As a parent, knowing or suspecting that your child is being sexually abused can be incredibly traumatic. It can be difficult to know how to begin to do something about it. Therefore, If your child spends any amount of time away from you – whether it’s with a babysitter, with a trusted family friend or relative, or at daycare – it’s natural to be concerned about her or his safety. And like any parent, you’ve probably wondered whether you’d be able to tell if your child was being mistreated.
Any one sign doesn’t mean that a child is being sexually abused, but the presence of several suggests that you begin asking questions and consider seeking help. Children often show rather than tell that something is upsetting them. There may be many reasons for changes in their behavior, but if you notice a combination of worrying signs it may be time to call for help or advice.
What to watch out for in children:
- Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects
- Nightmares, sleeping problems
- Becoming withdrawn or very clingy, seems distracted or distant at odd times
- Becoming unusually secretive, refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child
- Sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings and seeming insecure
- Regressing to younger behaviors, e.g. bed-wetting
- Unaccountable fear of particular places or people
- Outburst of anger
- Changes in eating habits
- New adult words for body parts and no obvious source
- Talk of a new, older friend and unexplained money or gifts
- Self-harm (cutting, burning or other harmful activities)
- Not wanting to be alone with a particular child or young person
- Writes, draws, plays, or dreams of sexual or frightening images
- Leaves “clues” that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues
- Overly compliant behavior, as often young people who have been abused have experienced extensive grooming behaviors.
- Unwillingness to participate in physical/recreational activities, especially if this is due to symptoms of physical discomfort.
- Truancy/running away from home.
- Excessively seductive behavior and/or sexual activity. (This is an effect of the sexual abuse rather than a cause).
- Non-participation in school and social activities.
Physical warning signs
Physical signs of sexual abuse are rare, however, if you see these signs, take your child to a doctor. Your doctor can help you understand what may be happening and test for sexually transmitted diseases.
- Pain, discoloration, bleeding or discharges in genitals, anus or mouth
- Persistent or recurring pain during urination and bowel movements
- Wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training
- sexually transmitted diseases
- difficulty walking, sitting, standing
- torn, bloody, stained underwear
- self induced injuries ie: cutting, burning, suicide attempts
A child who’s being abused may feel guilty, ashamed or confused. He or she may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse, especially if the abuser is a parent, other relative or family friend. In fact, the child may have an apparent fear of parents, adult caregivers or family friends. Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of abuse and can vary. Keep in mind that warning signs are just that — warning signs. The presence of warning signs doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is being abused.
If you’re concerned that your child or another child has been abused, seek help immediately. The sooner you address the problem, the better for the child.