Frequently asked questions
We have collected answers to frequently asked questions relating to the abuse of a child or suspicion of mistreatment, use of force by a parent, sexual abuse or suspected abuse of a child, and the sexual behavior of the child.
Assault against a child
Violence against children has not increased. Extensive prevalence studies, both domestic and international, show a significant reduction in assaults on children (refer to the page on child abuse and Chapter 3 of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health publication Non-Violent Childhoods: Statistical review of violence against children, PDF). There is more public discussion about child abuse and action is being taken more easily regarding the suspicions. This may give the impression that abuse or violence against children on a wider scale would have increased.
In the case of young children, the abuser is typically an adult or sibling living with the child. In the case of adolescents, the perpetrator is often another young person, such as a friend, acquaintance, or dating partner.
The child’s age and level of development affect the type of injuries that may indicate child abuse. Any injuries in small babies always require further investigation. With older children, concern is caused by injuries that are disproportionate to the child’s age and mobility skills. Bruises, burns or other marks of a special shape or with accurate edges (e.g. round, elongated or in the shape of an object) may also indicate an assault against a child. In addition, the lack of hair in patches, many concurrent injuries at different stages of healing, as well as repeated unclear injuries, require further investigation.
- Any injury in a small baby
- Injuries in older children that are disproportionate to the child’s age and mobility skills
- Unusually shaped/precise bruise, burn or other mark (e.g. round, elongated or in the shape of an object)
- Lack of hair in patches
- Many concurrent injuries at different stages of healing
- Recurrent unclear injuries
Bruises and other marks caused by violence are typically located on the face, ear lobes, nape, neck, scalp, back, buttocks and inner or rear thighs. However, no bruised site can be used to unequivocally prove or rule out violence, but the overall situation must always be taken into account on the basis of all available information.
Bruises and other traces caused by violence are typically found in the following places:
- ear lobes
- the inner and rear surfaces of the thighs.
Bruises are common in children and only rarely are they caused by violence directed at the child. Most children’s bruises are caused accidentally, for example, in situations involving playing or games. Sometimes there is an illness behind the bruising. The answer to the previous question explains in more detail what kind of bruises require further investigating.
According to the Finnish Penal Code, assault occurs, for example, when physical violence is employed on another damaging their health or causing them pain. In principle, flicking a child in the head head or pulling their hair causes the child some kind of pain, in which case it is a crime.
In Finland, use of disciplinary violence was prohibited by law in 1983. Disciplinary violence is determined as intentional causing of pain or psychological violence aimed at punishing a child or regulating their behavior. Typical forms of disciplinary violence include slapping, pushing, tearing, flicking at the child's head, and pulling on hair. Dragging a child or handling them in another way that causes them pain is also considered disciplinary violence. Disciplinary violence has been found to have serious negative effects on a child’s well-being, behavior, and development.
Over the years, the attitude of parents towards the use of disciplinary violence has become increasingly negative. However, according to surveys, about one-third of parents have used violence against a child for disciplinary purposes. The problem with punishments is that you learn nothing from them, and there is humiliation and shame involved in punishment. Instead, praise and positive feedback help the child to better understand what is wanted of them.
Shouting can be so-called psychological violence. Psychological violence is a widespread phenomenon. Its definition includes activity and behavior (or lack of action), which may be intentional but also unconscious or unintentional. Psychological violence is defined, among other things, as a repetitive mode of action or an isolated serious situation in which the person caring for a child neglects their needs regarding their emotional life, care and provision, and communicates to the child that they are threatened, worthless, defective, not lovable or not desired.
Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish when it is a question of individual situations involving insensitive interactions, when it is about weak and dysfunctional parenting skills, and when about actual psychological violence occurring. In the case of shouting, for example, it may be essential to specify in what situations and how often the child is shouted at, what kinds of things are communicated to them during the shouting, and what happens in connection with or after the shouting.
