Children and Teens Program
HOW CAN I TELL IF A CHILD IS BEING SEXUALLY ABUSED?
In general, few children speak directly about sexual abuse. Possible physical indicators include
evidence of trauma to the mouth or genitals, rectal bleeding, complaints of pain or discomfort
in the genital area, torn or blood-stained clothing, venereal disease, unusual or offensive odors,
difficulty in walking or sitting, extreme passivity in a pelvic exam, and pregnancy in adolescent or
pre-adolescent girls. In many cases, however, there are no visible signs of the abuse.
The following is a list of some of the common behavioral characteristics of young children who have
been sexually abused. These indicators are offered with a gentle caution against overzealous
case identification. Any one of these indicators alone does not necessarily mean there is
sexual abuse. They are general indicators of stress in a child. Several, extreme, or pervasive
behaviors may indicate sexual abuse, and certainly warrant an exploration of the source of the
Unusual interest in and/or knowledge of sexual acts and language inappropriate to the child's age; the child may focus on sexual matters to the exclusion of many other activities or interests.
Seductive behavior with classmates, teachers, other adults.
Excessive masturbatory behavior.
Wearing many layers of clothing, regardless of the weather.
Continual avoidance of bathrooms. Some abuse within homes takes place in bathrooms, and some children come to associate any bathroom with sexual abuse.
Reluctance to go to a particular place or to be with a particular person.
Frequent absence and/or late arrival at school, especially if the notes are always written by the same person.
An abrupt change in behavior or personally.
An abrupt change in behavior in response to personal safety lessons in the classroom, e.g., a child who is usually very involved suddenly withdraws or becomes anxious, or a child who doesn't usually participate suddenly takes an interest and reveals a lot of specific knowledge of the subject.
Drastic change in appetite.
Anxiety, irritability, constant inattentiveness.
Over-compliance, extreme docility.
Compulsive behaviors, e.g., hoarding, constant washing.
Appearing to have overwhelming responsibilities.
Acting out adult sexual behavior, the child may seem to equate affectionate touch with sex.
Suicidal threats, gestures; causing deliberate harm to her/himself.
Use of alcohol and/or other drugs.
Aggression, anger directed everywhere, especially if this is a sudden change.
Sleep disturbances, e.g., bed wetting, nightmares.
Denial of a problem with marked lack of expression.
Lack of affect, extreme absence of expressiveness.
Withdrawal, depression, excessive crying.
Lack of friends.
Attempts to touch adults', children's, or animals' genitals.
Inappropriate dress, such as tight and/or revealing clothing.
Reluctance to undress for physical education, continual avoidance of p.e. class. Some children believe they have been "marked" and that others will recognize they have been abused once they undress.
Reluctance to go home after school, or constant early arrival.
Marked decline in interest in school, and in academic performance.
Indirect hints, allusions to problems at home.
Marked role reversal between mother and child.
Extreme over-protectiveness of the child.
Extreme paternal dominance.
Family isolated from community and support systems.
History of sexual abuse for either parent.
Extreme reaction to sex education or prevention education materials in the schools.
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