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Protecting Your Child From Sex Abuse

Experts explain how to recognize signs that your child may have been a victim of sex abuse.

Listen to Your Children continued...

"Basically if a child's behavior changes significantly in a way that does not fit with normal development, parents should inquire what's up -- and consider sexual abuse or other traumatic experiences as a possibility, " says Lucy Berliner, director of the Harborview Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress in Seattle, Washington.

What's also important, say experts, is to look for patterns in behavior changes, specifically as they relate to an individual -- such as an uncle, stepfather or neighbor -- or a specific event, such as soccer practice or a scout meeting.

"Does your child become upset or seem uncomfortable every time he has to spend time with Uncle Joey -- or in older children, every time they have soccer practice or gym class? You need to pay attention to these kinds of outside cues," says Amaranth.

Don't Jump to Conclusions

At the same time, she cautions parents not to jump to conclusions prematurely.

"Some children just really don't like gym class -- and some may just not like Uncle Joey because he has a scary haircut or bad breath. It's important to pay attention to the cues, but it's also important to assess those cues in the context of their total behavior," she says.

Fielding agrees and says no real determination can be made by a single observation.

"What you really need to do is look toward a constellation of events and situations that seem to tell a story," says Fiedler.

When all else fails, they say, simply ask your child what it is about a specific person or event that makes them feel uncomfortable.

"Older children may be less forthcoming, but frequently young kids will often just blurt it out," says Amaranth.

Abuse: Know the Signs

In addition to knowing your child, becoming familiar with the signs of sexual abuse is also helpful. And while experts say that every child can respond to trauma in a unique way, there are some behaviors that are commonly observed in children who are experiencing abuse.

Because some of these signs can be caused by other factors, such as depression, experts warn parents not to make a snap judgment on any one behavior. That said, you should remain aware of the following warning signs of trouble.

  1. A sudden onset of sexualized behavior; the younger the child is when this occurs, the more likely it is linked to sexual abuse.

    "This includes a sudden desire to touch their body, to touch the bodies of other children or even adults, to want their parents to touch them," says Amaranth. This, she says, is often done in an attempt to "normalize" the behavior they have experienced with the abuser. Sometimes it can be a sign the child has been exposed to pornography.

  2. Sudden or rapid onset of fears -- including fears of being around a certain person, or fears about attending a regular activity they normally looked forward to. "A strong preference not to be around, go with, or be left in the care of a particular person should create an index of concern that something has happened that is upsetting," says Berliner.

    But also important to remember, says Amaranth, is that children are often very protective of the abuser, so sometimes they will try to hide their reluctance, particularly if you question them about it.

  3. A sudden change in personality -- from very quiet to very aggressive, or from very outgoing to very quiet and withdrawn.

  4. Acting out, particularly showing anger and aggression towards others. In younger children Fielder says this can be manifested while playing with toys, or playmates, sometimes causing them to suddenly become the playground bully. In older children the anger can manifest as substance abuse, particularly alcohol.

  5. Sleeping disorders -- such as sleeping much more than usual, or having difficulty sleeping. "Children may also become obsessed with secrecy or privacy -- for example locking their bedroom door," says Fielder.

  6. Fire setting -- or having an obsession with fire. "There is a connection between fascination with fire and abuse -- possibly related to the child being oversexualized as a result of the abuse," says Fiedler. In very young children, she says, the fascination may be depicted in drawings of fire or in pictures that utilize a lot of red.

  7. Children's drawings can also show signs of abuse and related depression if the pictures show them as meaningless in the presence of large powerful people, says Fielder.

  8. Rapid onset of eating disorders -- such as overeating or undereating. Amaranth says teenage girls who are being abused frequently become anorexic, or they pile on the fat, hoping they will be less attractive to the abuser.

  9. Be on the lookout for any physical signs of sexual abuse such as unusual penile or vaginal discharge, pain in the genital area, body bruises, cuts or abrasions that can't be explained, unusual marks on the body, constant urination or difficulty urinating. "If you do see any of these signs, take your child to a pediatrician immediately," says Amaranth.

  10. Any significant change in behavior that seems abnormal. This includes changes in personality, habits, behaviors, likes and dislikes, and particularly any change in attitude toward something the child used to enjoy, such as a sporting activity, dance class or scouting events.

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