Understanding child sexual abuse

An APA brochure describes warning signs, steps parents and caregivers can take to prevent abuse, and what treatments are available

What is child sexual abuse?  Who are the perpetrators?  What steps can we take to prevent abuse?  How can we help a child who has been abused?

Child sex abuse has been very much in the news recently. Parents and other caregivers of children are understandably concerned about the safety of children.

Research to help us understand, recognize, prevent, and treat child sex abuse continues to evolve because data can be difficult to gather.  

Research does tell us that:

  • Children of all ages, races, ethnicities, cultures, and economic backgrounds are vulnerable to sexual abuse.  Child sexual abuse occurs in rural, urban, and suburban areas, affects both boys and girls, and occurs in all kinds of neighborhoods and communities, in countries around the world. 

  • Most children are abused by someone they know and trust, typically a male (abusers are equally likely to be heterosexual or gay men – a perception that most perpetrators are gay men is a myth and harmful stereotype). 

  • Because sexual abuse is vastly underreported, accurate estimates of prevalence are difficult.  Some CDC research estimates that roughly 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before age 18. 

  • Older children (12 and up) and girls are at greater risk. However, boys are more likely to be victimized by a perpetrator outside the family. 

  • A disability, prior history of victimization, or absence of one or both parents increases risk.

Prepared by APA’s Children, Youth, and Families Office, Child Sexual Abuse: What Parents Should Know responds to parents’ and caregivers’ questions and concerns, including recognizing warning signs, steps parents and caregivers can take to prevent abuse, and what treatments are available for children and adolescents who have been sexually abused.

General information on sex abuse, more information on Understanding Child Sexual Abuse:  Education, Prevention, and Recovery, and APA's Resolution Opposing Child Sexual Abuse are available on APA's web site.