Signs & Symptoms
When a child is sexually abused, most of the signs of that abuse are non-specific, meaning there may be some changes you notice in a child that are generally concerning, but do not mean that sexual abuse has occurred; they could indicate a range of stressors in the child’s life. You are not expected to determine the source of these signs, rather, you can think of them as indicating the child needs more attention from a trained professional.
Possible Behavioural Indicators
• When sexual abuse occurs, there may be changes in a child’s behaviour.
• Behavioural indicators are generally nonspecific 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 child 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 occurred. The child needs to be examined by a specially trained medical professional. Such a professional can be accessed through child social 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 does not mean that the child is not experiencing it.
You may notice concerning signs without knowing the cause. You can think of these signs as flags warranting more attention. 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 sign in a sensitive way and can then decide the most appropriate course of action.
If you suspect child sexual abuse: Learn more about disclosing and reporting.
Learn how to Take Action to Stop Child Sexual Abuse; take our Prevent It! workshop. Click here for more information.