December 4, 2023 Dec 04, 2023 14 min read
As disturbing as it may be, online sexual abuse of children is prevalent. Research indicates that approximately 500,000 sexual predators are active online every day and that sexual abuse images and videos of children aged 7 to 10 have increased online by over 1000% since 2019. According to information gathered by the FBI, over half of all underage victims of online sexual abuse are between the ages of 12 and 15.
Due to these startling realities, parents are unfortunately more and more likely to discover that their own children have fallen victim to online sexual abuse. That’s why it’s more important than ever to know what to do if you find yourself in this heart-wrenching situation.
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Although it might not be immediately clear, determining the nature of the abuse your child is experiencing will be an important step in deciding how to move forward.
Based on what you know so far, ask yourself the following questions…
Being able to clearly articulate what kind of abuse your child is experiencing – for example, “my child is being groomed and receiving inappropriate messages” versus “my child is being threatened and stalked” – will help you decide what steps to take and explain your situation to social service providers and/or law enforcement.
If your child is being sexually exploited online (for example, if someone is coercing them into sending nude photos or videos by making threats or attempting to acquire money by leveraging previously acquired nude content from your child), visit our article titled “What to Do if Your Child is Being Sexually Exploited Online.” The article also contains guidance on what to do if attempts at sex trafficking have occurred.
Based on what you know about the situation, determine the level of immediate risk you and your child are facing.
Does the online abuser know your home address and/or where your child goes to school? Is your child being stalked and/or spied on outside of the internet? Has the abuser approached (or attempted to approach) your child in real life?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” your child is facing high risk and you will want to prioritize getting to a safe place before tending to any of the next steps on this list.
You may want to consider moving you and your child into a trusted friend or family member’s home temporarily and/or requesting a temporary leave from school for your child. As heartbreaking as it is, some online sexual predators attain personal information about children online with the intention of seeking them out in the real world, which can lead to abduction, trafficking, and other serious crimes.
If you don’t know what level of information the abuser has been able to acquire, ask your child directly in as gentle and curious a way as possible. Approaching your child with an attitude of suspicion, anger, or even obvious fear could dissuade them from wanting to divulge these important details.
Finding out that your child is being groomed, sexually abused, and/or exploited online is a heartbreaking and overwhelming experience. You might be feeling at a loss for what to do, which is very understandable given the circumstances. That’s why reaching out for support and guidance from a professional can be a great first step.
Organisations in the US like RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) and Kids Help Phone in Canada are great resources for both kids and parents navigating sexual abuse crisis situations. To contact Kids Help Phone, call 1-800-668-6868 any time. RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached any time at 1-800-656-4673 for those residing in the US. Both organisations have professional counsellors available to help people of all ages navigate crisis situations.
While this ten-step guide is a great resource for parents navigating these situations, speaking with a social service provider directly will allow you to explain your specific circumstances and receive a more personalized recommendation for what to do.
While this will almost certainly be a distressing and disturbing process, it’s important to keep a close record of the abuse your child experienced so that you can report it to the authorities. In collaboration with your child or on your own, you will need to access your child’s phone and/or computer to acquire documentation of the abuse. This can feel like a major violation for a child, which is why it’s a good idea to try to do this with permission first before resorting to other measures.
Here are a few examples of how you will want to document the abuse…
In most places, reporting suspected child abuse to the authorities is a legal requirement. In Canada, for example, everyone has a duty to report child abuse whether it’s confirmed or suspected, regardless of that person’s relationship to the child. This, of course, includes parents. In the US, 47 of the 50 states have mandated reporting laws that require individuals serving in designated professions to report suspected child abuse. These professions typically include social workers, public school teachers, doctors, nurses, government workers, etc. To learn more about mandated reporting in the US, click here.
Canadian residents should report online child abuse via Cybertip.ca here. In the US, reports of cyber abuse of children can be submitted by calling the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678 or online here.
Once you’ve documented the abuse, you will want to ensure that the abuser will no longer be able to contact your child. This could mean disabling your child’s social media accounts or email addresses or even changing their phone number. While this process will almost certainly be distressing or frustrating for your child, it’s important to help them understand why these safety steps are necessary. If you don’t want to change your child’s phone number right away, it’s usually possible to block a specific phone number by contacting your service provider.
While your first instinct might be to delete your child’s social media accounts, get rid of their phone, etc., it’s best not to do this for multiple reasons. First, an extreme response like this could be distressing to your child in a way that might make them less likely to cooperate with you during other steps in the process. Second, you will want to maintain a record of the abuse for legal purposes.
By disabling or deactivating your child’s internet accounts instead of deleting them, this can allow for a conversation about wanting to ensure your child’s immediate safety while not wanting to completely strip them of their freedom or autonomy. Try asking for your child’s permission to temporarily disable their accounts so that you can come up with a plan together for cultivating better safety online in the future.
