Recognizing Signs of Sexual Abuse in a Child

Suspecting that your child has suffered or is suffering sexual abuse is a terrifying experience for any parent. And addressing these suspicions can be extremely difficult. It is very rare for a parent to actually witness sexual abuse first-hand or even to be informed by a third party who witnessed it. And while some sexual abuse can result in physical injury, the majority of abuse leaves few if any outward signs. Therefore, in many cases the only available indicators of sexual abuse must be drawn from changes in the child’s behavior.

According to the U.S. Administration for Children & Families and its Child Welfare Information
Gateway, age-inappropriate sexual behaviors are among the strongest indicators of sexual abuse in young children:

  • Comments showing an inappropriate level of sexual knowledge
  • Using toys to simulate sex acts
  • Sexually explicit drawings
  • Attempts at sexual interactions with people, animals or objects

Unfortunately, not all indicators are so clear. The sudden onset of nonsexual behavior issues as well can be indicative of sexual abuse. These can include sudden and unexplained changes in behavior, the onset of academic or social problems as well as other types of nonsexual behavior:

  • Sleep disturbance
  • Regression
  • Difficulties in school
  • Fear of being alone
  • Unexplained fear of specific people
  • Animal abuse
  • Setting fires
  • Eating disturbance
  • Self-destructive behavior
  • Substance abuse

Of course, as in all things, it is important to avoid jumping to conclusions. Many of these common indicators of sexual abuse can also be indicators of other psychological or behavioral issues. Parents must consider these factors in light of the totality of circumstances and seek advice from a medical or psychological professional if they continue to have concerns.

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