Every 9 minutes, government authorities respond to another report of child sexual abuse.1 Child sexual abuse can include sexual contact with a child, but it may also include other actions, like exposing oneself, sharing obscene images, or taking inappropriate photos or videos of a child. These crimes can have a serious impact on the life and development of a child, and often continue to impact them later in life. Learning the warning signs of child sexual abuse is often the first step to protecting a child who is in danger.
Signs that a child may have been sexually abused
It’s not always easy to spot sexual abuse because perpetrators often take steps to hide their actions. Some signs are easier to spot than others. For instance, some warning signs might be noticed by a caretaker or parent, and are often red flags that the child needs medical attention. Listen to your instincts. If you notice something that isn’t right or someone in a child’s life is making you uncomfortable—even if you can’t put your finger on why—it’s important to trust your gut, continue to watch for signs of abuse, and talk to the child who may be experiencing abuse in age-appropriate ways.
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Signs of trauma to the genital area, such as unexplained bleeding, bruising, or blood on the sheets, underwear, or other clothing
- Excessive talk about or knowledge of sexual topics
- Keeping secrets Not talking as much as usual
- Not wanting to be left alone with certain people or being afraid to be away from primary caregivers, especially if this is a new behavior
- Regressive behaviors or resuming behaviors they had grown out of, such as thumbsucking or bedwetting
- Overly compliant behavior
- Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age
- Spending an unusual amount of time alone
- Trying to avoid removing clothing to change or bathe
- Change in eating habits
- Change in mood or personality, such as increased aggression
- Decrease in confidence or self-image
- Excessive worry or fearfulness
- Increase in unexplained health problems such as stomach aches and headaches
- Loss or decrease in interest in school, activities, and friends
- Nightmares or fear of being alone at night
- Self-harming behaviors
This list may seem overwhelming to keep in mind when looking out for a child in your life, and some signs seem to contradict each other, such as being overly compliant or oppositional, or showing regressive behaviors or advanced sexual behaviors. The most important thing to keep in mind when looking for signs of child sexual abuse is to keep an eye on sudden changes in behavior. Trust your gut and don’t ignore your feelings if something seems off. If a child tells you that someone makes them uncomfortable, even if they can’t tell you anything specific, listen.
Signs that an adult may be hurting a child
Keeping children safe can be challenging because many perpetrators who sexually abuse children are in positions of trust—93 percent of child sexual assault victims know the perpetrator.2 This includes family members, members of faith communities, coaches, teachers, and other helping professionals.
Be cautious of an adult who spend time with children and exhibits the following behaviors:
- Does not respect boundaries or listen when someone tells them “no”
- Engages in touching that a child or child’s parents/guardians have indicated is unwanted
- Tries to be a child’s friend rather than filling an adult role in the child’s life
- Does not seem to have age-appropriate relationships
- Talks with children about their personal problems or relationships
- Spends time alone with children outside of their role in the child’s life or makes up excuses to be alone with the child
- Expresses unusual interest in child’s sexual development, such as commenting on sexual characteristics or sexualizing normal behaviors
- Gives a child gifts without occasion or reason
- Spends a lot of time with your child or another child you know
- Restricts a child’s access to other adults
Taking action isn’t easy, but it’s important
It’s not always easy to identify child sexual abuse—and it can be even more challenging to step in if you suspect something isn’t right. Keeping a child away from the perpetrator may mean major changes in your own life, even if you are outside of the child’s family.
“As it started to settle in, I replayed it in my mind. How could this happen? I had so much shame, so much guilt that I had brought this man into my house to molest my child. What kind of mother am I?” said Lisa, a mother of a survivor and member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau. “The guilt and the shame were deafening—but at the same time I knew I had to do what was necessary for my daughter.”
If something seems off, pay attention to that feeling and look into it further. If a child tells you that someone makes them uncomfortable, even if they can’t tell you anything specific, listen. Talk to someone who can help you figure out if this is something that must be reported, such as a staff member from your local sexual assault service provider. In the meantime, if you are the parent or have influence over the child’s schedule, avoid putting the child in a potentially unsafe situation.
Remember, you are not alone. If you suspect a child in your life may be experiencing sexual abuse, you can talk to someone who is trained to help. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at online.rainn.org.