Whether you found out about the abuse directly from your child or by other means, you will at some point want to open up a dialogue with your child about the abuse. This can be an extremely difficult thing for both parents and children.
When approaching a conversation about online sexual abuse with your child, remember that they are the victim. Do not approach them in such a way that might leave them feeling like they’re in trouble or that you’re upset with them for what’s happening. Your child is being targeted by a criminal or group of criminals, and your role is to be their advocate and protector. Even if it appears as if your child “participated” in their own abuse, remember that a victim of sexual abuse is never to blame. Due to the nature of grooming, many sexual abuse victims are manipulated into acting as willing participants in an abusive dynamic, but child sexual abuse is never truly consensual.
It’s also important to remember that kids often won’t want to open up right away about the abuse. This is entirely normal. The first step in opening up a dialogue is to simply let your child know that you are aware of what’s happening, that you are not mad at them, and that you are invested in doing whatever you can to keep them safe and help them cultivate healthy boundaries. Deeper conversations about the details of what has happened might unfold over time as you and your child develop trust together.
Although the nature of these boundaries will depend on your circumstances and the age of your child, setting boundaries regarding internet and cell phone use will be an important step in keeping your child safe from further online abuse. This can, unfortunately, be one of the most difficult parts of the process as most kids will feel resistant to having their online privileges limited. However, there are ways to establish boundaries that are less likely to feel unfair or disciplinary to your child.
When setting boundaries, involve your child in the process of deciding what these boundaries should look like and why it’s important to have them. Approach the conversation from a place of wanting to help your child understand the importance of cyber safety and why boundaries matter. Your role should be to help empower your child to build and maintain their own boundaries as they mature and become more autonomous.
At the end of the day, children are rapidly maturing people with independent minds, and there will never be a way to keep them 100% safe and protected from the world. This is why it’s important to build a foundation of understanding with your child so that they can build skills and awareness to keep themselves safe online and out in the world.
Even when caught early, sexual abuse can have lasting negative effects on a child’s emotional, psychological, or even physical development. Seeking out support from a counsellor or therapist trained to work with children who have experienced sexual abuse is an excellent way to help your child heal from their experiences.
Many counsellors and therapists are available who specialize in working with children who have experienced sexual abuse. Finding a therapist your child feels safe and comfortable with should be a top priority in this process. It can also be a good idea to seek out someone who’s willing to work with multiple members of the same family. Even if you were not the victim of the abuse, seeking out therapy alongside your child is a great way to integrate healing deeper into your family structure and be in solidarity with your child as they heal. This can also be extremely helpful for parents who may be struggling with feelings of guilt, shame, or blame after finding out their child has been abused. Prioritizing care and emotional support for yourself as well will be an important part of the healing process.
Seeking out professional psychological help is a particularly important step if your child is struggling to understand that what they experienced was abuse. Due to the nature of grooming, some underage victims of sexual abuse might believe that their relationship to the abuser was consensual. As a parent in a situation like this, this can be especially difficult to navigate since it can lead to rifts or conflicts between the parent and the child. By setting up a recurring appointment for your child to meet with a specially trained counselor, you can help increase the likelihood that your child will find their way toward healing even if it takes time for them to fully understand what has happened.
In extreme cases, it might become necessary to seek out legal protections if your child’s abuser continues to find ways to contact them or engage in otherwise threatening or concerning behavior toward your family. Commonly known as protection orders or restraining orders, these legal mandates are issued by a judge and can create serious legal ramifications for an individual who violates the terms of the order. Protection orders are used to protect victims of abuse when an abuser engages in harassment, stalking, or other ongoing threatening behavior.
To file for an order for protection for you and your child, you will need to either contact your local court system directly or contact a local social services organization designed to assist victims of abuse.
Finding out that your child has been abused can be one of the most heartbreaking and painful experiences for a parent. But knowing how to handle these situations can help foster a sense of empowerment as you rebuild a sense of safety in your family. While it’s easy to feel helpless and blindsided as a parent whose child has been victimized, there are so many things that you can do to help your child and reduce the risk of future abuse.
The sexual abuse of children online is heartbreakingly prevalent. Research shows that 15-20% of all children will experience online sexual abuse before the age of 18. Parents of children who have experienced online sexual abuse should first assess immediate risks and determine the nature of the abuse. Depending on severity and urgency, parents may need to temporarily or permanently relocate with their children, change their contact information, change school districts, etc. Parents should also report the abuse to the authorities and/or seek out other legal action if necessary or desired. Many social service organisations exist to provide immediate help and support to victims of child sexual abuse and their families. Pursuing therapy or counseling for your child and/or family can be a great way to begin the process of healing from child sexual abuse. Throughout every step of this process, it’s extremely important for a parent to approach their child with a sense of understanding, care, and gentleness rather than behaving in a way that could leave the child feeling like they’re being blamed or punished. A parent is first and foremost a child’s guardian and protector, and your child’s emotional well-being and ability to trust and rely on you is of the utmost importance as they recover from abuse.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.