Signs & Symptoms of Sexual Abuse


Sexual Abuse Is Not Always Obvious

Abuse is always the fault of those who perpetrate, but it must be a choice on our part to take 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, such as low self-esteem, mood swings, and anxiety. The important thing is to not disregard the possibility of sexual abuse when we notice a change in behavior, and to not be afraid to ask – even if everything seems fine.

Dr. Janet Rosenzweig, author of The Sex-Wise Parent, carefully warns parents to not put too much responsibility on children to be able to protect themselves as she states, “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.” Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for adults make the assumption that a child would tell if they were being abused. We can do as much as we can to educate our children, but we cannot guarantee our child will 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. 

“Never forget that young children are developmentally incapable of protecting themselves from a skilled pedophile.- Dr. Janet Rosenzweig, The Sex-Wise Parent

Possible Signs of Sexual Abuse

Contrary to the belief of many, there may no visible physical signs of sexual abuse. Most often, physical signs may only be noticed when the abuse causes physical harm to the body. If sexual abuse is causing anxiety for the child, they may exhibit symptoms of stress that are often overlooked or misdiagnosed.

Some Children Show No Signs of Abuse

It may seem impossible to believe that some children will exhibit no signs of stress, fear, or depression of sexual abuse but it is not uncommon, which is why it is important that we talk about sexual abuse and on occasion, ask our children directly if anyone has ever acted inappropriately. Here are a few reasons why children may not exhibit any warning signs:

  • The child is too young or not educated about sexual abuse to know it is wrong

  • The child experiences dissociation and does not remember the abuse as the brain attempts to protect itself from the trauma by blocking out memories.

  • The child realizes the consequences of telling may mean being removed from the home, loss of a parent, upsetting their family, physical abuse, or other unwanted outcomes and therefore works to appear as normal as possible to avoid detection and attention.

Why Children Don’t Tell

There are many reasons why children don’t disclose abuse immediately or for many years, even after the abuse has stopped. Almost always, an abuser has mentally and emotionally manipulated the child to maintain control and secrecy. The innocence of children is often used against them when they do not understand what is appropriate or that they do not have a choice because of their age. It is not uncommon for children to recant a previous disclosure because talking about it becomes too stressful. 

Children with Mental and Physical Challenges

It’s estimated that children with disabilities are 4 to 10 times more vulnerable to sexual abuse than their non-disabled peers.

Children with special needs are often in settings where they encounter multiple caregivers, and are often targeted in and out of their home because of their vulnerability due to the challenges they face to understand and communicate about sexual abuse. Additionally, care agencies are often excluded from training and information about how to report concerns and manage incidents of sexual abuse that do occur. Sexual abuse of children and young people causes long-term mental health difficulties, and disabled young people are not immune from these consequences. Source: Sexual Violence Against Children, by Hilary Brown