How Can I Tell if My Child Has Been Sexually Abused?

Physical signs

Although most children who have been sexually abused do not have physical symptoms, if your child complains of or has unexplained bruises, redness, bleeding, sores, or milky fluids in or around the genitals, anus or mouth, you need to bring your child to a doctor for a physical exam. If you see physical signs and suspect that your child has been sexually abused you can bring your child for a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam (SANE) at a local medical facility where they can be examined and evidence may possibly be collected as evidence. See our Specialized Therapy referral list for more resources for finding a therapist.

Other Signs

Some concerning signs might be having a new “special” friend, receiving money or gifts from someone, or refusing to talk about a “secret” they are keeping with an older child or adult. People who sexually abuse children often begin a “relationship” with a child by paying special attention to them, giving them special gifts or privileges or testing the child’s willingness to keep secrets. By recognizing and taking action when you see these early signs, you may be able to prevent the sexual abuse of a child.

Children don’t always tell, even when directly asked.

This can be very hard for parents to understand. Studies have shown that the vast majority of children who have been sexually abused never tell an adult about the abuse until they are adults themselves. There are lots of reasons why children don’t tell. They may not recognize what happened as abuse. They may feel that it is their fault. They may have been told they will get in trouble or someone will be hurt if they tell. They may be embarrassed or feel guilty. They may think that what happened is “normal” or happens to everyone. If they are very young, they may not have the words to tell.

Sometimes children “tell” through their behavior.

If a child or youth is intentionally harming themselves through cutting, burning, using drugs or alcohol, running away or being promiscuous, you need professional help, regardless of whether this behavior stemmed from being sexually abused. If your child’s writing, drawings, play or dreams include sexual or frightening images or if your child is engaging in adult-like sexual behaviors with toys, objects or other children, you should seek professional help. If you are worried about any behaviors in your child it is a good idea to seek professional help. Call the Helpline for additional information, resources, and guidance.

Signs of stress

Some signs are more subtle and can be caused by other factors or changes in a child’s life. If your child is having behaviors more appropriate for a younger child (for example sucking their thumb after they had stopped), is having nightmares, sleep problems, extreme fears, sudden or unexplained personality changes, stomach aches, etc. these can be signs of sexual abuse but also can be signs of other stresses in a child’s life. Because early intervention can be an important part of prevention, we encourage you to seek help and support early by consulting a professional.