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Signs and Symptoms

When a child is sexually abused, most of the signs of that abuse are non-specific. In other words, they could indicate a range of stressors in the child’s life. You are not expected to determine the source of these signs.

Instead, think of these signs as an indication that the child needs more attention from a trained professional.

Possible behavioural indicators

  • When sexual abuse occurs, you may notice some changes in a child’s behaviour that are generally concerning, but do not mean that sexual abuse has occurred.
  • Behavioural indicators are generally non-specific and can be caused by a range of stressful occurrences in a child’s life.
  • Some behaviours that initially appear to be concerning can be the result of normal developmental processes in the child, such as sleep and toileting problems.

Possible physical indicators

  • Most children who experience sexual abuse do not have any physical indicators of abuse. Lack of physical injury does not mean that the abuse did not occur or that the child is being dishonest.
  • Physical symptoms that can point to sexual abuse often occur for reasons other than sexual abuse, such as a fall in the playground.
  • When there is no other explanation for the presence of concerning physical signs (such as a fall in the playground that would explain that specific injury), an appropriate medical examination needs to be arranged.
  • Adults who are not specially trained to recognize and identify physical signs of sexual abuse are not qualified to determine if child sexual abuse has occurred. The child needs to be examined by a specially trained medical professional, who can be accessed through child protective services or the police.

Possible psychological indicators

  • Psychological indicators of abuse are much more likely to occur than physical indicators.
  • It is important to pay attention to sudden changes, as well as changes over time.
  • Children often experience the psychological impact internally. Just because an adult cannot see signs of psychological distress, it does not mean that the child is not experiencing it.

If you notice troubling indicators without knowing the cause, think of them as signs that more attention is required. Their presence means the child can benefit from being assessed by a professional. A trained professional can try to determine the reason for the concerning signs in a sensitive way and then decide the most appropriate course of action.

Do you suspect a child is being sexually abused?

Learn how to take action to stop child sexual abuse—take the Little Warriors Prevent It! workshop.

Click here to download a PDF reference guide from Little Warriors.