Signs That a Child Has Been Sexually Abused

No one sign (with the exception of pregnancy or the presence of a sexually transmitted disease) is conclusive as to whether a child has been sexually abused or not. Nightmares or mood swings can be produced by other stressful events, including divorce, death of a family member, problems at school, etc. If you observe a combination of signs in your child, such as these provided by STOP IT NOW!, Mothers Against Sexual Abuse and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, start asking questions and reaching out for help.

Does your child:

• Have nightmares, sleep too little or too much?

• Have extreme fear of the dark or “monsters?”

• Have a loss of appetite or trouble eating or swallowing?

• Have sudden mood swings: rage, anger, fear or withdrawal?

• Fear a certain person or place? (A child may not want to be left alone with a babysitter, friend, relative or other child or adult.)

• Complain frequently of stomach illness with no identifiable reason?

• Engage in sexual activities with toys or other children, such as simulating sex with dolls or asking other children to behave sexually?

• Display new words for private body parts?

• Refuse to talk about a “secret” he has with an older child or adult?

• Talk about a new older friend?

• Suddenly have money?

• Cut, burn or harm himself or herself as an adolescent?

Other signs include excessive masturbation, excessive crying, wearing many layers of clothing, vaginal discharge or bleeding.

If Your Child Discloses Sexual Abuse

Keep calm. Remember that the child is terrified that you will be angry with her or that you will blame her for what has happened. Children are almost always threatened with physical harm to themselves or their pets or families if they ever tell. Your child is risking a lot to speak. Stay calm and listen. Your first reaction will have a lot to do with how quickly and how well she recovers.

Listen attentively until your child is finished. Encourage her gently to go on if she has trouble. Tell her that she was brave to tell you and that you believe her. Tell her it wasn’t her fault and that she has nothing else to fear. Let her know that she’s not alone, that others have been hurt this way. When you are alone, write down what your child has said so that you don’t forget any small detail that may be very important.

Get your child medical attention. Even if the abuse didn’t take place recently, there can still be evidence of the abuse, which you will need in the event of a trial.

Call your local police department or 911. They will guide you through the police report. By not filing a report, your child may think that people can just arbitrarily hurt him. He may wonder if you blame him or if you think he’s not telling the truth if you don’t go to bat for him now. He may not be able to let this go and move forward if nothing is done about it.

Get your child counseling with someone well versed in child molestation cases. Child Protection Services or your local sexual assault agency will be able to recommend someone. Accept that your child is traumatized and she may have mood swings such as crying, fearfulness or angry outbursts. She may have nightmares or start wetting the bed again. Let her know that this is just temporary and that she will get better with some time and help. Realize that you may need counseling help to deal with all of this as well.

Don’t confront the abuser if you know who it is. Don’t bring your child around the abuser or near the place it happened. Let the people trained to do this handle it. You don’t want to risk physical harm or having your case thrown out because things weren’t done according to the law.

Get things back to normal as quickly as you can. Normal meal times, bedtimes and activities will help your child feel safer. Realize that you may need to be careful for a while when it comes to touching, tickling, cuddling in bed or other things that may remind the child of the abuser. Don’t walk around half dressed. Don’t open the child’s bedroom without knocking. Let him adjust to having his privacy so terribly violated by being very conscious of it yourself.

Give it time. This is a big adjustment for your child and you and the rest of the family. It will not be resolved overnight. Be patient with your child and with her progress. In time she will heal and life will feel safe and good to her again.

Adapted from ehow.com & parenthood.com