Recognizing
Child Sexual Abuse

“Is my child just spoilt or are the violent tantrums because he is being sexually abused?”

Sexually abused children are often tormented by shame and guilt. They may feel that they are responsible for the abuse or somehow have brought it upon themselves. This can lead to self-loathing, sexual problems and relationship problems as they grow older.

Child sexual abuse is an especially complicated form of abuse because of its layers of guilt and shame. It’s important to recognize that sexual abuse doesn’t always involve body contact. It can involve exposing a child to sexual situations or materials that are sexually abusive, whether or not touching is done.

The shame of sexual abuse makes it very difficult for children to come forward. They may worry that others won’t believe them, will be angry with them, or that it will split their family. Because of these difficulties, false accusations of sexual abuse are not common, if a child confides in you take them seriously.

Warning signs of sexual abuse in children.

  • Trouble walking or sitting
  • Display knowledge of sexual acts inappropriate for their age, or even seductive behavior
  • Make strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason
  • May not want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities
  • Torn, stained or bloody underclothing
  • Bruises, lacerations, redness, swelling or bleeding in genital, vaginal or anal area
  • Blood in urine or faeces
  • An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14
  • Running away from home
  • Know more about sex than others their age
  • Behave in an improper or aggressively sexual way with peers, teachers or other adults
  • Use sexual language or make drawings with sexual images
  • Start wetting or soiling their pants, wetting the bed or thumb-sucking
  • Be afraid to go to sleep, have nightmares or sleep long hours
  • Become withdrawn, anxious, fearful or depressed
  • Have physical trauma or irritations in the anal and genital area
  • Withdraw from regular friends and family, from regular activities
  • Be secretive about who they see and where they have been
  • Be unusually protective about a new relationship or friendship and unwilling to talk about it
  • Hang around with older people
  • Wear clothing or jewelry or have a phone or device they could not afford to buy
  • Be very secretive or reactive about their browser history, websites they visit or contacts on their phone
  • Comments such as “I’ve got a secret”, or “I don’t like Uncle”
  • Fear of certain places eg. bedroom or bathroom
  • Eating disorders
  • Promiscuity or prostitution
  • Using younger children in sexual acts
  • Attempts at making self as unattractive as possible

Approaching a child undergoing sexual abuse:

What should you do if you suspect that a child is being abused? Or if a child confides in you? It’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed and confused. Child abuse is a difficult subject that can be hard to accept and even harder to talk about—for both you and the child. When talking with an abused child, the best way to encourage them is to show calm reassurance and unconditional support. If you’re having trouble finding the words, let your actions speak for you.

  1. Avoid denial and remain calm.A common reaction to news as unpleasant and shocking as child abuse is denial. However, if you display denial to a child, or show shock or disgust at what they are saying, the child may be afraid to continue and will shut down. As hard as it may be, remain as calm and reassuring as you can.
  2. Don’t interrogate.Let the child explain to you in their own words what happened, but don’t interrogate the child or ask leading questions. This may confuse and fluster the child and make it harder for them to continue their story.
  3. Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong.It takes a lot for a child to come forward about abuse. Reassure them that you take what they say seriously, and that it is not their fault.
  4. Safety comes first.If you feel that your safety or the safety of the child would be threatened if you tried to intervene, leave it to the professionals. You may be able to provide more support later.

When a child discloses their sexual abuse to you, it means that they trust you. It’s important to react in a responsible way that’s reassuring to the child. Disclosure of sexual abuse means a child has chosen you as the person he or she trusts enough to tell. It is the moment when children learn whether others can be trusted to stand up for them.

Guidelines to handling a disclosure.

  • Talking to children about signs you see or something they’ve told you:
  • Find a quiet, non-isolated place to talk.
  • Drop to the child’s eye level, or sit next to the child.
  • Remain calm, be patient, and try not to rush the child.
  • Ask the child about the sign in a simple, open-ended style. “I’m worried about you. You seem really afraid and sad.” Or, “Is anything bothering you?”
  • Listen to the response. Repeat what the child said with a question inflection. “Your daddy touched your privates?”
  • Let the child use their own words and repeat their words exactly again, followed by, “Is there anything else?”
  • Reassure the child that he or she has done nothing wrong and say, “I care about you”
  • Tell the child, “This took a lot of courage. I’m proud of you telling me.”
  • Refrain from behaviours that will frighten the child, put him or her on the defensive, or cause him or her to relive the abusive events.
  • Don’t ask questions that begin with “W” like who, where, when, or why.
  • Don’t overreact or make negative statements about the abuser.
  • Don’t make judgments or conclusions about the child or abuser.
  • Don’t interrogate, investigate, or delve deeply into the events.
  • Don’t ask leading questions or make suggestions about what happened. For example, ask, “How did you get hurt?” rather than “Did someone do that to you?”
  • Don’t make promises that the information will be kept confidential.
  • Don’t make any broad promises about the future.

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