How to Protect Children and Identify and Address Child Sexual Abuse


The impact of childhood sexual abuse can range from no apparent effects to very severe ones, both short- and long-term, for a child. The effects of sexual abuse can include health and behavioral problems, and can create difficulties for a child throughout the life-cycle if not identified and addressed as soon as possible. Help identify and address sexual abuse by educating your kids on appropriate behaviors and keeping an open dialogue with them.

What Is Sexual Abuse?

There is no universal definition for child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse has a common trait of having an adult in a dominant position exert coercion to force a child into sexual activity.

  • Sexual contact of any kind
  • Noncontact sexual experiences (such as verbal sexual harassment, exposure, voyeurism or viewing pornographic material)

How Can You Tell if a Child Is Being (or Has Been) Sexually Abused?

Children who have been sexually abused may display a range of emotional and behavioral reactions, many of which are characteristic of children who have experienced other types of trauma. However, there is no one set of symptoms or outcomes that sexual abuse victims will display. Possible reactions include:

  • An increase in nightmares and/or other sleeping difficulties
  • Withdrawn behavior
  • Angry outbursts
  • Fear
  • Acting out
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Not wanting to be left alone with a particular individual(s)
  • Regressive behaviors for age - such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting
  • Sexual knowledge, language and/or behaviors that are inappropriate for the child’s age

Although many children who have experienced sexual abuse show behavioral and emotional changes, many others do not. It is therefore critical to focus not only on detection, but on prevention and communication as well—by teaching children about body safety and healthy body boundaries, and by encouraging open communication about sexual matters.

Who Can Commit Sexual Abuse?

  • A family member
  • A person in position of power or trust
  • A friend or acquaintance
  • A stranger, or someone known only by sight

What Do I Do if My Child Tells Me They Were Abused?


  • Remain calm.
  • Believe the child.
  • Allow the child to talk to you or another trusted adult.
  • Show interest and concern.
  • Reassure the child that he or she did nothing wrong.
  • Take action. It could save a child’s life.


  • Panic or overreact.
  • Press the child to talk.
  • Promise anything you can’t control.
  • Confront the offender.
  • Blame or minimize the child’s feelings.
  • Overwhelm the child with questions.
  • Suggest events to the child.


How Do I Report Suspected Child Abuse?

  • Contact 911 if the situation is a life-threatening emergency.
  • Online—nonemergency situations only: Tennessee law requires that you report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect. To make a report, visit the Department of Children’s Services’ secure website.
  • By phone: Call the Tennessee Child Abuse Hotline at any time, any day (24/7), at 1-877-237-0004 or 1-877-54ABUSE (1-877-542-2873).

What if I Want to Remain Anonymous?

Tennessee laws protect persons who report abuse or neglect. It is your right to remain anonymous.

Get more answers to frequently asked questions about reporting suspected abuse.


How Can I Get Help for My Child?

Support and Resources

Learn the warning signs of child abuse (English).

Learn the warning signs of child abuse (Spanish).