It’s important for parents to know that while some of the physical and behavior changes listed below can be present in cases of sexual abuse, sexual abuse may or may not be the source of those changes. For the most part, these changes are signs that a child or teen is under stress or has experienced some sort of trauma. In any case, when you spot any of these changes, take them seriously and try to understand what is causing them.
Any irritation, abrasions, swelling, skin tears, bleeding or infection of the child’s genitals or anus, or any unexplained injuries around the mouth, should be brought to the immediate attention of the child’s pediatrician. In babies and young infants, any roughened or calloused area between the baby’s buttocks may signal chronic rubbing of the area from sexual abuse. Confirmation of a sexually transmitted disease in a child is a strong sign of sexual abuse, as is pregnancy in a young teen.
Headaches, stomach pain, loss of appetite, bathroom accidents, and sleeping problems are some of the ways children may respond physically to the anxiety, confusion, anger, fear and shame that can be brought on by sexual abuse. These physical symptoms, however, can also be associated with many other stresses that children experience as a result of family or school problems, e.g. bullying, divorce, custody issues, etc. So if you see these signs, don’t immediately conclude that sexual abuse has occurred.
Changes in a child or teen’s behavior can sometimes be clues that sexual abuse has occurred. However, just like physical signs, these changes can be brought on by other stresses and events. Again, there is no foolproof checklist of signs that will flag for you whether a child has been sexually abused. Still, vigilant parents and caretakers should be aware of some of the behaviors that have been reported in children who have been previously sexually abused.
Have you seen these behaviors in children?
Expressed unwillingness or fear to be left in the care of a particular person, babysitter, etc. or to play with a particular child;
Change in the child’s behavior when a particular person is present, e.g. a usually outgoing child becomes quiet or withdrawn or an easy going child becomes agitated or unruly;
The use of new words to describe genitalia or sexual behavior;
Involving other children in sexual behaviors or using toys or dolls to act out sexual scenarios;
In young children, chronic masturbation that is not easily redirected;
Having money, new clothes, electronic or other personal items and you are unaware how the child or teen received these and from whom;
- Discomfort or reluctance to give details about time spent with another adult or child.
Child sexual abuse almost always leaves physical signs.
False. As we learned in Conversation #1, child sexual abuse can include a variety of touching and non-touching behaviors. Even many touching offenses don’t leave physical signs, so we cannot reliably tell when a child is being sexually abused unless there has been penetration that has resulted in tears, abrasions, bleeding, etc. Sexual behavior with a child, whether it includes rape or non-touching offenses, is abusive and damaging to children.
If you see any of these signs in your children, don’t panic. Remember, it doesn’t mean that he or she is being or has been sexually abused. It may mean that your child is experiencing stress or trauma related to something happening at home, in school, or with their friends.
To understand what may be causing these changes in behavior or physical signs, find a quiet moment and place. Ask your child in a gentle, supportive tone, how they are feeling. Even if they are not ready to tell you what is upsetting them, it will let them know that you care, are interested in their well-being, and are there for them when they are ready to talk.
If you suspect that your child may have experienced sexual abuse, you may want to ask them in a caring tone, “Is someone hurting you?” Again, if they are not ready to speak about it, they will know that you are there for them when they are ready to tell you.
If they disclose, remain calm. Your child will be greatly reassured if you don’t react in an angry or excited way. Don’t press for details immediately. Reassure the child that you believe him or her. Make sure the child understands that it was not their fault. Let them know that you will get help to deal with the problem. Make sure the child is safe from the alleged abuser.
If you suspect a child has been sexually abused, contact your local child protective services. To locate the child protective services reporting number in your state, as well as other resources, call Childhelp at 800-4-A-CHILD
- Finally, get support for yourself. Remember, you do not have to handle this on your own. Go to the “Get Help” section of the Enough Abuse Campaign website where you will find resources for you and your child.