The chances of your child being harmed by an adult are very small. But there are still steps you can take to protect them.
People who abuse children can come from all walks of life, and all ages, classes and professions. They can also be women.
Often, victims of child abuse know their abuser. It could be a family member, a friend, or someone in a trusted position, such as a coach or mentor.
After abusing a child, abusers may tell a child to keep it a secret and even threaten them.
If you think a child is being abused, take action. Call the NSPCC child protection helpline on 0808 800 5000 to talk about your concerns.
If your child or a child you know is abused, call the police immediately.
You could also talk to your GP, health adviser or social services for advice about child abuse.
How child abuse happens
Abusers often "groom" children before they abuse them. Grooming is the term used when an abuser gets to know a child, perhaps buying them presents or taking them for days out so they gain their trust.
If a child doesn't feel loved or is insecure at home, they may be more vulnerable.
Abusers often put themselves in positions of trust, or go to places where they can be close to children – for example, playgrounds, nurseries, parks, and youth groups.
Sometimes people who abuse children make friends with parents to get close to a child. Single parents may be more vulnerable to this.
Teach them about stranger danger
Perhaps the best thing you can do for your child is to make them feel loved and valued. Give them the confidence to believe in themself and get out of situations they don't feel comfortable in.
Be very cautious if an adult acquaintance seems to be more interested in your child than you – for example, if they always want to babysit or take your child out alone.
Let your child know you are always there for them and will believe what they tell you. Children rarely lie about abuse.
Educate your children about stranger danger:
- Give your child a curfew and emphasise how important it is they let you know where they are at all times.
- Make sure your child is not alone when they go out. Go with them to meet their friends and pick them up straight after.
- Teach your child that it's safer to hang around with a group of friends. If they have to walk to school without you, encourage them to walk with other children, particularly in winter when it gets dark early. Or, if you can't pick them up, arrange for another friend or family member your child is familiar with to meet them.
- Teach your child to ignore strangers who talk to them. They can pretend they haven't heard and walk away quickly.
- Tell them if an adult does anything to make them feel afraid, they must speak up and get to a safe place immediately.
- Tell your child they must never get into a car with someone they don't know. If someone in a car asks them for directions, they must keep away from the car so they cannot be grabbed and can run away if they need to.
Educate your child about their body
Educate your child about their body from an early age. Let them know their body is their own. Tell them which parts are private and should not be touched by anybody.
Sex education should start early so children understand what is appropriate and what is not. Children who are abused often don't understand what is happening to them.
Learn more in Talking to your teenager about sex.
Many children feel afraid to disobey an adult. Teach them that if any adult makes them uncomfortable, scares them, or touches them in a way that isn't right (whether it's a stranger or someone they know) they have the right to say no and shout for help.
Tell them they should get away from that person immediately and then come and tell you.
Find out more in How to spot the signs of child sexual exploitation.
Protect your child online
Chat rooms and social networking sites on the internet are ideal for abusers and paedophiles looking for children. Abusers can pretend to be anyone and gain the confidence and trust of a child.
Don't panic and ban your child from using the internet altogether. The internet is a useful tool. If you ban them from using it, they won't learn how to use it safely.
Instead, take an interest in what they do online, and keep an eye out for changes in their online behaviour. For example, they may suddenly spend much longer online, or try to hide what they're doing.
Supervise your child to make sure they don't visit any sites you're unhappy with.
Talk to your child about the dangers of chat rooms and social networking sites. Tell them never to give out personal details such as their real name, address, email or phone number.
Ask them what they would do in certain situations – for example, if someone in a chat room asks for personal information.
Always have your family computer in a room where you can see what your child is doing.
It may be best to prevent a young child posting photographs of themself and their friends online. Talk to the parents of your child's friends about this, and find out what their policy on internet use is. Other children could post group photographs that include your child.
If your child makes a friend on the internet and wants to meet up with them in person, never let them go without an adult. Go with them yourself if you can, and make sure you meet in a public place with lots of people around, such as a café or shopping centre.