Talking to your child about sexual and physical abuse

The Mama Bear Effect Non-profit Organization –Protecting your child from sexual and/or physical abuse

It is never easy to sit down with your child and talk about physical and sexual abuse.  For the parent who is raising a child with a disability, it can be even more difficult. The article in this blog was on this non-profit’s website.  Please visit this website as it has some good resources that could be useful to you. The Mama Bear Effect’s website is : .

The Risk

Children with special needs, be it physical disabilities or cognitive challenges, have been identified to be at increased risk for sexual and physical abuse. Statistically, it is estimated that children with physical and/or communication challenges are potentially affected by sexual abuse and exploitation at a rate of 83%-90% for males and females, respectively.

Children with special needs are often more dependent on a variety of people to care for them in a variety of ways.  It may be more difficult for them to communicate abuse when it occurs, which can be especially true if they have never been taught what types of behaviors are inappropriate.  It is essential to protect all children, and take extra precautions for children with special needs because we know the risk is so high for them. We must mentally prepare that abuse will happen at some point, and not treat it as a rare possibility.


There are a few common misconceptions that even loving, protective parents and caregivers believe that can increase a family’s vulnerability to being preyed upon by an abuser. As first-line guardians for children, it is essential that we understand the issues as best we can, so we can understand what we’re up against.

  1. Children with special needs are not sexual and do not need education in their sexuality. In fact, children with special needs may need more assistance understanding their developing body as they go through puberty and guidance in how to navigate their own sexuality in a way that is healthy, safe, and appropriate. Abuse may occur from peers or adults that seek to tease, bully, or groom children with pornography, sexual harass them, or commit assault by exploiting their lack of understanding and vulnerabilities. Education is power for special needs children so they can be prepared and feel confident in their own knowledge of their body and human sexuality and reproduction. This is even more true as they may seek romantic relationships and benefit from knowing what a loving, respectful relationship looks like.
  2. Children with special needs are not a target for sexual predators. Some feel that children with special needs are less likely to be a target for predators because of their differences from atypical children, however ‘attraction’ is not what drives most sexual abusers – it’s opportunity, control, and cover. Abusers prey upon families and children where they feel they can manipulate the child and not face suspicion or exposure. Children with special needs face such a high rate of exploitation because of their increased reliance for others to care for them and cognitive and communication challenges that may make it harder for them to identify an abusive situation and tell a protective adult. Abuse can occur when a child is being buckled into a transportation van, when they need assistance bathing or using the toilet, or even in a seemingly normal visit with family with a trusted relative who exploits a close relationship to perpetrate an assault.
  3. Organizations and schools that serve special needs children are doing everything to protect children in their care. While it is often required to perform background checks on employees who work with children (but not necessarily volunteers, FYI) most perpetrators will pass a background check. Only a small fraction of sexual predators are ever convicted of their crimes, so while background checks are important, they are not a complete abuse prevention guarantee. Any organization working with children should have open policies, procedures, and trainings for their staff to build awareness, reduce risk, and prioritize proper reporting.

Prioritizing Safety

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Children with special needs are sexually abused because of the individuals they come in contact with, be it family and friends or caregivers and assistants within the organizations that serve them. Abusers are either opportunity makers meaning they seek out opportunities to abuse children, or opportunity takers that find themselves in a situation where they could abuse children and take advantage of the child and situation. (You can read more on this through our Understanding Abusers page.) This means as parents and guardians we must, unfortunately, treat everyone who interacts with our children as someone who may pose a risk – even people we’ve known before our children were born. Conversely, it is important that other protective adults are aware of the risks and measures that can be taken to improve safety for children.

Step One – Build Body Safety Circles

Any person caring for or interacting with people with special needs, should be educated in body safety and should know how to promote safe behaviors and reduce risk for abuse. They should understand the importance of their safety and value our concerns for creating an environment that empowers them to know their rights.

In many cases, abuse of children is perpetrated by someone their age (when it is a deliberate act of force/manipulation) or someone older (the law considers an age difference of 3-4 year minimum a requirement to consider an act sexual abuse between juveniles). However, those with mental disabilities and communication challenges will also be at risk of sexual abuse by those younger than them. Juveniles that are going through puberty or are past puberty may identify an older child or even an adult with special needs as a target, which is why we cannot exclude children from being educated in appropriate, safe, respectful behaviors either.

