Signs of Sexual Abuse and How to Respond to It
There’s no absolute checklist that a parent can follow to determine if their child has been sexually abused since symptoms of sexual trauma can vary widely from person to person. However, there are some common signs of sexual abuse that can alert you of something that may have happened and you may need to further investigate.
There can be red flags both physically and behaviorally in your child. Some signs are strongly associated with sexual abuse. Other signs, however, may be more difficult to pin down. And while these signs may not appear to be directly tied to sexual abuse, they are still common signs of trauma and may indicate other issues your child is dealing with.
If you notice any of the “Strongly Associated with Sexual Abuse” signs, immediately have your child evaluated by a professional. If multiple indicators are present in the “May Indicate Sexual Abuse” category, seek the help of professionals who can assist in determining if abuse has occurred or if there are other issues causing your child distress.
Strongly Associated with Sexual Abuse
• Reluctance to undress or bathe
• Fear of being alone with certain people
• Fear of certain places or objects
• Uncomfortable with signs of affection such as hugging and kissing
• Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for their age
May Indicate Sexual Abuse
• Change in school performance
• Withdrawal from family and friends
• Unusually compliant or “perfect” behavior
• Reverting back to childish behaviors
• Depression or unexplained crying
• Loss of interest in extracurricular activities
• Eating disorder
• Substance abuse
• Suicidal behavior
• Sudden mood swings and/or personality changes
Strongly Associated with Sexual Abuse
• Torn clothing
• Bleeding in genital or mouth areas
• Itching, pain, or discharge in the genital areas
• Swelling, rash, or redness of the genitals
May Indicate Sexual Abuse
• Difficulty walking or sitting
• Sudden weight-gain or loss
• Change in appetite
• Change in sleeping patterns
• Unexplained headaches or upset stomach
• Vaginal, yeast, and urinary infections
If You Discover Your Child Has Been Sexually Abused
Discovering your child has been sexually abused can be painful and heartbreaking. You might feel despair, rage, numbness, hopelessness, or may even experience symptoms of trauma yourself. You might feel consumed with guilt or overwhelmed with a drive to hurt the person who abused your child. These feelings are natural and common among parents of survivors.4 But you are not alone. Seeking support through professionals and supportive relationships can help you work through the situation with confidence and courage.
There is still hope. Despite how bleak the situation may seem; your family can heal. Your child isn’t doomed to a lifetime of trauma and misery. You have more power than you may think in helping them be resilient in the face of abuse. In fact, research suggests that the level of support from the family may be more influential on the survivor’s outcome than the severity of the abuse.1
What You Can Do Right Now
Right now, your words and actions have the greatest impact on your child’s healing. In 2014, a group of researchers asked adults who had been sexually abused as children how their parents reacted when they found out about the abuse.2 The survivors whose parents were unsupportive had higher levels of “anxiety, abandonment, and psychological distress.” On the flip side, the survivors whose parents were supportive showed similar levels of adjustment to that of adults who had never experienced any sexual abuse at all.
By offering continued support and unconditional love, YOU have the power to embolden your child in healing. Modeling resilience with your response and taking action to show that your child matters will not only help them heal from the sexual abuse they have experienced, but also set them up for success in their future relationships.
Below are four important actions you can take to provide your child with the support they need after experiencing abuse.
1. Respond, Don’t React
If you discover your child’s sexual abuse through another source other than your child verbally telling you, it doesn’t mean they don’t love you. They may have been threatened, they may have feelings for the perpetrator, they may be afraid they or the other person will get in trouble, or they may not understand the situation. As a parent, it’s crucial to show them love, trust, and support, and to refrain from blame. Even if the abuse has been confirmed, it’s common for children to deny, downplay, or take back what they said happened. No matter their reaction, show understanding and patience. Even though it may be difficult, managing your emotions will help you respond rather than react.
Instead of, “Why didn’t you tell me?” you can say “You must’ve been nervous to talk to me about it.”
If your child comes to YOU to disclose their abuse, it’s important to believe them. Disclosing sexual abuse to a parent is a painful process for anyone. That a child chooses to do so shows how much they trust you and your ability to protect them. As a parent, validate that trust by returning the favor. Assure your child that you believe them and that they made the right decision to tell you. Avoid disputing or questioning their account. This will not only reaffirm that they have reliable and trustworthy support in their life, but also that healthy communication leads to positive outcomes.3
2. Take Action to Protect from Further Abuse
It’s crucial to not only believe the child, but to ensure the person who abused them is unable to continue illegal sexual behaviors against your child or other children. Take the necessary steps to ensure the abuse does not continue. Notifying the police, cooperating with the investigation, seeking professional help for both your child and the person who perpetrated, and protecting the child against any further abuse will demonstrate to your child that they are valued, safe, and worth protecting.3 Kids need to feel that appropriate action has been taken to show that the abusive behavior was not okay and is not acceptable. This may look different depending on each situation or person. Threatening to injure or kill the perpetrator, however, may cause more anxiety, distress, and guilt for the child. While heightened emotions such as rage are understandable, they’re unlikely to meet the child’s emotional needs. The child may feel guilty for causing a crisis or disrupting family relationships. They may also view their abuser as their only friend or someone who cares deeply about them.4
3. Provide Instrumental Support
Instrumental support means you, the parent, have an opportunity to act as an instrument or tool to assist in your child’s healing. You can take the initiative to seek out tangible solutions to problems, such as physically removing your child from a dangerous situation, arranging medical and psychological support, and helping your child navigate interactions with law enforcement. This proactive approach will encourage your child to assume a proactive mentality.4
4. Provide Emotional Support
As a survivor of sexual abuse, your child is likely struggling with feelings of self-blame, anxiety, and worthlessness. During this critical time, emotional support will make all the difference. As previously mentioned, your love and support as a parent might be the most influential factor of all. This might not always be easy. Sometimes, legal and situational factors may make it more difficult to feel like you can continue to support your child. You may also experience stress, anxiety, depression, as well as symptoms of PTSD.4 Your child will likely look to you to model their behavior, making it all the more important to be aware of and monitor your emotional state. Remember that your feelings matter and need to be processed. Your own support system of friends, family members, or professionals can assist you in continuing to be there as a parent and to avoid placing blame on yourself or your child. This support and sense of security will help instill resilience and inspire hope.
Even after sexual abuse has occurred, there is still hope, and healing is entirely possible. Showing your child that they are valued, accepted, trustworthy, and protected will build and nurture their resilience. By doing what you can to make sure the person who perpetrated receives the proper help, you can ensure that other children will remain safe. With your love and support, you and your child will have the strength to not only endure through this crisis, but to come out stronger on the other side.
- Murray, L. K., Nguyen, A., & Cohen, J. A. (2014). Child sexual abuse. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics, 23(2), 321-337.
- Godbout, N., Briere, J., Sabourin, S., & Lussier, Y. (2014). Child sexual abuse and subsequent relational and personal functioning: The role of parental support. Child abuse & neglect, 38(2), 317-325.
- Gries, L. T., Goh, D. S., Andrews, M. B., Gilbert, J., Praver, F., & Stelzer, D. N. (2000). Positive reaction to disclosure and recovery from child sexual abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 9(1), 29-51.
- Elliott, A. N., & Carnes, C. N. (2001). Reactions of nonoffending parents to the sexual abuse of their child: A review of the literature. Child maltreatment, 6(4), 314-331.