Signs of Possible Sex Abuse

Teddy Bear

Teddy Bear. Photo by Callen Harty.



As we near the end of Sexual Assault Awareness Month I’ve been thinking about something helpful I could write about it. One of the things I talk about when I share my survivor story to general audiences is what signs to look for in your child that might tell a parent or other adult that a child has been (or is being) abused. At the very least asking the young person about these signs could open up an important conversation and let the child know that you are concerned and that you are open to them sharing whatever is going on in their lives. If they are not ready when you first talk to them they will know that they can come back to you later and it will be safe.

Unless there is some physical evidence of abuse or a child tells you directly that they have been abused there are really no definitive signs–there is not just one thing you can point to as proof. Usually it’s a combination of signs or changes in the child. Some children will exhibit a number of these signs, some only a few, some almost all. The difficulty is that there are many things that can cause some of the things to look for–sex abuse, drug use, bullying, and more. The important thing is that if a child exhibits a number of these signs there is likely something going on and checking in with them is an important thing for you to do. If it proves not to be sex abuse it is likely to be something else for which they need help.

These signs have been culled from a number of different resources. Most of them are on most of the lists and a few are only on a small number of the lists. With that said here are some of the things to look for:

  • Withdrawal from friends or usual activities; becoming unusually secretive. All of us, young and old, sometimes lose friends or move on to new friends, but withdrawing socially or from activities that were once enjoyed can indicate deeper problems.
  • Sudden changes in behavior. Any time there are sudden changes in behavior checking into what is going on in that child’s life is probably a good thing.
  • Changes in school performance. I had been a good student up until the time that abuse started on me. After that I lost my interest in school and studies. Apparently my mind went elsewhere and I suspect I was dissociating a lot.
  • Depression, anxiety, sudden loss of self-confidence. Again, these things may be the result of a number of causes, but something is going on if these are noticed.
  • An apparent lack of supervision. Child sex abusers tend to prey upon young people who are vulnerable and will notice if parents or other adults are seldom around.
  • Frequent absences from school; reluctance to ride the bus. It could be that like some kids the child just does not like school. This could also be a big warning sign of bullying, or perhaps the child is being abused at school.
  • Reluctance to leave school or school activities. This could be an indicator that the child doesn’t want to go back home. If horrible things are happening at the house this makes perfect sense that they would try to avoid going back to the scene of those events.
  • Attempts to run away. Running away from home literally removes the child from whatever dangers there might be in their life.
  • Rebellious or defiant behavior. A certain amount of this comes with puberty and growing up, but if it’s particularly out of character it may be a sign of abuse.
  • Suicidal ideation or attempts; self-harm. One of the things about sex abuse is the shame and guilt that comes with it. While a number of factors can lead a person to suicide, sex abuse ranks high on the list of reasons for self-harm.
  • Sexual behavior or knowledge inappropriate for a child’s age. If a child knows terms and knows about things that they probably should not know at their age this could be one of the most important signs of sexual abuse. I would want to question them about where they learned these things.
  • Pregnancy; sexually transmitted diseases. Clearly if these signs show up your child has been exposed to sex–the question would be whether it was voluntary. Obviously with these signs a serious conversation is in order regardless of what the reason proves to be.
  • Blood in the child’s underwear. Sexual abuse, particularly of younger children, can cause physical damage to private areas and bleeding may result. While there could be other reasons, especially depending on the age of the child if they are a girl, this is a sign that deserves immediate follow-up.
  • The child tells you they were abused. Statistics show that more than 90% of children who report abuse are telling the truth. It is not very likely that a child would make this up or have the knowledge to lie about it. The rare exceptions are almost always cases involving an ugly divorce in which one of the parents is feeding lies to the child in order to hurt the other parent or get a step ahead in a custody battle.
  • Trouble walking or sitting; complaints of genital pain; unexplained sores. Both a check-in with the child and visit to the doctor seem appropriate in these instances.
  • Abuse of other children. This is not normal behavior. If a child is found sexually abusing other children then those children need help. But it is also likely that the abusive behavior was learned.
  • Bedwetting. While this could simply be from something physical, such as a small bladder, it is also sometimes a sign of child sex abuse, especially if it is something that starts at a later stage of development.
  • Nightmares; trouble sleeping. Obviously nightmares are a sign of some kind of fear and trouble sleeping may be because they are afraid of someone coming in and are trying to stay alert. When I was a child I was sometimes awakened from sleep for the abuse to take place.
  • Unaccountable fear of certain places or people. Trust the child’s instincts. If they seem afraid of someone or some place there is likely a reason for that. Don’t force them to accept hugs or kisses if they seem unwilling or afraid.
  • Changes in eating habits. Sometimes traumatic events can cause a loss of interest in food and sometimes abused children start to eat more in a subconscious effort to gain weight so they are less attractive. Any sudden change in eating habits or other behaviors is cause for concern.
  • Drug/alcohol abuse. Often victims of sexual assault end up turning to drugs and alcohol as an escape from the pain and as a way to avoid the reality of what happened. Of course many young people (and adults) abuse drugs and alcohol for a variety of reasons.