It is essential to be very open with those caring for and interacting with children as to what behaviors are appropriate and how to promote bodily autonomy. With every child, these rules may be different because of their abilities, but coming up with a safety plan and writing it out, posting reminders around your home, school, care center etc,. You can visit our previous sections on Protecting Infants and ToddlersGrade School children, and Teens and identify how these steps can be applied to your child and the situation.

Step Two – Educating Your Child 

Body Knowledge & Privacy

Consent & Respect

During Adolescence

Step Three – Minimizing Risk

By educating every juvenile and adult who cares for or is in close contact with our child, we’re sending a signal right away that we’re vigilant and aware of the risk for abuse. Predators not only prey upon their child targets, but they also work to gain a sense of the protective nature of the adults around that child.  Those we trust with our children, especially organizations should have specific training, protocol for reducing risk, and clear and supporting policies for reporting inappropriate or abusive behavior.  Centers that work with children with special needs should share their protective measure with parents, and be very open about their policies and training. If this information is not openly shared, it is prudent that we ask to learn more about their steps to reduce risk of abuse.

These rules may include:

  • Establish rules for increasing supervision and minimizing or eliminating 1:1 situations – do care providers require at least 2 adults be together in the presence of children?
  • Are rooms easily observable and situations easily interruptible by others? (Doors and rooms with windows, use of video monitoring/recording). Video monitoring is especially important when children are being transported in a bus, or in areas that are not in open view of others.
  • Participation in annual training and refresher courses in abuse prevention, and clear promotion of policies and proper procedures as reminders throughout the building/grounds.
  • Create clear rules to eliminate behaviors that could be construed as grooming: tickling, asking children to keep secrets, gifts without receiving permission from the child’s guardian, making inappropriate comments/jokes etc.

Step Four – Body Safety Check-ins

Children with special needs that spend time with peers, caregivers, or in group situations will likely benefit from frequent body safety check-ins, possibly on a daily basis, especially if they attend school or go to a care center. The more people that they are around, the greater the risk for inappropriate or abusive behavior. Questions should be asked casually as part of any conversation we may have with our child after spending time with others. A quiet time when they feel relaxed and are away from others, like bedtime or during a snack after coming home, may be the best time to check-in.  As a caregiver, you know your child best– keeping open communication is important, if your child feels interrogated or is irritated by too many questions, prioritize the bond with your child over the desire to ask more questions.

Some suggestions may be (and again, you do not need to ask all of these questions each time):

  • What did you do?
  • Did you have fun?
  • Did you do anything different or new?
  • Did you meet anyone new?
  • Did anyone help you use the bathroom?
  • Did you play any games?
  • Did anyone take your picture or show you pictures?
  • Did anyone touch you on your private areas: Penis, vulva, buttocks, chest, mouth?
  • Remind the child of body safety rules: we do not share privates, no one should touch your privates, we do not keep secrets, we give people privacy when they are using the toilet or are changing clothes.

Suspected and Disclosed Abuse

Even with the most stringent efforts to protect children, abuse can occur. If you suspect your child may be showing signs of abuse, it’s important to ask open-ended questions and allow the child to speak without making suggestions on what may or may not have happened. Speaking with your local child advocacy center or adult advocacy center geared towards those with disabilities can help guide you in the best steps to take. In many cases, they may want to interview the child without you asking any further questions to avoid any possible confusion over the authenticity of the child’s disclosure. No matter how much you may want to, you do not want to address the identified perpetrator or those who may speak with them.

Organizations such as Mothers of Sexually Abused Children offer resources for support for parents struggling with the aftermath of abuse. Reporting and investigating can be a challenging and seemingly unproductive process, even more so for children with special needs as not all forensic interviewers, investigators, and district attorney offices are going to be familiar with best practices for children with special needs. It is very possible they may not seek to move forward with an investigation or trial due to lack of evidence, this can feel devastating. National Disability Rights Network and Communities Against Violence Network can assist in identifying resources for reporting and victim advocacy.