What kind of people sexually abuse children?
It is impossible to describe a typical sexual abuser or paedophile. They do not look different to other people and they behave in a variety of ways. They are found in all areas of society and can come from any professional, racial or religious background.
They sometimes hold influential positions, appearing to be well-respected members of society. They may be abusing their own children as well as children within the wider community.
Those who abuse children within their own families can include fathers, live-in partners, step-fathers, boyfriends, brothers, uncles, male cousins, grandfathers and father figures. Abusers can also be a similarly wide range of female relatives, including mothers.
Contrary to the popular image, people who sexually abuse children often appear kind, concerned and caring towards children. This is part of building a close relationship with children, which allows them to abuse without being suspected or discovered.
Many also convince themselves that they are doing no harm to the child.
Keeping the secret
The abuse will nearly always be carried out in great secrecy. Other adults in the family will probably not suspect that anything is wrong, including the other parent if their partner is the abuser.
The child may also feel very confused and not know who to tell or what to tell them. To keep the abuse secret, the abuser may use the child’s natural fear, embarrassment or guilt about what has happened, as well as threats of punishment. They may say:
“If you tell, Daddy will be taken away and it will break up the family.
“It’s no use telling anyone - no-one will believe you” or “breathe a word to anyone and you’re dead.”
“It’s the way little girls/boys love their daddies” to convince the child that what is happening is normal in families or to dissuade them from telling.
The abuser may threaten to hurt someone close to the child, for example a parent, sibling or even the family pet.
They often make a child believe that he or she is somehow responsible for the abuse happening or continuing.
How do people who sexually abuse children behave?
People who sexually abuse children can go to great lengths to get close to children to gain their trust. This kind of behaviour may not appear unusual within some families and sometimes an abuser will build up a close relationship with a family through friendship or marriage.
They may befriend hard-pressed parents who are having difficulties coping with their children and offer needed support, so that they can become closer to the family. Single-parent families are particularly at risk of this kind of approach.
Abusers may target only girls or boys, or both sexes; they may prefer children of a particular age or they may be a risk to all children. In family situations they sometimes encourage brothers and sisters to compete for their attention. They may single out a particular child for special attention or treats to create opportunities for them to abuse.
In some cases, the child who is being abused may be treated particularly harshly by the abuser and be seen as the family scapegoat.
Grooming is a term used to describe what happens when an abuser builds up a relationship with a child with a view to abusing them at some stage. There is no set pattern in relation to the grooming of children.
For some abusers there will be a lengthy period of time before the abuse begins. The child may be given special attention and what starts as an apparently normal display of affection, such as cuddling, can develop into sexual touching or masturbation and then into more serious sexual behaviour.
Other abusers may draw a child in and abuse them relatively quickly. Some abusers don’t groom children but abuse them without forming a relationship at all.
Grooming can take place in any setting where a relationship is formed, such as leisure, music, sports and religious activities, or in internet chatrooms. Communication begun in an internet chatroom can move very quickly to mobile phones.