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Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse in Children

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on September 09, 2021

Approximately every 9 minutes, U.S. authorities respond to a new report of child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can have negative impacts on a child for the rest of their life. By knowing the signs of sexual abuse, you may be able to help a child in need.

What Is Sexual Abuse?

Aside from direct sexual contact, child sexual abuse includes:

  • Exposing one’s private parts to a child
  • Sharing inappropriate images‌ with a child
  • Taking photos or videos of a child that are sexual in nature‌

A person may begin to groom a child by starting out with lesser offenses. Touches may not be sexual at first as a person tries to earn the child’s trust. They may threaten the child or make promises so that the child doesn’t tell anyone about anything that happens.

Signs of Sexual Abuse in Children

You may suspect the sexual abuse of a child without having any proof or obvious signs. Always listen to your gut instinct. When it comes to children and sexual abuse, it's better to be safe than sorry.

If you feel like something is off with a child or with an adult in their life, report a possible child sexual abuse. You can start by identifying the signs of child sex abuse and knowing what to do if you suspect abuse.

Physical warning signs of child sexual abuse. A child who is sexually abused may experience other physical abuse, too. The number one physical warning sign of child sexual abuse is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). Other signs of physical trauma include bruises, bleeding, and stains on bed sheets or underwear.‌

Behavioral warning signs of child sexual abuse. Children who are sexually abused often know more about sexual topics than they should for their age. They may talk about keeping secrets or begin to be quieter than usual. They may have separation anxiety when parents or caregivers leave, or they may not want to be alone with certain people.‌

Additional behavioral signs of child sexual abuse may include:

  • Regressing back to thumb-sucking or wetting the bed
  • Acting overly compliant to requests
  • Sexual behavior
  • Spending more time alone‌
  • Not wanting to take off clothes or bathe in front of parents ‌

Emotional warning signs of child sexual abuse. Children who are sexually abused often struggle with emotional changes. They may not understand what is happening to them, and they aren’t sure how to feel. You may see a child become more aggressive or have strong and sudden personality changes. Other emotional signs may include:

  • Changes in eating habits
  • Lower self-esteem
  • Feeling worried or afraid all the time
  • Persistent stomachaches or headaches
  • Nightmares
  • Self-harming‌
  • Less interest in fun activities they once looked forward to‌

A child may also exhibit many of these signs due to other significant or painful life changes like death or divorce. The biggest indicator of child sexual abuse is a sudden, unexplained change in behavior or emotions.

Red Flags in Adults

Around 93% of child sexual abuse cases happen with someone the child knows or trusts. Because of this, it is also important to know the warning signs of child sexual abuse in adults. Sexual abuse perpetrators are likely to be family, friends, teachers, coaches, and church members. They often seek out professional positions that allow them to get close to children. 

Watch for red flags of child sexual abuse in adults, which may include:

  • Not respecting boundaries
  • Not stopping a behavior when someone says “no” or “stop”
  • Touching children in their care excessively
  • Doesn’t have age-appropriate friends or relationships
  • Talks to children about personal or adult problems
  • Spends a lot of time alone with children outside of their professional role
  • Makes sexual comments in front of or about children ‌
  • Gives gifts to children without an occasion
  • Keeps a child away from other adults‌‌

Pedophiles can spend years grooming children before engaging in sexual abuse. Children are 20 times more likely to experience sexual abuse if they live in a single-parent household. Pedophiles target children who are more vulnerable, although children who live with both of their parents may also experience abuse.

Reporting Child Sexual Abuse

If you don’t have definite proof, you may feel hesitant to report child sexual abuse. Don’t be. If you suspect someone other than a parent is abusing a child, talk to the child’s parents. Share your concerns and the warning signs you noticed about another adult.‌

You may save a child’s life or protect them from future abuse. You can also talk to a local sexual assault service or local law enforcement about your concerns. Make sure you share the reasons for your concern and any specific instances that bother you. Ask what you should do next or how you can help the child.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Child Abuse.”

National Center on Sexual Exploitation: “Protect Your Child from Sexual Abuse.”

RAINN: “Warning Signs for Young Children.”

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