We support thousands of children and young people who have experienced sexual abuse. We also provide support to their families, and to people working with children, such as social workers and teachers, through consultation and training. Learn more about child sexual abuse (CSA) and child sexual exploitation (CSE) from our experts who work in this area.

What is child sexual abuse and exploitation?

Child sexual abuse (CSA) involves forcing or persuading a child or young person under the age of 18 to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. Sexual abuse includes a range of different acts and behaviours. It can take place in many different contexts, and be committed by a range of different people. 

Child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a form of child sexual abuse. Child sexual exploitation is a term used to describe where an individual or group takes advantage of an imbalance of power to coerce, manipulate or deceive a child under the age of 18 into sexual activity. The child may have been sexually exploited even where the sexual activity appears consensual. For instance, the child might have been led to believe they are in a consensual relationship with the person. 

Child sexual exploitation does not always involve physical contact; it can also occur through the use of technology, such as social media and gaming apps. It's important that people recognise that exploitation is child sexual abuse and should be seen as such.  

AnchorWhat are the signs and indicators that a child may be being sexually abused or exploited? 

A girl looks sideways as other children look at her from a distance

It’s important that all adults know how to spot the signs of child abuse and exploitation, and how to do something about it. Understandably children can find it very difficult to talk to adults about the harm they are experiencing and may not even recognise that what’s happening to them is abuse or exploitation. They may not always show any outward physical signs of abuse, but there are some things to look out for, including emotional or behavioural signs.  

Some things you may notice in your child are: 

  • physical signs, such as unexplained injuries, sexually transmitted infections or urinary tract infections 

  • changes in emotion, such as increased fear, anxiety or anger or being less able to regulate their emotions 

  • issues with their mental health, emotional wellbeing or self-esteem 

  • changes in behaviour, such as suddenly becoming withdrawn or isolated, or distrusting others 

  • changes in their usual habits such as eating, use of internet/ gaming, phones or friendships 

  • having more sexual knowledge or displaying more sexualised behaviour than is developmentally appropriate for their age 

  • discomfort with sex and their body 

  • having things such as money, phones, expensive clothes or other items, when you don’t know how they have bought them 

  • being away from home or school where you don’t know where they are 

This is not an exhaustive list of the signs of abuse and exploitation. Abuse can also be indicated by the inappropriate and controlling behaviour of the person abusing. Environmental factors, such as the child having more needs that are going unmet, should also be considered as it may make them more at risk of abuse. If you have any concerns about your child, speak to them about their safety and wellbeing or to a professional who can support you.  

Read our advice about talking to your child about their safety and wellbeing.

Barnardo's hosts the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA Centre) which has produced a template to support professionals working with children to identify the signs and indicators of sexual abuse and build a picture of their concerns.

How do I report child sexual abuse and exploitation?

If you think a child is being harmed or in immediate danger of being harmed, dial 999  or contact your local authority social care department, or the NSPCC. 

Find out where else to get help if you're worried about a child. 

If you are worried that a child may be being sexually abused it is important that you share that concern, the information you have may help professionals to build a picture about what might be happening to a child and help them.  

How do Barnardo's help and influence change? 

We've been supporting children and young people affected by sexual abuse since 1994.

We support children and their families in many different ways including: 

  • support services  

  • therapeutic services including counselling 

  • emotional and mental health services 

  • support through the court process 

  • research which includes the voices of children and their families 

  • creating resources for professionals  

  • influencing government and decision makers 

  • increasing public awareness of sexual abuse 

They give me really good advice. So, like, I'll tell them about something and then the advice they give is completely different to what I thought they would say, and it would be even better

Young person (17), supported by Barnardo’s

Having someone consistent from Barnardo’s has been massively positive. She knows it’s on the calendar, she knows what's going to happen. It’s someone in her life for her and I think that's what she values the most. It’s not me, she knows there's that element of privacy of what she discusses and I think it helps a hundred percent that it’s consistent. And that's the main thing with [child] is the consistency of the people involved now.

Parent supported by Barnardo’s 

It’s vital that adults are aware of the issue so that they can help a child who might be affected. 

Read our guides

  • How to talk to a child about their safety 

    Read our tips from experts for having positive conversations with your child about concerns you have for their safety and wellbeing.

  • Understanding the language around exploitation

    What is online grooming? What does county lines mean? Terms like these are frequently used when discussing the exploitation and abuse of children. However we should think carefully about the word choices we make. Find out about common terms used, as well as the language we should use and why.

  • Six things you should know about child sexual abuse 

    Read our six things you should know about child sexual abuse to help you protect children.