This may not be a comprehensive list, but it includes many, if not most, of the signs of potential child sex abuse. Please keep in mind that any one of these signs, or even a number of them together, may not be an indicator of abuse, but they could be cause for concern. Checking in with a child about any of these could open up an important conversation. Even if it proves not to be sex abuse, a person may discover other important things going on in the child’s life for which they need help.

There are also some signs to watch for in adult behavior which may be danger signs of a potential child abuser. Predators tend to groom children over a period of time, getting them to trust the adult little by little, even long before the first instance of abuse. There are also abusers who may not be serial predators but for one reason or another take advantage of a situation that presents itself. Again, any one or a number of these, do not necessarily prove that the person is an abuser, but could be cause for concern and extra precaution. It wouldn’t be wise to suddenly accuse someone of abuse just because one or more of these signs is present, but it might be prudent to be more watchful or to talk to the child.

  • Not allowing a child privacy; walking in on them in the bathroom. Most of us need privacy. Barging in on a child in the bathroom or their bedroom can be an invasion of that privacy. It can also be a way for an adult to surreptitiously check out the young person and/or start to get them used to their body being viewed. It takes away their right to privacy and sets the stage for potential abuse.
  • Insistence on physicality (hugging, kissing, wrestling) even when it’s clear the child doesn’t want it. Some parents or responsible adults are afraid of hurting feelings if Uncle Joe or Reverend Smith wants to get a hug from a child and the child doesn’t want it, so they’ll insist the child go ahead and hug or kiss the adult. It is far better to trust what the child does or does not want. If they are uncomfortable there could be a reason for it. Making them do it also tells them their boundaries don’t count, which could lead to bigger issues down the line.
  • Unusual interest in the sexual development of a child. To be blunt this would creep me out. It is none of anyone’s business and that unusual interest would make me very concerned.
  • Spending a great deal of time alone with children. A man (or woman) who seems to spend a lot of time alone with children could just simply love children and be completely innocent. They could also have much darker reasons for wanting to be alone with children so much.
  • Not spending a lot of time with people one’s own age. Most of us develop relationships and friendships with people our own age or somewhat close to it. The older we get the less the difference in years make, but a person who is spending most of their time with those who are children and who doesn’t seem to have a lot of people their own age in their life might be a cause for concern.
  • Offers to babysit for free or taking children off on overnight excursions. While these again may be completely innocent they could also be ways for that adult to find themselves alone with children.
  • Buying gifts or giving money to children. Oftentimes abusers will buy silence or love in this way. They appear to be loving and generous both to the child and  the adults in their lives when it could be a way to get the child to like them more and adults to trust them more.
  • Treating one child as a favorite. A child who is not getting love can be a target for a predator who in showering them with love and attention earns their trust.
  • Picking on one child. Conversely, picking on a particular child may undermine their self-confidence and make them more vulnerable to an advance in the future.

As noted any one or a combination of these signs does not prove that the adult in question is an abuser. However, it would not hurt to keep a watchful eye on that person or even to go so far as to try to ensure that the child is not left alone with them. Trust your child and trust your instincts. Most child sex abuse is perpetrated by adults that the child and family both know and trust. Some of these signs may help adults determine who to trust a little less.

The most important thing is to always have open communication with the young people in your lives. Let them know early on that you care for them and that they can talk to you about anything. Listen to them and trust what they tell you. Talking regularly to them and checking in about all aspects of their lives could prevent a great deal of heartache down the road.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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