Any young person can become a victim of child exploitation, regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality or social background. Exploitation can be difficult
to identify, but the following signs may suggest that your child is being, or at risk of being, exploited.

As your child gets older, it is natural that they will begin to experiment, test boundaries and explore new experiences as they grow into an adult. As parents and carers it is a difficult job to balance the value of allowing these new experiences against keeping children and young people safe from potential harm.

What makes them vulnerable?

Abusers target children because they are easier to control at a formative stage in their lives. They are more easily impressed by displays of wealth, or power, and the action of grooming, where a relationship and trust is formed, leaving the child feeling that nothing is wrong and struggling to consider themselves a victim.

Many young people as they get older will exhibit some of these signs, which don’t immediately put them at risk of exploitation –

  • Taking risks
  • Experimenting with alcohol, drugs or their sexuality
  • Rebelling against authority
  • Being able to stay out later
  • Meeting new people
  • Being secretive

Many of these are normal and most adults will identify with one or more of them from their own adolescence. However, when these behaviours are coupled with additional factors, such as –

  • Feeling isolated / having low self esteem
  • Living in care
  • Being bullied
  • Unstable family networks / domestic issues
  • Disabilities or special educational needs
  • Previous experience of abuse
  • Recent bereavement
  • Experience of living in poverty / being tight on money

This can greatly increase the likelihood that they will be targeted by an abuser. Coupled together these factors can create behaviour that abusers look for, including –

  • Low self-esteem and a high need for affection/attention
  • Seeking ‘love’ or a relationship – and resisting telling anyone about it because of the need to continue in a relationship
  • Feeling disinhibited and seeking adventure/taking risks – this puts them at risk because their behaviour can be used against them as blackmail
  • A desire to get money or expensive items – this makes them likely to accept them as gifts without questioning how they may be forced to pay back for them, or more likely to undertake criminal activity to ‘earn’ money.

What to look for

Warning signs that exploitation may be taking place commonly include –

  • Secretive behaviour (more so than usual) which is met with mood swings and defensiveness if questioned. The mood swings are usually severe – many parents first see that their child seems to have changed personality.
  • They stop engaging with their usual friends
  • They are associating with men and women older than they are, potentially in a relationship with them
  • They have new, expensive items they could not normally afford, such as phones, jewellery or clothing
  • They receive messages or calls from unknown people through their phone or online game
  • They spend large amounts of time online, often talking to strangers
  • They are absent from school or home regularly, sometimes overnight, and are secretive about where they’ve been
  • Having an extra phone that receives a lot of calls or messages.

What you can do

  • Discuss online safety with your child, and check that their privacy settings and apps/games that they use don’t send out more information than they should to the people they interact with.
  • Talk about what makes a healthy and unhealthy relationship.
    • Healthy Relationships include good communication, mutual respect and trust, honesty and equality. Both people can make choices in the relationship about their behaviour and aren’t coerced into doing things they don’t want to.
    • Unhealthy relationships include a high level of control on one side – where one person controls the others money, time, what they wear or access to their family/friends. They can do this by criticising and putting down the other person, or using threats of violence against them or their property.
  • Be aware of any warning signs mentioned above and talk to us if you need further support

A Parent’s Story

Sarah said that it was important to realise that any young person could be affected by child sexual exploitation.


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