Finnish legislation also states that acts that do not contain physical contact between persons or which do not leave physical injuries can also be classified as assault.
Exposure to violence and violence in peer relationships
A child may be curious and retrieve violent material online, but they may also stumble across it inadvertently, for example, in messaging groups. Talk to your child about their experiences, but do not put pressure on the child. Remember, that it is good if a child has enough courage to talk to you about what they have seen. Appreciate this and let the child know that they did the right thing by telling you. Stay at the child’s level and answer any questions they may ask. Explain to the child that the videos are imagined, acted and they have a script. In addition, it is good to discuss the fact that movies, online sites or games do not portray a realistic picture of the injuries caused by violence. Be aware of what your child is doing online, including what kind of apps they use, who they chat with, and what kind of material they are watching.
Playing various computer games is very common and popular. Boys and men in particular prefer games involving violence, such as strategy, war or shooting games. The games have official age recommendations (both domestic and international) that you should study carefully. The age recommendations also include a description of what the recommendations are based on and what kind of elements the game includes that may disturb a child. It is even more important to familiarize yourself with the game itself and discuss it with the child in order to keep track of what kind of games the child is playing and with whom.
The result of extensive analyses compiling scientific research evidence is that playing violent games increases violent behavior. However, the connection is very minor: playing violent games only explains a few per cent of the variation in violence presented between individuals. In general, it could be said that it is worth looking closer at the child’s game playing habits when it is compulsive and negatively affects the child’s other everyday activities, relationships, or well-being.
Living in a family where one of the family members behaves violently exposes the child to all the harmful effects of violence. Even if the violence does not directly affect the child, a violent atmosphere generates fear and insecurity, and if it continues for a long time, it can expose the child to a wide range of problems. The child will also easily learn to resolve disputes themselves through violence.
Often children are more aware of violence than adults imagine. Be bold and bring up the issue with the child and listen to their thoughts. Do not forbid the child to also discuss the matter with persons outside the family. It is important that violence in the family is addressed at an early stage. Do not hesitate to seek help or ask advice. For more information, please contact, for example, your local child welfare services and the Federation of Mother and Child Homes and Shelters.
Like other family relationships, sibling relationships can also include violence. However, sibling violence is easily underestimated and normalized, which may also make it hard for parents to identify and differentiate sibling violence from harmless quarreling
Sibling violence can be physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. Typically, sibling violence is light physical violence or psychological violence such as bullying. In some cases, it may also contain very serious forms of action involving the use of instruments such as edged weapons or threats with a weapon.
Sibling violence has also been found to have serious psychological, physical and social adverse effects, which is why it is primarily the adults in the family who need to address it at an early stage. If you feel that you do not have sufficient means to address the violence between your children, help can be sought with various social and health care services, such as child guidance and family counselling clinics.
Contact the child’s school. If bullying involves physical violence, threats or, for example, disseminating material that degrades a child online, you can also contact the police. Persons under the age of 15 are not criminally liable, but they are liable if compensation is granted to the victim of a criminal act in court. When the authorities become aware of the bullying, social services also have the opportunity to intervene if necessary. If the child is symptomatic due to the bullying, or if you feel that the child needs support to recover from bullying, you can also contact the school psychologist. You can also search for other actors providing help through the Children's Mental Health House’s Concern Navigator (Huolinavigaattori).
A child’s own violent or challenging behavior
Aggression refers to a strong energy that must be learned to be managed constructively. A child or adolescent may vent their aggressive impulses by behaving violently towards friends, parents, or animals. Behavior that hurts and harms others must always be addressed and professional help obtained if necessary. There are numerous different reasons for violent behavior. A child or adolescent may be symptomatic due to a life change or a traumatic event, such as a parents’ divorce, start of school, moving to a new home, or losing a loved one. It may also be a problem having to do with impulse control, which may be related to a conduct disorder, ADHD symptoms, or substance use. Sometimes violent behavior can also be caused by a child or adolescent imitating violence and/or being symptomatic of violence they have experienced themselves.
