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How to spot child abuse and how to respond

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

Most people believe that child sexual abuse is extremely rare in today’s society. Sadly, this isn’t the case. As many as 1 out of 4 girls and 1 out of 6 boys experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.

Children who experience sexual abuse do not typically experience it at the hands of a stranger; instead, it occurs with someone they know. Alarmingly, almost 75% of child sexual abuse is committed by family members, foster parents, or other familiar individuals. It’s important to be observant if you suspect child sexual abuse is occurring. There are several signs that a child may be experiencing sexual abuse.

These signs may manifest physically, behaviorally, or emotionally. A child’s response will be unique, and not all of these indications may be present. Our friends at Helping Survivors have given us some vital signs to look out for. Behavioural Signs

Behavioural signs can vary tremendously but may be more apparent than physical signs. This is especially true for parents, caregivers, or other adults who are more familiar with the child’s normal behaviour and realise when there are differences. Some signs include:

  • Knowledge about sexual topics that seem inappropriate for their age

  • Withdrawal from regular interactions and conversations with peers

  • Withdrawal from activities they previously enjoyed

  • Desire to spend an unusual amount of time alone

  • Reluctance to leave school or other activities; not wanting to go home

  • Trying to avoid certain places or people

  • Regressing behaviours not normal for their age

  • Frequent absences from school or other activities

  • New gifts, such as money or toys with no explanation of where they came from

  • Refusing to share secrets or talk about certain things

  • Talking about a new friend that is an older child or adult

  • Removing clothing at inappropriate times

  • Drug or alcohol abuse

  • Running away from home

  • Fear of closeness with others

Any of these signs could indicate a sexual abuse problem.

Emotional Indicators

Signs of sexual abuse that cause emotional problems should never be ignored. While these signs may reflect other issues, they indicate a problem. These signs may include:

  • Self-harming or suicidal behaviour

  • Nightmares, trouble sleeping, or fear of being alone at night

  • Change in mood or personality

  • New or increased depression or aggression

  • Disruption of normal eating habits

  • Decrease in self-confidence or the way they feel about themselves

  • Losing interest in school, friends or hobbies they used to care about

Emotional indicators can be serious and need to be addressed with a therapist.

Child sexual abuse can have devastating effects on the child who experiences it and their family members and friends. But by remaining aware, you might be able to help a child who desperately needs it.

If you notice signs of child sexual abuse, take action immediately by notifying the proper authorities and adults. Doing so can prevent the abuse and potentially save a child from significant lifelong trauma. What to do if you suspect child sexual abuse

If you notice behaviours in a child that lead you to suspect sexual abuse, it’s important to take action. Many state and local governments have specific laws and guidelines that establish what should happen if child sexual abuse is suspected. Make sure to familiarise yourself with them before taking action. In the immediate interim, speak with the child to see if you can determine the cause of the behavior or other symptoms that you notice. Ensure that you remain open, engaging, and non-judgmental during the process. At no time should they feel that they are being victimised or shamed for what may have occurred. Let them talk at a comfortable speed. Don’t treat it like an interview, but as a conversation, which they lead. If they ask questions, give them answers. Above all, let them know that they are safe with you. Next, validate their feelings. Let them know their feelings are important, and don’t brush aside any feelings of shame. Discounting feelings may do more harm than good in the long run. If they appear numb, that isn’t unusual. The child will need professional help if they have been sexually abused. This will need to occur with the assistance of a licensed therapist. If you are not the parent or caregiver—but an adult they trust—you’ll need to determine the best way to get them treatment. Please contact Helping Survivors for more information and resources on this topic.

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