We spoke to the experts at Barnardo’s answering some common questions about child sexual abuse (CSA) and child sexual exploitation (CSE). 

Who is at risk of child sexual abuse and exploitation? 

Child sexual abuse and exploitation can happen to children and young people from all backgrounds.  

All children and young people are vulnerable to abuse by nature of their age and lack of power and status in society. It is the responsibility of those around children to protect them – any child can be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation if not protected and safeguarded by adults. 

Some young people may be more vulnerable – those who have experienced prior abuse, are homeless, are misusing alcohol and drugs, have a disability, are in care, are out of education, have run away/gone missing from home or care, or are involved with a gang.

Barnardo's Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (2021).

Children and young people do not always know when they’re being abused or exploited. It’s sometimes difficult for adults to know too. We’re likely to ask ourselves the question: how would I know if a child was being groomed or abused?  To help protect children it’s important to learn more about the potential indicators that a child may be being abused or exploited.

It's also vital to know how to talk to children you may be worried about

How might people harm children? 

Adults who harm children and young people often use a variety of ways to gain access to and groom children. These tactics can change over time and depending on the context.   

They may include: 

  • targeting and isolating children  
  • focusing on a child’s unmet needs and demonstrating to them that they can offer what they’ll label as friendship, love, care and understanding 
  • building friendships which develop into sexually abusive ‘relationships’, based on trust and co-dependency with children 
  • befriending children’s friends and families over time 
  • using positions of trust to take advantage of children 
  • disguising inappropriate relationships as normal, such as following children on social media or instigating contact over the internet 


Grooming is the process of building a relationship of trust or friendship with a child in order to abuse them. It is important to remember that grooming can take different forms, be phased or gradual and take place over different periods of time. Throughout the grooming process, children will be controlled and alienated from others in different ways, such as by using force, the threat of violence or blackmail or providing children with gifts. 

Those who harm won’t always try to gain the trust of the child. Instead, they may abuse without any attempts of trust or friendship. For example, some children may send an illicit picture of themselves because an adult has demanded this online - without any prior relationship.  

You can find more information about characteristics and motivations of those who harm on the Barnardo's hosted Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse (CSA centre) website. 

How can we help children tell us about harm and abuse?  

For many children and young people it can be very difficult to be able to tell an adult, or to understand what is happening to them.  

Some of the barriers to children being able to tell adults about abuse are: 

  • the stigma and reluctance in society to talk about sexual abuse which encourages it to remain hidden 
  • children and young people might not recognise that what has happened to them is abuse and exploitation 
  • those who harm trying to silence the child or ensure that if the child tells, they’re not believed - or even heard. This could be through threats of violence or harm towards them or their family 
  • the child being told that they caused or wanted the abuse to happen, or that it wasn’t abuse, it was a relationship 
  • adults who harm trying to normalise their abuse through sexual talk, viewing pornography and sexual contact. They might tell a young person that their “relationship” is different, special, and that others wouldn’t understand it, so that it’s best kept a “secret” 
  • worries that they will be blamed or get into trouble if they tell anyone 
  • children not having many trusted adults around them or the chance to communicate their worries to adults 
  • the abuser’s behaviour and manipulation of the young person may go unnoticed and unchallenged 
  • the person abusing them may be a family member or someone close to the child, and the child doesn’t want them to get into trouble 
  • sometimes children are given drugs or alcohol as part of the abuse. This often results in children not being able to recall the abuse accurately, if at all  

There are many barriers to children feeling safe and able to tell adults about sexual abuse. It’s our responsibility as adults to spot the signs and indicators of sexual abuse, ensure we speak openly about it and have good communication with our children. 

Learn more about the signs and indicators of child sexual abuse and exploitation.

Read our five tips for talking to your child about their safety.

When supporting those who’ve experienced abuse our language really matters  

Children and young people who have experienced abuse or exploitation tell us that the language those around them use, can make them feel like they are to blame. It is important that children are viewed, protected and supported as someone who has been abused and exploited and not as culpable, deserving, or in any way responsible for their own abuse or exploitation.   

To support professionals working with children, young people and families who have experienced abuse and exploitation, we have developed Language Matters, a guide looking at the impact of the language we use and importantly what we should be using when talking to or about children who have experienced child sexual abuse and other harms.