Restricting the space of a child is necessary to safeguard the child themselves as well as others in situations where the child behaves aggressively towards others or themselves, and verbal or other guidance is not sufficient to curb the child’s behavior. In situations such as this, restricting or restraining a child by force is allowed when no attempt is made to cause pain to the child. Restraining a child is not a punishment, but a necessary means of ensuring the safety of the child and others in a grave situation.
It is a good idea to bring up the contents of the video with your child. It is good to make it clear to the child that bullying and violence are wrong. For example, you can talk to your child about how the situation can feel to the person being bullied. The matter must also be brought to the school’s attention (even if the situation recorded on video is, for example, from a school commute). If the violence in the video is serious, it should also be reported to the authorities (refer to the page When you suspect child abuse).
It is good to make it clear to the child that everyone is responsible for their own actions, also on social media. The video should not be uploaded or further distributed on social media or in messaging groups. The recording, uploading or further disseminating of a video on social media platforms can fulfil the characteristics of a crime, and even if the perpetrator would not be criminally liable due to their age, they are liable for compensation. If the video is already on social media, it is a good idea to notify the administrator of the site, as material containing violence or bullying is prohibited on practically all the large social media services.
Sexual abuse of a child
Under the law, sexual acts against a child or adolescent under the age of 16 (in some cases under the age of 18) are punishable. Sexual abuse includes, for example, caressing, touching, licking the genitals, sexual intercourse or attempted sexual intercourse, and penetration into the genitals using an object. Abuse also includes getting a child to engage in something like this or getting a child to touch themselves, for example. Sexual abuse does not require physical contact, as it can take place, for example, via the Internet or a mobile phone. Abuse also covers showing pornographic material or otherwise knowingly exposing the child to adult sexuality, enticing a child for sexual purposes, and buying sexual services from a child or adolescent. Attempt of any of the above-mentioned acts is also punishable.
The fact that a child accidentally sees an adult naked or witnesses sex between adults, does not constitute sexual abuse. In addition, adult nudity as such without a sexual purpose is not abuse, as is the case, for example, when going to the sauna or swimming in a summer cottage. On the contrary, the fact that a child sees their loved ones naked may make it easier to ask about sexual matters and it may also create a more realistic idea of what the human body looks like – in contrast to, for example, what the pornographic offering includes online. On the other hand, it is considered abuse to knowingly expose a child to adult sexuality.
No. The younger the child, the more often the abuser is a person familiar to the child, but rarely a biological parent. Sexual abuse against young children is extremely rare in general.
The most typical abuse situation is that a young girl in puberty is abused by a young adult male. Young people may also find themselves in a situation where an unknown adult offers to buy alcohol for a minor, for example, on condition that the young person consents to a sexual act. The Internet also provides a way for unknown adults to make contact with adolescents and send sexually explicit messages anonymously. Thus, a relationship established on the Internet with an unknown person that is older than the adolescent can form into a confidential relationship that feels safe for the young person, which may increase the risk of the interaction becoming sexual.
Pedophilia is defined as a constant sexual interest in prepubertal children. Sexual interest in adolescents in puberty or underage adolescents who have just passed puberty is called hebephilia. However, it is known from the studies that not all adults who are sexually interested in children or adolescents commit sexual acts against children or other crimes, such as possession of material depicting sexual abuse of children. On the other hand, child abuse offences are often perpetrated by a person who cannot be defined as a pedophile or hebephile, but there are many reasons in the background due to which the person’s behavioral regulation has become weaker.
