Child Sexual Abuse: Know the Warning Signs
Whether you are a parent, teacher, or someone else who cares for and loves children, the best defense against sexual abuse is to educate yourself and your children about it.
What Is Child Sexual Abuse?
Child sexual abuse involves an adult engaging in any type of sexual activity with a child or adolescent. It may also involve an adolescent engaging in sexual activity with a younger child.
There are different forms of sexual abuse. Like other forms of abuse, it can be physical, verbal, or emotional. It may be subtle enough that a child does not know what’s happening, but only feels uncomfortable. Child sexual abuse may include:
- Touching behaviors
- Fondling a child’s genitals, breasts, or anus for sexual pleasure or other unnecessary reason
- Playing sexual games or making a child touch someone else’s genitals
- Inserting objects or body parts (fingers, tongue, or penis) inside the vulva, vagina, mouth, or anus of a child, for sexual pleasure or other unnecessary reason
- Non-touching behaviors
- Exposing genitals to a child
- Showing pornography to a child
- Making sexual remarks to a child
- Having a child pose, undress, or perform in a sexual fashion (including for photographs)
- Peeping into bedrooms and bathrooms
In most cases of sexual abuse, the child knows the offender. The offender is often someone the child trusts or loves, such as a parent, neighbor, or relative.
Signs and Symptoms of Child Sexual AbusePhysical SignsEmotional SignsBehavioral Signs
Children often don’t tell others about sexual abuse because they feel frightened, ashamed, and confused. Their abusers often convince them that it must be kept a secret. Be alert for the following potential warning signs:
- Underwear that is torn, stained, or bloody
- Difficulty walking or sitting
- Redness, pain, bleeding, or bruising in the external genital area, vagina, or anal area
- Unusual discharge from the vagina or anus
- Frequent, unexplained urinary infections or sore throats
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Clinical depression and thoughts of suicide
- Lack of trust
- Change in response to adults or older children (although males account for most cases of abuse, don’t rule out the possibility of female abusers)
- New fears or hysteria
- Low self-esteem
Depression with physical complaints such as:
- Headache, stomachache, or chest pain
- Loss of appetite
- Sleep problems
- Bed-wetting, thumb sucking, or loss of bowel control
- Fear of undressing, or wearing extra layers of clothing
- Fear of going to the bathroom, refusal to have a bowel movement, or constipation
- Difficulty making friends
- Getting to school early and staying late, to avoid being at home
- Marked fear of a person (including parents) or certain places
- Promiscuity, seductive behavior, or age inappropriate interest in sexual matters
- Persistent, inappropriate sex play with peers or toys, or excessive masturbation
- Truancy or dropping school performance
- Running away from home
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
When You Suspect Sexual Abuse
How to Help Prevent Sexual Abuse
Here are some ways that parents can help lessen the chance of sexual abuse:
- Tell children, “If someone tries to touch your body and do things that make you feel funny, say NO to that person and tell me right away."
- Teach children that respect does not mean blind obedience to adults and to authority.
- Encourage professional prevention programs in the local school.
- Know the people who spend time around your child, especially caregivers.
- Communicate frequently and openly with your child in a non-judgmental way.
- Michael Woods, MD
- Reviewed: 06/2016
- Updated: 06/08/2016
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