Living and coping with child sexual exploitation

Finding out

Finding out that your child is being or has been sexually exploited is extremely traumatic. You might find yourself in shock or in denial. You might feel angry, guilty, upset, confused, scared, embarrassed, annoyed, helpless and  depressed. These feelings and reactions are normal and understandable.

It is vital to remember that you are not to blame for your child’s exploitation and that they have been targeted by a ruthless and manipulative criminal.

It is also important that you tell someone and seek help during this difficult time. You may be understandably fearful that you will be judged. Pace has over 16 years’ experience and expertise of supporting parents of sexually exploited children and will never judge you. It is a safe place for you.

You and your child

One of the first difficulties many parents encounter on discovering that that their child is being sexually exploited is how they broach the subject with their son or daughter. Our Parent Support Workers suggest raising the subject directly, but gently – and avoiding conflict at all costs. We also suggest that you speak to your child in the language that they understand, rather than in terms of abuse or exploitation. It may be more helpful to talk about choices and keeping safe, than abuse.

Talking to your child about the reality of their new relationship or network is not easy, especially if your child has been given drugs or is deeply traumatised. Furthermore, the perpetrator(s) of the exploitation has a deliberate aim to estrange your child from you, so your relationship is bound to come under great strain. Pace understands this and can support you through these hardships. The most important thing is for your child to feel that they can always come and talk to you, no matter what they have to say; and that you will always be there for them.

Coping with child sexual exploitation in the family

Witnessing the sexual exploitation of your much-loved child is distressing. But looking after yourself at this time is very important and can prevent long-term damage to your health and keep your family together. It is important that you and your partner and other children have quality of life to enable you and your affected child to find a way to move forward together.

This page outlines some of the feelings and fears you may have, and some ways to cope and seek help during this difficult time.

Feelings and physical symptoms

It is common to experience very strong emotions and even physical symptoms.  Understanding that these are related to your stress and that other parents have experienced them too can help you to cope. If your child is repeatedly going missing at night time, then you are likely to suffer fairly serious sleep deprivation, with obvious effects on your day-to-day health such as anxiety, headaches and forgetfulness. It may be helpful to speak to your GP about this. Many parents are understandably reluctant to tell their employer about their difficulties, so it is important your GP has a record of the levels of stress you are experiencing.

Why didn’t my child tell me?

Many parents feel particularly distressed that their child had been suffering abuse for some time before it was discovered or disclosed. The following guide offers some reasons that may have prevented your child from telling you.

• No perception of abuse

• Belief that the perpetrator is a loving partner

• Difficulty in talking about sex and sexual relationships

• Length of time that might have elapsed from the time of abuse

• Not knowing who to tell

• Anxiety, embarrassment and shame

• Fear of not being believed or of being judged or rejected

• Fear for personal and family safety

• Dependency on perpetrators (emotional or for substances)

• A sense of powerlessness and/or isolation

• Denial (‘It happened to someone else’)

• Fear of disappointing loved ones

• Repercussions of crimes they may have been involved in during exploitation

• Feeling they owe the abuser

• Hope of rescuing the relationship.

My child keeps shutting me out; I can’t reach out to them

Your relationship with your child may be extremely strained when they are in an exploitative and abusive situation. It is common to feel powerless and overwhelmed, which can be very frustrating and upsetting. Yet it is important to remember that you can still fulfill your child’s basic needs, if they are still living in the family home. Parents find it helpful to prepare a hot meal for their child, even if they have been missing for several hours and do not return until late into the night. Some parents told us they would put a hot water bottle in their bed or a vase of fresh flowers in their bedroom to remind them that they still cared about them, despite the inordinate amounts of stress.

I’m scared for my child’s health and future. What are the long-term affects?

Pace tells the truth about child sexual exploitation – and sadly that means acknowledging that this terrible crime can have profound, damaging and long-term effects on the lives of children and their families. The effects of child sexual exploitation go beyond physical scars and impact on a child’s behaviour, economic wellbeing and social life. There are also adverse consequences on their physical, sexual, mental and social health. These can include:

Physical health:

  • Bruises, cuts, broken teeth
  • Alcoholism
  • Addiction to drugs
  • Self-harm including cutting, overdosing and eating disorders

Sexual and reproductive health:

  • Sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and chlamydia
  • Pregnancy, miscarriage, multiple termination, ‘backstreet’ abortion

Psychological health:

  • Suicidal tendancies
  • Severe depression
  • Nightmares, flashbacks
  • Anxiety
  • Violent aggression towards others, including siblings, parents and pets.

Sexually exploited children often find it difficult to control their anger and direct it at their family members through physical and verbal abuse. Sustained, severe abuse from men whom they once trusted and considered as friends can make children extremely volatile, reflecting their suffering and confusion. They can become highly demanding, disruptive, defensive and defiant.

Social health:

  • Criminal activity encouraged by perpetrators
  • Loss of childhood friends
  • Lack of trust in agencies and professionals
  • Dropping out of school
  • Failing statutory examinations
  • Unemployment
  • Teenage parenthood

Grooming and exploitation affects young people’s civic and social life. If they are able to attain employment, mistreatment by employers due to stigma, criminal background and inadequate social skills often forces them to return to the life of exploitation and abuse.

For more detail on the potential health impacts of child sexual exploitation, read the Health Working Group Report on Child Sexual Exploitation and the associated appendix produced with Barnardo’s called The Range of health impacts that can result from child sexual exploitation.

For information about accessing health services and support for your child, check out Young Mind’s topical resource for parents and carers. You can also search for services in your area on the NHS Choices website.

Responding to long-term child sexual exploitation

Don’t give up. Be persistent and determined with the authorities. Make all the professionals who come into contact with your child – GP, sexual health services, schools, police and social care – aware of your concerns.

Keep rigorous diaries and notes of all incidences, as they will be invaluable in any future court proceedings. Even if your child seems a long way away from acknowledging their abuse, take courage from the fact that 2012 saw the first ever ‘victimless’ trial, in which a man was found guilty of sexual offences against a child without the child having to give a statement or attend court – thanks purely to the strength of forensic evidence. Be patient, determined and persistent.

There have been significent changes in both government and agency thinking on child sexual exploitation since 2010. Media reporting of high-profile trials has meant that the issue is finally being recognised with the severity it deserves. Do not give up hope that this increase of awareness and debate may have an eventual impact on your own child’s circumstances. Pace believes that as a parent of a sexually exploited child, you have a right to make your voice heard by decision-makers. We facilitate meetings with ministers, MPs, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner and the police to ensure that your views and opinions count.