Why Would an Adult Abuse a Child?

There is no such thing as a “typical sex offender.”

It can be hard to understand how seemingly ordinary people can have sexual thoughts or behaviors towards children. There is also no usual “pathway” to becoming someone who sexually abuses children. People who sexually abuse children can be any gender, young or old, attractive or not, successful or struggling to get by. The most common similarity they share is having experienced abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional) earlier in life.

A small number of people who sexually abuse children are pedophiles.

Pedophilia is a mental health diagnosis for someone who has a persistent and exclusive sexual attraction to children. About 10% of those who offend are pedophiles. The majority of adults who sexually offend do so within the family or extended family/friend context, and may have adult sexual relationships as well.

Some reasons why it happens

  • Some people are sexual with children because of other difficulties in their lives.
  • Some lack the social skills needed to create relationships with peers.
  • Some take their anger out on a child. They are stressed from a job loss or a divorce and turn to a child to meet emotional and/or sexual needs.
  • They feel out of control or powerless in other areas of their life and turn to children to regain a sense of power and control.
  • Some people are sexual with children because of mistakes in their understanding about children:
    • They misread children’s affection as sexual, or believe being sexual with children is an appropriate way to show their affection. 
    • They view children as their peers.
    • They tell themselves things such as “Age is meaningless." or "They're mature for their age.”
    • They grew up in a family where sexual abuse seemed “normal”.
    • They view child sexual abuse material, and think “everyone is doing it.”

Some people are sexual with children because they act impulsively or take advantage of an opportunity:

  • They are babysitting and touch a child while changing diapers.
  • They touch a child while the child is sleeping.
  • They have been drinking or using drugs and are feeling aroused when finding themselves alone with a child.

Most people who sexually abuse kids want to stop.

Many times people who sexually abuse children know it is wrong and are deeply unhappy about what they are doing. On the Stop It Now! Helpline, many adults describe wanting to stop but don’t know how. They feel out of control. They want help but fear the consequences. They are tired of all the secrets and lies.

Adapted with permission from Stop It Now! Minnesota,