ALERT: Signs & Symptoms of Abuse in Children

October 7, 2017
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“Survivors are damaged to different degrees by their experiences. This does not depend on what happened physically. A Survivor who has been raped will not necessarily be more damaged than a Survivor who has been touched. The degree of damage depend on the degree of traumatic sexualization, stigmatization, betrayal and powerlessness, the child has experienced.

ALERT: Signs & Symptoms of Abuse in Children

This in turn depends on a number of factors such as:

  • Who the abuser was;
  • How many abusers were involved;
  • If the abuser was same-sex or opposite sex;
  • What took place;
  • What was said;
  • How long the abuse went on for;
  • If the child was otherwise happy and supported;
  • How other people reacted to the disclosure or discovery of the abuse;
  • How old the child was”


Many adults make the assumption that a child would tell if they were being abused – WRONG.

We can do as much as we can to educate our children on what is right/wrong acceptable/unacceptable but we cannot guarantee that their abuser will not coerce, confuse, or scare them into keeping their abuse a secret. We cannot 100% empower our child to not feel guilt, shame, embarrassment, or fear that this happened to them – especially if the abuser is a family member, friend, or someone of authority/respect.

“Never forget that young children are developmentally incapable of protecting themselves from a skilled pedophile. Even the best classroom-based prevention programs in the world are useless unless adults in the community recognize the dynamics of sexual abuse of children in general and pedophiles in particular.” – Dr. Janet Rosenzweig “The Sex-Wise Parent”

Why Children Don’t Tell

There are a myriad of reasons why children don’t tell, almost always, an abuser must mentally and emotionally brainwash a child in order to perpetrate. It can be heartbreaking to learn what abusers say and make children think during the abuse:

  • The child may not be old enough to understand that they are being abused. It may seem normal or loving.
  • The abuse often may “feel good” to their body and they feel ashamed by this. Too many victims do not understand that they cannot control physical response to sexual stimulation. They feel responsible for allowing it to feel good and this misconception leads them to feel guilt for “participating” in the act.
  • They feel they allowed the abuse, they feel shame and blame themselves for lacking the courage to say no.
  • They fear not being believed.
  • They fear disappointing their parents that they have somehow “allowed” the abuse to occur, that they are to blame (abusers may even tell them this.)
  • If it is a family member, they are often afraid of disrupting the family – if a parent or other family member were to have to leave – they wonder what would their family do.
  • They feel obligated to keep it a secret to keep the family together.
  • The abuser may make the victim feel responsible for satisfying their sexual needs – that the child is the only one that can do this for them, that it is necessary for the abuser to relieve stress, to make them feel better, to help them through the day.

Identifying Possible Signs of Abuse

Children cannot be held responsible for their safety

Childhood should be about so many amazing things. Sure there will be trials and tribulations that they will work through, but sexual abuse should not be one of them.

It is our responsibility to educate ourselves to better identify possible abuse. Often the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse are also associated with other issues that may affect a child during different phases of life.
The important thing is to not rule out sexual abuse when we notice a change in behavior, and to not be afraid to ask, even if everything seems fine.

Physical Signs

There are usually no physical signs of sexual abuse that are visible to those other than the victim. Often physical signs would only be noticed on the youngest victims – infants.

However, you or your doctor may notice or a child may complain of:

  • Bruising of the soft or hard palate if the child was forced to perform fellatio.
  • Redness, bruising, tearing or swelling of genitalia or anus.
  • Trouble sitting or walking.
  • Yeast infection, bleeding, urinary tract infection (frequent/painful urination), sexually transmitted disease, or rash.
  • Pregnancy.

Physical Signs For Older Children:

If the sexual abuse is causing anxiety for the victim, they may begin to complain of headaches, stomach aches. These symptoms are often over-looked and a child may be thought to be faking or pretending, or it may just be considered a chronic ailment.


