Are you worried your child is being sexually exploited?

Are you worried your child is being sexually exploited?

Child sexual exploitation is rare, but it does take place all over the UK. Knowing the warning signs and what to do will help you to act quickly if you believe that your child is at risk.

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What is child sexual exploitation?

Child sexual exploitation is when young people receive ‘something’ (such as food, accommodation, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes,  gifts, money) as a result of performing sexual acts, and/or having others perform sexual acts on them.

This is usually carried out by someone, or a group of people, outside of the family. It is often perpetrated against groups of young people.

They might use gifts, bribes, manipulation, threats, violence and humiliation to take advantage of the young person.

Young people may be introduced to exploiters through friends.

Young people often won’t recognise that what is happening is abuse. Child sexual exploitation happens to both boys and girls. 

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How can I tell if my child is being exploited?

Every child is different, but there are some warning signs which indicate that a young person might be experiencing sexual exploitation. Experts at PACE (Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation) recommend, as a very general rule, that you take action if your child is exhibiting three or more of the following signs:

  • Your child may become especially secretive and stop engaging with their usual friends.
  • They may be associating with, or developing a sexual relationship with, older men and/or women
  • They may go missing from home – and be defensive about their location and activities, often returning home late or staying out all night
  • They may receive odd calls and messages on their mobiles or social media
  • They may be in possession of new, expensive items and can’t explain how they got them

Learn more from PACE about warning signs here. 

Is your child going missing?

Children going missing can be a sign that are being sexually exploited. If your child goes missing it is really important that you report it to the local police. This is just as important when boys go missing as it it for girls.

If you are concerned that their absence might be linked to sexual exploitation then you should make this clear to the police from the start. This will help the police offer you and your family the right support.

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What should I do?

If you are concerned that your child is being sexually exploited, or is at risk of sexual exploitation, we recommend that you:

  • Report your concerns to CEOP or to the police.
  • Get phone advice from an experienced Parent Support Worker at PACE (Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation), or visit their online advice centre.
  • Talk to your child. This might not be easy. The following sections offer advice which may help you.

Tips on talking to your child

If your child is being sexually exploited, they probably won’t recognise that what is happening is abuse.

It is highly likely that at first they will reject your attempts to help them. However they react, make sure they know that you are there for them, and continue to offer them support.

You know your child best, and there is no right or wrong way of starting this conversation. However you decide to approach it, try to remember the following:

  • Tell them that if anything has happened, there are plenty of people who care and who can help them.
  • Focus on your concern for them, and their welfare. Try to find someone else to support you with your own feelings about what you are going through (e.g. a close friend, or a Parent Support Advisor at PACE).
  • Describe the behaviour changes you have noticed, and explain why they worry you. 
  • Explain that in a healthy relationship no-one is ever pressured, bullied or threatened into doing anything they don’t feel comfortable doing.
  • Talk to your child about how to get help
  • If your child denies there is a problem, or is aggressive, you should persist in offering them help and seeking support from professionals who can advice on how to deal with the situation. 

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Understanding how an exploited child might be feeling

Young people often do not know that they are being sexually exploited. They might have been manipulated into believing that the way they are being treated is normal. They may believe that they are in a relationship with the exploiter, and could feel that they are in love with them.

An exploited child’s self-esteem and confidence is probably very low, and they might feel very depressed, lonely and anxious. Making a young person feel they are worthless and powerless is a strategy that exploiters use to control them. They also seek to drive a wedge between the young person and their family and friends.

If your child is being exploited, these feelings will have an impact on how they react when you start to explain to them why you are worried. They might respond with anger, defensiveness, or by becoming more secretive.

However they respond, it is important to persist in offering them support and reminding them that you love and care about them.