In young people, sexual development and interest in sex progresses in a very individual manner. Therefore, age-based recommendations cannot be given for determining the appropriate age difference in young people’s relationships. According to the Penal Code, the age of protection for all forms of sexual interaction is 16 years. The purpose of the law is to protect children and young people from sexual abuse by older persons, not to restrict sexual relationships between young people. Pursuant to the law, an act that does not violate the sexual autonomy of the other party and where the age and mental and physical maturity of the parties do not differ significantly, is not considered a sexual offence. Sexual interaction between 17- and 15-year-olds is not a crime if the relationship is equal, there is no coercion, pressure or violence involved, and there is no great difference in maturity between the young people.
A child’s sexually explicit behavior and exposure to sexual material
A child’s sexual behavior is notably more likely to be part of a child’s normal sexual development or a reaction to some other change in their life than evidence of abuse. As a child develops, for example, in their linguistic skills, they also develop as a sexual individual. This development includes studying and touching oneself, various “games of playing doctor” between children, interest in and asking about gender differences, and drawing human characters with genitals. In addition, today’s children have easy access to adult entertainment available online, through which they may accumulate vocabulary related to sexuality and sex, which is not otherwise part of their age level.
The child may also have sexual symptoms due to changes and crises that come with life, such as a parents’ divorce, starting of school, moving to a new home, loss of a loved one, or other trauma. Early on, a child notices that touching themselves brings pleasure and reassurance. As a result, the child may do so in order to calm themselves, e.g. when trying to fall sleep.
Yes, they can. Interest in the human body and sexuality is part of the life of a growing child. Children are sensitive in observing how adults react to their talking, and children's interest in sexuality and sexually toned talking may be increased by the fact that sexuality is a difficult topic for adults to handle. In addition, research shows that even small children are exposed to sexual material. Research shows that many children of primary school age have seen pornography, and the likelihood of this increases significantly as the children grow older. According to a study in the Nordic countries, an 11-year-old is more likely to have seen pornography than not.
Children are prone to imitating words used by other children and adults that they do not understand. Young children may have heard detailed things that they talk about, but they may not understand the true meaning of the words. The older the child, the more concrete information about sexuality they most likely have. When assessing whether you should be concerned about what a child says, the matters must always be reflected against the child’s age level, individual development, and what the child already possibly knows. If a child’s speech contains personal and concrete issues that raise concerns among adults, you may consult the authorities on the matter.
Even very young children are already interested in gender differences. This is normal and a natural part of a child’s sexual development. If the child expresses this interest to you, answer the child’s questions honestly, taking into account the child’s age level and understanding. Tips and materials for this are available, for example, on the Comprehensive sexuality education page of the Väestöliitto organization. There are also plenty of books aimed at children to assist in discussing, for example, how children are conceived.
Children’s drawings, like play more generally, contain elements from both the child’s imagination and from what they have experienced. You should be very careful when drawing conclusions about what a child may have intended or experienced with a drawing they have made or a game they have played. So be careful not to overinterpret the contents of your child’s drawings or play. For example, you can ask a child about “how did you come up with this topic for your drawing?”.
Talk to your child about their experiences online. Do not pressure the child. Suspicions and accusations are not the way to deal with the matter. Remember, that it is good if a child has enough courage to talk to you about what they have seen. Appreciate this and let the child know that they did the right thing by telling you. Be patient and be aware of your own attitude, as being exposed to pornography is not the same as becoming traumatized. Stay at the child’s level and answer any questions they may ask. Explain to the child that pornography is not the same as sex, but that it is imagined, acted and scripted sex and lacks the feelings of love, tenderness, caring about the other, and intimacy. It is also good to go through the fact that pornography does not give a realistic picture of the changes that the body goes through in puberty and adulthood as well.
Prevention, identification and treatment of abuse
According to studies, protective factors against abuse include the presence of a safe adult(s) in a child’s life and the fact that the child can talk at home about their problems and experiences. This applies to children and young people of all ages. A healthy self-esteem will also protect a child from going along with suggestions in online conversations, for example. When washing or bathing as the child is still young, you can provide some guidance as to which parts of the body are private and that not everyone can touch them.
