, signals of sexual abuse of the child, and disclosures from the child or family. Report these to the child’s social worker immediately. Report your reactions to what you observed. Keep a copy of everything you submit.

  5. Let the child talk about his feelings about his family, including the offender. Regardless of how we feel about them, incest perpetrators are still very important to the families they have betrayed. In psychological terms they are still central attachments for the family. You might want to tell the child, “There are safe ways parents can show children ‘love’ and that is what the social workers and doctors are trying to teach your parents.”

  6. Teach the child some of the other ways parents can show children caring and love. This is another reason why foster and adoptive parents have to be friendly and clear with boundaries: so the child can learn. Remember, repeating the rules and expectations will be necessary until the child can create new, positive habits. This is an opportunity to work on enhancing the child’s self-esteem by spending quality time with him. Show the child how to have fun, laugh, and play. This may be the first time the child has freely experienced this type of interaction.

  7. Create a “life book” with the child to help her put her past, present, and future into perspective. It will help lessen her confusion. Social workers and therapists can use the life book as a tool in counseling the child.

  8. Make it clear that adults are responsible for keeping kids safe. Children often feel they caused the abuse and are to blame for all that’s happened in their family. It is very healing for a child simply to be in a home with clear rules and expectations, enforced consistently and fairly by the adults. This helps children understand they are responsible for their own actions, but not the actions of adults.

  9. Ask for help when needed. If a child continues to show sexualized behavior that cannot be redirected, he or she may need help from a therapist experienced in working with children who have been sexually abused. Children might also have problems with depression, anxiety, and other disorders. Talk with the child’s treatment team about any signs that the child is distressed or having difficulty functioning.

Adapted from “Foster Parenting a Sexually Abused Child” by Donna Gillespie Foster, from Fostering Perspectives, Vol. 5, No. 1.

Copyright � 2007 Jordan Institute for Families