  • Fear of being left alone or around a specific person, or gender (ex. young children that fear men.)
  • Demanding extreme privacy while changing, bathing etc. Doesn’t want people to see their bodies. May wear extra clothing.
  • Talking about or using sexual terms that are beyond their age.
  • Cruelty to animals.
  • Sexual aggression toward younger or smaller children.
  • Inappropriate sexual behavior – exposing private parts, acting out sexually on other people or with objects. May draw or play with dolls acting out sexual behavior.
  • Masturbating multiple times per day and/or engages in thrusting motions while masturbating.
  • Sexual promiscuity.

Changes in Behavior

  • Moodiness, withdrawal, acting out or becoming violent or destructive, or running away, self abuse or makes self-demeaning remarks.
  • Acting “too perfect” – doing everything they’re told without question.
  • Very attached and/or obedient to a specific person.
  • Nightmares, bed-wetting when it wasn’t an issue before.
  • Thumbsucking or other self-soothing methods.
  • Eating disorders – overeating or bulimia/anorexia.
  • Change in school grades -studying/focusing more than usual or neglecting classwork/skipping school.
  • Alcohol and/or drug abuse.

Signs of Sex Trafficking

The average age that a child is forced into sex trafficking in the United States is 12-14 years old. Many of these children may still be living at home and/or going to school while they are forced into prostitution.

Signs of Trafficking May Include:

  • Frequent, unexplained absences from school
  • Runs away from home often
  • Shows signs of physical trauma, anxiety, fear
  • Exhibits signs of drug addiction
  • Is dating someone or has a “friend” considerably older
  • Is secretive or concerned about their own safety of the safety of their family

Even if there are no signs – ask.

Some children show no signs of abuse. Most children will not tell. It is good parenting to check-in with our children and ask if anything inappropriate has ever happened to them. Remind them that no matter what has happened, what anyone has ever said or made them feel, it is never their fault, and that it is always the right thing to tell. Just like we tell our children that we love them, even if we “know that they know” – it’s important that we remind them it is OK to tell. Some survivors of abuse often say they wish that someone had just asked them, when they themselves didn’t have the power to tell.

A warning for single parents

“I cannot say enough words of caution to single women with children: do not allow the men you are dating to have access to your children…It is hard to think that your new-found romantic interest is actually not as interested in you as in seeking access to your children, but it can be absolute reality.” Claire Reeves, “Childhood: It Should Not Hurt”

Not only romantic partners, but also those that any parent may depend on to help care for their child – even for that hour that you may need to run an errand or someone that is transporting your child as a favor, all an abuser needs is: opportunity.

Special caution required for children with disabilities

The pattern of targeting and grooming is of particular importance in relation to disabled children and as mainstream services become more vigilant, perpetrators may move into other less attentive services, such as voluntary agencies that serve disabled children and young people, in order to access potential victims.

Any visible disabilities might mark a child out as vulnerable, and if they are protecting children from sexual violence isolated from their peer group, have communication difficulties and less information about what to expect from adults and to whom they could report abuse, then they are more likely to be seen as targets.Disabled children and young people who have a negative self-image may also be particularly susceptible to grooming and deception, and to “tricks or treats”.
– “Sexual Abuse of Children With Disabilities”
Professor Hilary Brown, Canterbury Christ Church University, United Kingdom

Depression, low self-esteem, previous abuse

When interviewed, convicted child sex-offenders admitted to being very particular about the children they chose to abuse. They looked for children that were loners or seemed less-confident and in need of attention/affection/love. They exploited this need, showing interest, making the child feel loved, and in turn used that emotional connection to perpetrate their bodies. The children were less-likely to tell because they did not want to sacrifice the relationship or because they had less respect for their bodies.

Even worse, when known, a perpetrator may target a child known to have been abused previously. Even with therapy, it is not a guarantee that the child has overcome the mental and emotional damage from the previous abuse, and may be more likely to not defend themselves against the advances of a new perpetrator.

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