You cannot protect a child by scaring them. For example, talking to unknown adults may be necessary if the child gets lost while moving independently, in which case it is wiser to specifically instruct the child to ask for help from adults, such as a person with children of their own, rather than categorically prohibiting talking to unknown adults. The fact that a unknown adult would target a child with violent or sexual acts is extremely rare – although these cases usually exceed the news threshold and therefore easily stick in peoples’ minds.
Both research and practical experience suggest that a child who has been overlooked by adults caring for them is more susceptible to abuse than others, as they seek attention from other adults. So as a parent, the best way to protect your child is to spend time with them and listen to them when they tell you about their affairs – small or large.
On average, Finnish children have good safety skills for using the Internet. It is important to talk to the children and adolescents also about the negative issues associated with the use of the Internet in a direct and honest, without any unnecessary intimidation. Information on how to act in potential suspicious or strange situations gives you the certainty to act safely. A negative attitude towards the Internet and an excessive restriction on Internet use – and using the threat of restrictions as a punishment – easily leads to a situation where the child does not have the desire or the courage to turn to their parents when they should. You must be allowed to talk about the troubles and bad experiences online without it leading to the child being punished or blamed.
Express your interest in hearing what your child is up to online. Make the use of the Internet and talking about it a part of everyday life, as you would talk about the events of a school day. It is a good idea to go through with the child that they should not share pictures of themselves, their phone number or address with a stranger or a new acquaintance.
No, redness alone at the genitals is not an indication of abuse. Redness of the genital area of young children can be caused by a variety of reasons, such as inadequate hygiene, skin irritation (e.g. due to secretions in the diaper), abrasion, inflammation, skin disease, etc. These other causes are much more common causes of redness than abuse. Suspicions of abuse must always take into account the whole; whether there is any indication of abuse other than the genital redness.
There are many forms of abuse, which is why the injuries it causes can also be diverse. Often, abuse leaves no physical trace. Genital and anal injuries also tend to heal rapidly. Often, injuries on the hymen, for example, are so small that it requires a microscope and special expertise to detect them. It is almost always the case that no outsider is able to say afterwards whether a child or adolescent has been subjected to abuse.
The hymen can be very diverse in shape and size. A common misconception is that the hymen would be a solid or impermeable membrane that breaks during the first intercourse. In general, however, there is also a hole in the child’s hymen, through which, for example, menstrual bleeding can be discharged. The variation in anatomy between different individuals is great, and there is no unambiguous “virginity test”. For example, based on whether there is bleeding during sexual intercourse, no definite conclusions can be drawn on previous intercourses or other sexual experiences.
Often, parents and even professionals wonder, after sexual abuse has come to light, whether there were some hints that could have been noticed earlier that the child had been abused. However, both scientific research and practical experience has shown us that sexual abuse is very difficult to detect. Sexual abuse cannot be identified or inferred on the basis of behavior or symptoms. Each child or adolescent reacts individually to the experience of abuse and it is influenced by many factors. Also, not all symptoms or behaviors observed in a child may be the result of sexual abuse.
In addition, studies have shown that children are far from always telling us about this, and there can be many reasons for this, such as the fact that the child wants to avoid the negative consequences to different parties that may result from the reporting. The abuser may also have prohibited the child from telling anyone, or the child may not have understood the nature of what has happened at all. It is therefore important to look to the future, because carrying guilt or shame for not noticing the matter before is unnecessary, although very understandable. It is also good to express to the child that the fault for what has happened lies always with the perpetrator of the abuse – not the victim or their family.
There is no scientific evidence of so-called unconsciously suppressed memories. On the contrary, we know that the key points of traumatic events are usually remembered better than other situations. There is also ample scientific evidence that fake memories are relatively easy to implant in children and adults alike, and that memories are susceptible to being adapted as a result of outside information obtained, for example, through a discussion, especially with young children.
