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Learn the Warning Signs

Recognizing Sexual Abuse

Child with head down writing on a piece of paper in classroom.
The occurrence of one indicator does not necessarily mean a person has experienced sexual abuse. Additionally, indicators of sexual abuse can vary widely from person to person.

This page outlines general indicators of:

If you suspect sexual abuse, see the Help and Support section of the Website.

Warning Signs in Children of Possible Sexual Abuse 1back to top

Boy falling asleep as teaching is presenting.

Stop It Now! has developed a warning signs tip sheet to help identify possible warning signs. Any one sign does not mean that a child was sexually abused, but the presence of several suggests that you begin asking questions and consider seeking help.

Behavior you may see in a child or adolescent:

  • Has nightmares or other sleep problems without an explanation
  • Seems distracted or distant at odd times
  • Has a sudden change in eating habits
  • Refuses to eat
  • Loses or drastically increases appetite
  • Has trouble swallowing
  • Sudden mood swings: rage, fear, insecurity, or withdrawal
  • Leaves “clues” that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues
  • Develops new or unusual fear of certain people or places
  • Refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult or older child
  • Writes, draws, plays, or dreams of sexual or frightening images
  • Boy writing or drawing on a piece of paper.
  • Talks about a new older friend
  • Suddenly has money, toys, or other gifts without reason
  • Thinks of self or body as repulsive, dirty, or bad
  • Exhibits adult-like sexual behaviors, language, and knowledge

All of the warning signs listed above are general indicators of sexual abuse in children. Many children do not actually disclose what happened; it is up to attentive adults to recognize hints. However, if you suspect a child has been abused by seeing these indications, or if he or she hints at abuse or outright discloses sexual abuse, seek help.

Behavior more typically found in adolescents (teens):

    Pill bottles and alcohol.  Eluding to abuse of both substances.
  • Self-injury (cutting, burning)
  • Inadequate personal hygiene
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Running away from home
  • Depression, anxiety
  • Suicide attempts
  • Fear of intimacy or closeness
  • Compulsive eating or dieting

Indicators of Sexual Abuse in Adults back to top

There are many reactions that survivors of rape and sexual assault can experience. For traumatic events in general, it is important to realize that there is not one “standard” pattern of reaction to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences. Some people respond immediately, while others have delayed reactions—sometimes months or even years later. Some have adverse effects for a long period of time, while others recover rather quickly. Reactions can change over time.

Some who have suffered from trauma are energized initially by the event to help them with the challenge of coping, only to later become discouraged or depressed. 2 The impact of sexual abuse varies from person to person and can occur on several levels—physically, emotionally, and mentally.

Survivors may experience some of the following responses: 3

  • Fear responses to reminders of the assault
  • Pervading sense of anxiety, wondering whether it is possible to ever feel safe again
  • Re-experiencing assault over and over again through flashbacks
  • Problems concentrating and staying focused on the task at hand
  • Guilty feelings
  • Developing a negative self-image, feeling “dirty” inside or out
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Disruptions in close relationships
  • Loss of interest in sex

Additional information about the effects of sexual abuse is available on the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) Web site.

Confused about what happened? Does what happened constitute sexual abuse/assault? RAINN has a Web page to outline different types of sexual violence.

Warning Signs That Might Suggest Someone Is Sexually Abusing a Child 1back to top

The following behaviors could be cause for concern:

  • Making others uncomfortable by ignoring social, emotional, or physical boundaries or limits
  • Refusing to let a child set any of his or her own limits; using teasing or belittling language to keep a child from setting a limit
  • Insisting on hugging, touching, kissing, tickling, wrestling with, or holding a child even when the child does not want this physical contact or attention
  • Turning to a child for emotional or physical comfort by sharing personal or private information or activities that are normally shared with adults
  • Frequently pointing out sexual images or telling inappropriate or suggestive jokes with children present
  • Exposing a child to adult sexual interactions without apparent concern
  • Having secret interactions with teens or children (e.g., games; sharing drugs, alcohol, or sexual material) or spending excessive time e-mailing, text-messaging, or calling children or youth
  • Being overly interested in the sexuality of a particular child or teen (e.g., talks repeatedly about the child's developing body or interferes with normal teen dating)
  • Insisting on or managing to spend unusual amounts of uninterrupted time alone with a child
  • Seeming “too good to be true” (e.g., frequently babysits different children for free, takes children on special outings alone, buys children gifts or gives them money for no apparent reason)
  • Frequently walking in on children/teens in the bathroom
  • Allowing children or teens to consistently get away with inappropriate behaviors

RReferencesback to top

  1. Stop It Now!, “Behaviors to Watch for When Adults Are With Children.” (http://www.stopitnow.org/behaviors_watch_adult_with_children) (November 1, 2012)
  2. American Psychological Association, “Managing Traumatic Stress: Tips for Recovering From Disasters and Other Traumatic Events.” How do people respond differently over time? (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/recovering-disasters.aspx)
  3. Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, “Who Does It Impact?” (http://www.taasa.org) (November 1, 2012)