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See The Signs

If you or a loved one are in a situation of emergency,
please call 911 right away.
For 24/7 help and support, and to report child sexual abuse
Call (240) END-1IN4
All calls are answered by the 24/7 Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline

The Signs

Look closer - you don't need to be sure, you just need to suspect enough to ask more questions and reach out for help.

With thanks to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and Darkness to Light for compiling the following guidance on seeing the signs of abuse and sharing statistics. 

Signs A Child
May Be Suffering Abuse

Children as young as 2 years old are sexually abused. Most abuse targets children between the ages of 7 and 13. The median age for reported abuse is 9 years old. More than 20% of those abused are abused before the age of 8.

 

Child Behavioral signs: 

  • Excessive talk about or knowledge of sexual topics

  • Keeping secrets Not talking as much as usual

  • Not wanting to be left alone with certain people or being afraid to be away from primary caregivers, especially if this is a new behavior

  • Regressive behaviors or resuming behaviors they had grown out of, such as thumbsucking or bedwetting

  • Overly compliant behavior

  • Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age

  • Spending an unusual amount of time alone

  • Trying to avoid removing clothing to change or bathe.

Child Emotional signs: 

  • Change in eating habits

  • Change in mood or personality, such as increased aggression

  • Decrease in confidence or self-image

  • Excessive worry or fearfulness

  • Increase in unexplained health problems such as stomach aches and headaches

  • Loss or decrease in interest in school, activities, and friends

  • Nightmares or fear of being alone at night

  • Self-harming behaviors.

Signs An Adult
May Be Abusing A Child

The vast majority (90 percent) of adult perpetrators are known to the family, and 60 percent of perpetrators are parents and step-parents. 97 percent are male. This means we all need to "look closer," even when we might not want to see what's often "in the family."

 

Adult Behavioral Signs:

  • Does not respect boundaries or listen when someone tells them “no”

  • Engages in touching that a child or child’s parents/guardians have indicated is unwanted

  • Tries to be a child’s friend rather than filling an adult role in the child’s life

  • Does not seem to have age-appropriate relationships

  • Talks with children about their personal problems or relationships

  • Spends time alone with children outside of their role in the child’s life or makes up excuses to be alone with the child

  • Expresses unusual interest in child’s sexual development, such as commenting on sexual characteristics or sexualizing normal behaviors

  • Gives a child gifts without occasion or reason

  • Spends a lot of time with your child or another child you know

  • Restricts a child’s access to other adults.

Remember, most importantly, trust your instincts if you sense something just isn't right.

If a child tells you they don't like an adult, is afraid of an adult, or is hesitant or resistant to toward an adult, ask more and call (240) END-1IN4 to access the National Child Abuse Hotline to find help, support, and identify the choices available to you to act and help a child escape abuse.

What To Do Next When You Suspect

If you are concerned that a child is a victim of abuse, you may not be sure what to do or how to respond. Child sexual abuse is a crime that often goes undetected. No matter what your role is—parent or other family member, coach, teacher, religious leader, babysitter—you have the power to make a positive difference in this child’s life.

1. Recognize The Signs

The signs of abuse aren’t always obvious, and learning the warning signs of child sexual abuse could be life saving. You might notice behavioral or physical changes that could signal a child is being abused. Some of these warning signs include:

  • Behavioral signs: Shrinking away from or seeming threatened by physical contact, regressive behaviors like thumb sucking, changing hygiene routines such as refusing to bathe or bathing excessively, age-inappropriate sexual behaviors, sleep disturbances, or nightmares

  • Physical signs: Bruising or swelling near the genital area, blood on sheets or undergarments, or broken bones

  • Verbal cues: Using words or phrases that are “too adult” for their age, unexplained silence, or suddenly being less talkative.

2. Talk To The Child

If you are concerned about abuse, talk to the child. Keep in mind a few guidelines to create a non-threatening environment where the child may be more likely to open up to you.

