Signs Your Child May be a Victim of Sexual Abuse

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), about 57,000 children were victims of sexual abuse in 2016 alone. That works out to 1 in 9 girls and 1  in 53 boys under the age of 18 being abused. Child advocacy group Darkness to Light states that child sexual abuse is “far more prevalent than most people realize,” noting that about 60 percent (or nearly two-thirds) of abuse victims never tell anyone.

Recently, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) filed for bankruptcy largely because it’s facing thousands of claims from victims of child sexual abuse within the organization.

How can all this abuse go on without parents knowing about it? Unfortunately, perpetrators of child sexual abuse are extremely manipulative of both children and adults. Here are some signs you can watch for that may indicate your child is at risk.

Potential Physical Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

Children usually don’t talk about sexual abuse. Often they think it’s their fault, as they’ve been convinced by the abuser not to share their “special secret,” or they’ve been outright threatened by their abuser so they don’t dare say anything. Therefore, you can’t expect your child will tell you if they’re being abused.

Instead, keep an eye out for signs like the following.

Physical Signs

Not all sexual abuse leaves physical signs, and some physical symptoms do not indicate abuse. In general, physical warning signs are rarer than emotional/behavioral signs (below). Either way, if you notice any of these signs, take them seriously and try to find out what is causing them.

  • Irritation, abrasions, swelling, skin tears, bleeding, or infection of the genitals or anus
  • Unexplained injuries around the mouth
  • Roughened or calloused areas between the buttocks
  • Vaginal or penile discharge, sometimes accompanied by an unusual odor
  • Urinary infection or difficulty with urination



  • Headaches, stomach pain, loss of appetite
  • Sleeping problems

Potential Emotional and Behavioral Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

Most children haven’t developed the emotional skills they need to deal with sexual abuse. Instead, they may demonstrate inappropriate behaviors or experience problems that seem related to other issues.

Emotional/Behavioral Signs

  • Excessive talk or knowledge of sexual topics
  • Keeping secrets—talking less than usual
  • Regressive behaviors such as thumb sucking or bedwetting
  • Inappropriate sexual behavior; involving other children in sexual behaviors; using toys or dolls to act out sexual behaviors
  • Trying to avoid removing clothing to change or bathe
  • Not wanting to be left alone with certain people; a change in behavior when a particular person is present
  • Being afraid to be away from primary caregivers; clingy behaviors
  • Problems at school—slipping grades
  • Sudden self-consciousness about genitals
  • Nightmares, fear of the dark
  • Increase or decrease in appetite
  • Writes, draws, plays, or dreams of sexual or frightening images
  • Suddenly has money, toys, or other gifts you didn’t know about

Teenagers may exhibit unique emotional signs like the following:

  • Self-injury (cutting, burning)
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Inadequate personal hygiene
  • Depression, anxiety
  • Running away from home
  • Compulsive eating or dieting
  • Fear of intimacy or closeness
  • Suicide attempts

If you notice these signs or suspect that a child may be suffering abuse, don’t wait for “proof.” Take action. You can start by talking to your child, but be sure you proceed carefully. Avoid “quizzing,” keep your voice calm and conversational, and ask questions a child would understand, such as, “Has someone been touching you?” rather than “Has someone been hurting you?” Be patient and reassuring, and take your time. Above all, reassure the child that it is not their fault and you are not angry with them.

Realize that your child may be too frightened to open up the first time. That’s okay. You can try again after a day or two. Meanwhile, get help. Talk to a counselor or psychiatrist at your earliest opportunity. He or she can help you plan your next steps.