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Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

Typically, victims of child sexual abuse don’t outright say what happened to them, but many victims show warning signs of the abuse. It’s important to know and recognize these hints, so that suffering children can get the help they need.

Recognizing Child Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is any sexual activity or imitation of sexual activity that involves a minor, or someone younger than 18 years of age.

Studies show that one in four girls and one in eight boys are sexually abused before they turn 18. Some children may not be aware that they are victims of child sexual abuse, and many who are aware never speak up.

It’s important to understand what constitutes child sexual abuse and what behaviors to look for. Child sexual abuse doesn’t just mean physical contact between a perpetrator and a child. It also includes non-touching offenses, such as exposing oneself to a child.

Examples of abuse that involves touching include:

  • Fondling a child’s sex organs;
  • Forcing a child to touch a perpetrator’s sex organs;
  • Having vaginal, oral or anal sex with a child.

Examples of abuse that doesn’t involve touching include:

  • Masturbating in front of a child or forcing a child to masturbate;
  • Making obscene phone calls or sending obscene messages via text, email or social media;
  • Purposely exposing a child to sex, such as forcing a child to watch pornography or others having sex.

Examples of exploitation include:

  • Involving a child in sex trafficking;
  • Creating, possessing or sharing child pornography whether images or movies.

Signs of Possible Sexual Abuse in Children & Teens

These heinous criminal acts against children have lasting effects on the victims. Such effects manifest in different ways, especially when the victims keep their abuse secret.

The U.S. Department of Justice lists general indicators of child sexual abuse. While any one sign does not automatically mean a child was sexually abused, the presence of multiple signs is cause for concern.

A child or teen who has been sexually abused may:

  • Have unexplained nightmares or other problems sleeping;
  • Seem distracted or distant at unusual times;
  • Show a sudden change in eating habits, such as refusing to eat, craving too much or too little food or having trouble swallowing;
  • Experience sudden mood swings, including rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal;
  • Leave hints that are likely to start conversations about sexual issues;
  • Become scared of certain people or places;
  • Refuse to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child;
  • Write, draw, play or dream of erotic or scary images;
  • Bring up a new friend that’s older;
  • Suddenly and without reason have money, toys or other gifts;
  • Consider his or her body gross, unclean or bad;
  • Display sexual behaviors, language and knowledge like an adult.

Signs of Sexual Abuse by Age

Younger children and teens may react differently to child sexual abuse depending on their age. For example, when struggling with the effects of their abuse, younger children may wet the bed whereas teens may resort to hurting themselves.

Sexual abuse warning signs in younger children include:

  • Behaving younger than their age, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking;
  • Having new words for private body parts;
  • Frequently complaining of stomachaches;
  • Refusing to remove clothes when bathing, getting changed for bed, using the toilet or getting a diaper change;
  • Asking other children to behave sexually or play sexual games;
  • Mimicking sexual behaviors with toys or stuffed animals;
  • Experiencing wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training.

Sexual abuse warning signs in teens include:

  • Cutting, burning or other self-injury;
  • Changes in personal hygiene;
  • Abuse of drugs and alcohol;
  • Sexual promiscuity;
  • Running away from home;
  • Anxiety and depression;
  • Attempts at suicide;
  • Fear of intimacy or closeness;
  • Compulsive eating or dieting.

Physical Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

Though rare, some children may exhibit physical signs of sexual abuse. These may include:

  • Pain, itching, burning, discoloration, bleeding or discharges in the genitals, anus or mouth;
  • Persistent or recurring pain during urination and bowel movements;
  • Wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training;
  • Bleeding, bruising or swelling in the genital area;
  • Bloody, torn or stained underwear;
  • Trouble walking or sitting;
  • Frequent urinary or yeast infections.

If you notice these physical signs in a child, contact a doctor. He or she can test for sexually transmitted diseases and should be able to explain what’s going on.

Signs Someone May Be Sexually Abusing a Child

It’s not always easy to spot a predator.  About 90 percent of the time, the perpetrator of child sexual abuse is someone the child or family knows and trusts, making it even more difficult to pick up on the abuse.

Behaviors that could be signs of an abuser include: frequently babysitting different children for free, taking children on special outings alone, and buying children gifts or giving them money without a reason. Predators also may frequently walk in on children in the bathroom, and they may insist on spending excessive amounts of alone time with a child.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, you should also be concerned by someone who:

  • Makes others uncomfortable by ignoring social, emotional or physical boundaries or limits;
  • Teases or belittles a child to keep him or her from setting a boundary;
  • Forcefully hugs, touches, kisses, tickles, wrestles with or holds a child who doesn’t want to be touched;
  • Shares with a child personal information or activities that are typically shared with adults;
  • Frequently points out sexual images or tells sexual jokes in front of children;
  • Exposes a child to adult sexual interactions without obvious concern;
  • Has secret interactions with teens or children, such as playing games, or sharing drugs, alcohol or sexual material;
  • Spends excessive time emailing, texting or calling children;
  • Repeatedly talks about a child’s developing body, interferes with normal teen dating and is overly interested in a particular child’s sexuality;
  • Allows children to consistently get away with inappropriate behaviors.

If You See Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

If you know or suspect a child has been sexually abused, you should report these crimes to the proper authorities. Reporting agencies vary based on where you live.

In cases when child sexual abuse goes unreported, survivors may consider taking legal action later in life. Legal empowerment may help you move on with your life. It’s a way to get justice for yourself and save other children from abuse.

Our team of experts can explain your rights and the legal options available to you. For a free, confidential consultation, call or fill out a contact form to speak with one of our attorneys.

View Sources

  1. American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Understanding and Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/understanding-child-abuse.aspx
  2. Psychology Today. (2016, August 2). Child Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/conditions/child-abuse
  3. RAINN. (n.d.). Child Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.rainn.org/articles/child-sexual-abuse
  4. The U.S. Department of Justice NSOPW. (n.d.). Recognizing Sexual Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.nsopw.gov/en-US/Education/RecognizingSexualAbuse
  5. Stop It Now!. (n.d.). Tip Sheet: Warning Signs of Possible Sexual Abuse In A Child's Behaviors. Retrieved from http://www.stopitnow.org/ohc-content/tip-sheet-7
  6. The U.S. Department of Justice NSOPW. (n.d.). Raising Awareness About Sexual Abuse Facts and Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.nsopw.gov/en-US/Education/FactsStatistics?AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1#sexualabuse