It’s important to identify the signs of sexual abuse and abusive behaviors, so that abuse can be stopped as soon as possible — or before anyone is harmed. Warning signs are often seen in concerning behaviors of children, teens and adults. Being able to recognize these behaviors can help you respond appropriately.
Warning signs may occur in children going through different kinds of trauma or difficult situations. Children and teens may display a wide variety of warning signs. Any one warning sign — or even several — may or may not mean a child has been sexually abused. If you notice behavioral warning signs, remain calm, gather more information, listen carefully and decide if you need help. If you recognize any physical indications, or if a child hints at or discloses sexual abuse, please call the police or child protective services and seek professional help immediately.
If you suspect sexual abuse based on behavior or physical signs, call child protective services or the police and have the child immediately examined by a specially trained medical professional.
Here are some signs to look for:
If you notice only one warning sign, it may be the result of sexual abuse or of another issue in the teen’s life. Make time to talk and reach out for help. If you recognize multiple indicators in a teen you know, or the teen discloses sexual abuse, call the police or child protective services and seek help immediately.
Behavior more typically found in teens:
Know that you don’t have to face this alone. Sexual abuse thrives in isolation. Find someone you trust that you can talk with. Seek out resources available in your area to help educate yourself about child sexual abuse. As for what to learn, see this short list below:
Knowing the warning signs of sexual assault — and how to respond — can help you make a difference for someone you care about. Many victims of sexual assault talk about being afraid they won’t be believed, feeling isolated and being unsure of who to turn to for help and support.
Some of the indicators of sexual assault in adults can also be caused by other sudden life changes or another traumatic event. As a friend or family member, it’s OK to gently ask about what is happening and let them know you care.
Warning Signs in Adults
Adult victims have the choice to talk about what happened to them and whether or not to report their abuse or assault to the police. When high-profile cases and current events in the media focus on abuse or sexual assault, it’s common for adult survivors of sexual assault or childhood sexual abuse to disclose something that may have happened years or even decades ago. You may be the first person they have ever told about their assault. It’s usually helpful to have someone who will listen, believe them, provide support and refer them to a rape crisis center, other trained caring professionals who can help or, if they are ready to report, the police.
Vulnerable populations, including individuals with physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities and elders, have significantly higher incidence of sexual assault than the general population. Individuals with cognitive disabilities are not able to consent to sexual acts because of their inability to understand what is happening (e.g., intellectual disabilities, Alzheimer’s or dementia). For numerous reasons, individuals with physical disabilities may not be able to consent because of physical limitations or power differentials. It may be especially difficult or impossible for these populations to talk about what happened. Therefore, listen or watch carefully for any disclosure of sexual abuse or any unwanted sexual contact. Be particularly aware of any physical signs or behaviors that might indicate abuse.
If you suspect that an elder or someone with a physical or intellectual disability is being harmed, be sure to reach out for help. Most states have mandatory reporting laws that include vulnerable populations.
Children learn about their own bodies as well as the social and cultural rules of their home and community through normal development steps of exploration. However, for some children or teens, these behaviors may become harmful to themselves or to other children. If a child or teen acts out sexually, it’s important to address what’s happening: Help is available.
If you are concerned about a child or teen who may be at risk to harm themselves or another child or teen, here are few things to look for:
If you see any of these signs in a child or teen you know, talk to them and get help.
Someone you know or care about may be exhibiting problematic behaviors. The adult’s behaviors may indicate a risk of sexual abuse to a child or teen. If someone you know exhibits these behaviors, it may be their way of trying to ask for help.
Adult Behavior Warning Signs