  • Pick your time and place carefully. Choose a space where the child is comfortable or ask them where they’d like to talk. Avoid talking in front of someone who may be causing the harm.

  • Be aware of your tone. If you start the conversation in a serious tone, you may scare the child, and they may be more likely to give you the answers they think you want to hear—rather than the truth. Try to make the conversation more casual. A non-threatening tone will help put the child at ease and ultimately provide you with more accurate information.

  • Talk to the child directly. Ask questions that use the child’s own vocabulary, but that are a little vague. For example, “Has someone been touching you?” In this context “touching” can mean different things, but it is likely a word the child is familiar with. The child can respond with questions or comments to help you better gauge the situation like, “No one touches me except my mom at bath time,” or “You mean like the way my cousin touches me sometimes?” Understand that sexual abuse can feel good to the child, so asking if someone is “hurting” them may not bring out the information that you are looking for.

  • Listen and follow up. Allow the child to talk freely. Wait for them to pause, and then follow up on points that made you feel concerned.

  • Avoid judgment and blame. Avoid placing blame by using “I” questions and statements. Rather than beginning your conversation by saying, “You said something that made me worry…” consider starting your conversation with the word “I.” For example: “I am concerned because I heard you say that you are not allowed to sleep in your bed by yourself.”

  • Reassure the child. Make sure that the child knows that they are not in trouble. Let them know you are simply asking questions because you are concerned about them.

  • Be patient. Remember that this conversation may be very frightening for the child. Many perpetrators make threats about what will happen if someone finds out about the abuse. They may tell a child that they will be put into foster care or threaten them or their loved ones with physical violence.

3. Report The Abuse

Reporting a crime like sexual abuse may not be easy, and it can be emotionally draining. Keep in mind that reporting abuse gives you the chance to protect someone who can’t protect themselves. Depending on where you live and your role in the child's life, you may be legally obligated to report suspicions of abuse. You can learn more about the laws in your state by visiting RAINN's State Law Database.

 

Before You Report

  • Tell the child that you’re going to talk to someone who can help. Be clear that you are not asking their permission. 
The child may not want you to report and may be frightened, especially if the perpetrator has threatened them or their loved ones. Remember that by reporting, you are involving authorities who will be able to keep the child safe.

  • Ensure that the child is in a safe place. If you have concerns over the child’s safety, be sure to discuss them explicitly with authorities when you make the report. If you fear that the perpetrator will cause further harm to the child upon learning about the investigation, clearly communicate this to authorities.

  • If you are not concerned that the parents are causing harm, you can consult with them prior to making a report to authorities.

  • If you are a parent and are concerned that your partner or someone in your family may be hurting your child, this may be a very difficult time. It’s important to be there for your child, and it’s also important to take care of yourself. Learn more about being a parent to a child who has experienced sexual abuse and how to practice self-care.

  • Prepare your thoughts. You will likely be asked identifying information about the child, the nature of the abuse, and your relationship with the child. While anonymous tips are always an option, identified reporting increases the likelihood of prosecuting the perpetrator.

 

Where To Report

  • If you know or suspect that a child has been sexually assaulted or abused you can report these crimes to the proper authorities, such as Child Protective Services. Reporting agencies vary from state to state. To see where to report to in your state, visit RAINN’s State Law Database.

  • Call (240) END-1IN4 to reach the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline and be connected with a trained volunteer. Childhelp Hotline crisis counselors can’t make the report for you, but they can walk you through the process and let you know what to expect.

 

After You Report

  • You may not hear or see signs of an investigation right away. Depending on an agency’s policies and your relationship to the child, you may be able to call back to follow up after a few days.

  • If you are able to, continue to play the supportive role you always have in that child’s life. If making the report means that you can’t have this relationship anymore, know that by reporting you are helping that child stay safe.

  • Take care of yourself. Reporting sexual abuse isn’t easy. It’s important to practice self-care during this time.