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Signs of Sexual Abuse 

A woman looks at a young girl and holds her hand. Her face looks concerned

Why should you learn about the signs of sexual abuse? Childhood sexual abuse can be devastating for those who have gone through it. Parents, teachers, family members, and others who work with children or have children in their lives should watch for the signs of child sexual abuse.

Why Learn the Signs of Sexual Abuse?

Unfortunately, sexual abuse is common. About one in nine girls and one in 53 boys experience abuse before turning 18, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. Part of lowering these numbers and protecting children involves being familiar with the signs of childhood sexual abuse. Although it’s not pleasant to think about, reading and understanding these signs can make a difference in a child’s life. 

What is Sexual Abuse?

Childhood sexual abuse involves inappropriate contact with a child.

Sexual abuse includes: 

  • Rape (forced penetration)
  • Touching a child’s genitals
  • Watching a child undress
  • Possessing images of a child or children nude
  • Forcing the child to have sex or perform sexual acts on an adult
  • Revealing one’s genitals to a child
  • Showing a child pornographic or inappropriate sexually explicit material
  • Taking photos of a child in a sexual nature
  • Failure to protect a child from further sexual abuse


Abuse can happen to any child regardless of class, location, or gender. 

Sexual Abuse and Mental Health

Sexual abuse can be extremely damaging to mental health. For children, sexual abuse can lead to behavioral, emotional, or physical issues. Because children are generally not developmentally able to process abuse, they may not understand what happened to them. 

Abusers often manipulate children into thinking that the abuse is the child’s fault. They might believe the abuse is happening because of something they did. An abuser’s manipulation can cause feelings of guilt, shame, and confusion for children. Children can develop trust issues from their abuser’s manipulation and sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse during childhood can lead to a wide range of long-term mental health issues for adults, including:

  • Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Substance use disorders
  • Personality disorders 
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-harm behaviors


Not all adults who experience child sexual abuse develop mental health conditions, but the abuse affects them.   

An african american woman is sitting at a table with a young girl. They are playing together

What Should You Watch For?

The presence of one sign of sexual abuse does not necessarily mean someone is abusing a child. Use this list as a guide for starting a conversation with a child or an authority about your concerns. 

Signs of sexual abuse to watch for in children:

  • Nightmares
  • Sudden mood changes (anger, fear, withdrawing)
  • Sudden behavior changes (doesn’t want to eat, wets the bed)
  • Acts adult-like
  • Sexual behavior
  • Draws, writes, or has dreams of sexual or frightening images
  • Avoids the abuser
  • Re-enacts traumatic play, like using stuffed animals or dolls in a sexual manner
  • Has new words for genitals 
  • Self-harming behaviors
  • Withdraws from regular activities
  • Troubles at school


Caregivers who are around children know them best. If a parent or guardian notices a sudden change in behavior, such as on the list above, that could signify that a child is experiencing sexual abuse. 

Additionally, children may experience physical signs of sexual abuse. Although this is rare, look for pain, discomfort, discharge, or discoloration around the genitals and mouth. These could be signs of sexually transmitted infections that an abuser could pass to a child. 

Reaching Out

Having a conversation with a child about the abuse they may be experiencing can be extremely difficult. It’s important to remember that the child can be in a susceptible state. Approach the conversation with a sense of care and calm. Let the child know that you care about them and want to make sure they are safe.

Additionally, it’s essential to report any suspected instances of child sexual abuse to the proper authorities in your area. Also, if you feel unable to talk to the child about suspected abuse, a trained authority can do so if they think it’s warranted.

Seeking Help for Sexual Abuse 

Counseling can be effective in assisting people recovering from childhood sexual abuse. Parents or loved ones who have children in their lives who experienced abuse also benefit from counseling. Counseling can help address painful emotions resulting from discovering abuse. It also can help them work on their future relationship with the child. Adults who experienced sexual abuse also can benefit from counseling to help them heal.

Integrative Life Center’s trained therapists provide individual and group therapy for sexual abuse survivors. Contact ILC if you or a loved one experienced sexual abuse and need help. 


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