Many factors place a child at higher or lower risk of sexual abuse
- Marital status of parent
- Protective ability of parent
- Emotional status of parent
- Family dynamic, including belief system around secrecy
- Child's self-esteem
- Child's health and mental status
- Child's level of accessibility to perpetrators
Children are at risk of sexual abuse simply because they are children. They are smaller and more powerless than adults or older children. They do not have the life-knowledge to dispute perpetrator statements and are unable to defend themselves. Children depend on adults for all their needs including knowledge and information about life facts, beliefs, behavior, and emotions. Adults train children, and children see adults in that role.
Because of the dependency relationship between parents and children, children may assume that parents are aware of more than they are. The old adage, "mothers know everything" does not serve mothers well in this situation. The myths of mothers "having eyes in the back of her head" and "always knowing" reflects a predisposition in the child's mind to assume that the mother knows about the abuse. If the mother then does not respond with defense and protection for the child, the child may assume that she knows and does not care.
Children are also at risk because they have a basic need for love and affection. Children need and appreciate adult touch, and children are picked up, hugged, kissed, and caressed. Appropriate touch from infancy is part of the normal developmental process. Without touch, children wither and do not develop normally. However, the child who appreciates and responds to touch does not know the difference between appropriate touch and inappropriate touch. It is the parent's responsibility to teach that difference.
Children are at risk simply because they do not know. They are not aware of abuse, of evil, of cruelty unless they have learned from others that the world includes those elements. A healthy normal child is innocent, naive, and trusting. Until something happens in his life to destroy that innocence, naivete, and trust, he will manifest those characteristics.
A risk factor to effective disclosure and intervention is the child's normal imagination. A young child who says something about abuse may not be believed because of the normalcy of telling "stories." It may be assumed that she is making things up. And very young children do not maintain accurate chronology when telling about life events.
Another risk factor is dissociation. Children tend to dissociate during abuse - to disappear and not be mentally present in order to avoid the discomfort of the event. The more severe or painful the abuse, the more the child may dissociate. Dissociation affects memory, which impacts the ability of the child to tell and be believed.
The fact that children are sexual is also a risk factor. A child's sexual response and experience of pleasure during the abuse is normal. However, it is also a significant predictor of extraordinary internal conflict, self blame, ownership of responsibility, and shame.
Many risk factors are associated with characteristics of the child victim and his or her family. A sex offender who prefers to have sex with children is known as a pedophile. Pedophiles usually have a preference for a certain gender and age child and may also have other preferences in regard to child characteristics. Children matching this preference are at risk when in the proximity of a pedophile. This is why mothers need to maintain alertness when strangers are around their children. Pedophiles tend to be intelligent and highly skilled in the art of manipulation and are able to create situations and groom victims as they set up an opportunity for abuse to occur. It is important to remember, however, that most sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members and other people that the child knows and trusts.