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Child Sexual Abuse and Warning Signs

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Child Sexual Abuse and Warning Signs

Child sexual abuse or molestation is when a person has sexual contact with a child.  In most cases, children know their abusers.  Examples of child sexual abuse might include:

  • sexual touching or fondling of private areas of the body
  • putting objects or body parts inside a child’s mouth, anus, vagina for sexual pleasure or any unnecessary reason
  • exposing oneself to a child
  • masturbation or having sex in front of a child, forcing a child to masturbate 
  • photographing a child in a sexual way
  • exposing a child to pornography
  • watching a child undress or use the bathroom without the child’s knowledge
  • using a computer, cell phone, or other social media to make sexual overtures to a child

Warning Signs

Warning signs that a child is being sexually abused can be very different from child to child. They can show up immediately or well into the child’s life. These signs can fall into types of physical, behavioral and emotional symptoms.  Below is a list of warning signs in each of these categories.  If a child is showing these “signs” it doesn’t mean they have definitely been sexually abused.  It’s important to look for a pattern that may suggest someone is sexually abusing the child.

Sometimes children start to disclose a very small amount of information to see how you react. It could be something as simple as “I don’t like going to this person’s house” or “This person is gross.” Pay attention to comments like these and ask the child to tell you more. Sometimes children tell us something is wrong by the way act. It’s important to know what the warning signs are and how to help keep the child safe. If a child has told you about abuse, seek help from professionals and read the helping survivors (link) section of this web page to learn how to respond in ways that are healing and helpful to the child.

Physical Warning Signs

  • Bloody underwear/diapers
  • Torn underclothing
  • Bruising, swelling, or irritation in the genital area
  • Urinary or yeast infections
  • Difficulty urinating or moving of the bowels
  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Pain, itching, or burning in genital area
  • Sexually transmitted infection (STI)
  • Pregnancy


Emotional Warning Signs

  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Distrustful
  • Powerlessness
  • Hopelessness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Anger
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Low self esteem
  • Feeling like they aren’t good enough


Behavioral Warning Signs

  • Suddenly acting younger than their age (e.g. bed wetting, thumb sucking, etc.)
  • Night terrors or nightmares
  • Saying or doing sexual things that seem inappropriate for their age
  • Fear of being touched
  • Taking on a caretaker role or being protective of younger children
  • Changes in hygiene (bathing, brushing teeth, etc.) or clothing preferences (e.g. not wanting to bathe, or wanting to wear very baggy clothes)
  • Easily startled
  • Intense fears
  • Post-traumatic stress symptoms (anxiety, irritability, can’t concentrate)
  • Changes at school (aggressive or timid behavior, skipping school, frequently feeling too sick to go to school or grades begin to drop)
  • Running away from home
  • Self-harm (cutting, burning)
  • Shame about menstruation or puberty
  • Avoiding certain people or places
  • Suicidal thoughts, especially in adolescents
  • Over involvement/achievement (e.g. obsession with grades, trying to be perfect in school or sports)


    • why don't children tell

      Some children disclose the abuse and are simply not believed. Children also tell small amounts of information to see if they will be believed and to see how trusted adults will react. Sometimes these types of disclosures are ignored.  If others respond poorly, it may be years before the child trusts enough to tell someone else.

      Some children who are sexually abused do not tell anyone. Some keep it a secret their whole lives or only tell someone once they are adults.  Children choose not to tell for a variety of reasons, such as they:

      • don’t understand what happened,
      • don’t have the language to talk about it,
      • are ashamed or embarrassed,
      • have been told or threatened to keep it secret,
      • are worried how others will respond, and
      • don’t want the abuser to get in trouble.

      If a child has told you about abuse, seek help from professionals and read the helping survivors section of this web page to learn how to respond in ways that are healing and helpful to the child.

    • what is grooming

      Grooming is when a perpetrator builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust as a way to commit sexual abuse. Perpetrators may begin with tickling, giving gifts, special attention, taking a child on trips, or using a professional relationship. Once trust is established, perpetrators exploit their relationship to isolate the child from other trusted adults or friends.  They then may slowly progress to talking about sex, showing pornography, touching and continue to escalate to other types of sexual abuse. They may tell the child that their relationship is special, and this is what people do when they have a special relationship. Perpetrators often tell the child that this sexual activity should be just between them and that others may not understand their special relationship. This silences the child and can prevent her or him from telling a trusted adult. Many children blame themselves and worry that no one will believe them if they disclose.

    • what if I'm an adult now

      You are not alone and it is never too late to reach out for help.  Many adults are working to heal from sexual abuse in their childhoods.  Some sexual assault programs provide free counseling to adults abused as children.  If they don’t have this service, the program may have referral lists for private therapists or counselors who do.  Many of these professionals take insurance or accept a sliding scale fee for counseling.  To find local sexual assault services program near you, visit the MDHHS directory (,4669,7-192-29941_30586_240-2884--,00.html  ) or call Michigan’s Sexual Assault Hotline.