It is also known that many children, for various reasons, do not report the abuse they have experienced at all or only years after the events. In these situations, the child has usually remembered the event, but has not understood its significance, for example, or has wanted to protect the perpetrator, and has therefore not told anyone. It is also possible that a child or adolescent consciously wants not to think about what happened and therefore does not think about it for a long time. Some kind of memory clue can then result in the memory resurfacing and creating an experience for the person of not having remembered the incident previously.
Separating so-called fake memories from real memories is truly challenging. A typical feature of fake memories is, however, that the person has not remembered the matter at all before, but the recollection may have surfaced in great detail, for example, during therapy.
Can a child lie about mistreatment?
Children are prone to imitating words used by other children and adults that they do not understand. Young children may have heard detailed things that they talk about, but they may not understand the true meaning of the words. When assessing whether you should be concerned about what a child says, the matter must always be reflected against the child’s age level, individual development, and what the child already possibly knows. If a child’s speech contains personal and concrete issues that raise concerns among adults, you may consult the authorities on the matter.
In the case of a child, it is rarely the same type of conscious lying as, for example, the case may be with an adult. A primary school-age child who has done something unauthorized and is trying to cover it up may tell you a white lie involving another person. Studies and practical cases have shown several cases where it has been revealed that the suspicion based on the allegation made up by the child has not been true. However, it is generally considered rare for a child to be known to lie (about abuse). Teenagers, on the other hand, are able to lie just like adults, although the potential consequences of lying are more difficult for an developing adolescent to perceive than for an adult.
The child’s story may also be modified during interaction with an adult. Even very young children understand that a question requires an answer and they can also try to answer the questions of a concerned adult in violation of the truth. In particular, young children are unable to distinguish the events they have experienced from those that have been discussed and they may consider what has been said to be true. In addition, when talking about abuse, the child may have received a lot of attention from an adult, which is a positive experience for the child. This may encourage the child to tell more about the matter and send a message that it is desirable to make up a story.
When a child speaks about the incident, it is important that the parent does not put pressure or challenge the child, but leaves the matter for the authorities to investigate. A parent should not “quiz” the child on whether they are telling the truth or lying. It is known from studies that fear of negative consequences for yourself or others can serve as a motive to lie or to not talk about the matter.
There are no reliable ways to determine on the basis of a child’s or adult’s behavior (gestures, facial expressions, emotional expressions) whether or not they are telling the truth. Even professionals whose job it is to try to assess the reliability of their customers have not succeeded in this.
If the child appears, for example, reluctant, anxious or tearful, this can be explained in many different ways. A child may be recalling the distressing experience or the narrative situation itself may cause anxiety in the child. It can also be unpleasant for the child to speak ill of someone who is important to them, or they may find it difficult to answer the complicated questions presented to them. In addition, the child may react to the strong reactions or emphatic questions from adults. On the other hand, a conversation can also be distressing for a child if the child has told an untrue story, for example, because of pressure from an adult, or they are covering up their own wrong actions in order to avoid punishment.
Suspected of a crime against a child
Although the suspicion may invoke strong emotions, it is important that the matter is left for the police and child welfare services to investigate. So, do not discuss the suspicion with the child or in the presence of the child. The police will try to find out as in much detail as possible how and why the suspicion has arisen, and whether a preliminary investigation should be opened. You will be heard and you will be able to share your views on the issue. During the investigation and legal process, you have the right to an adviser who will ensure that your legal protection is exercised at all stages of the process. For more information, please refer to section Investigating suspected abuse of a child.
Concerns about your own sexual interest towards children
You can and should seek help for the problem. Experiences in Sweden and Germany, for example, where therapy has long been offered to people with sexual fantasies about children or who feel sexual interest in a child, have been positive. Many people have received help in such a way that they have not committed a sexual offence against a child. Help and support can be found, for example, in the Sexpo Foundation’s SeriE project or in the self-care section of the Mental Health House.