As a mental health therapist specializing in working with adult survivors of child sexual abuse (CSA), I meet many survivors who wonder how their parents did not know they were being abused. Oftentimes children do not disclose CSA due to many reasons, including fear of disbelief or rejection, threats from the perpetrator towards their safety or the safety of their loved ones if they tell, or often they can feel or can be made to feel by the perpetrator that they are in some part responsible for the abuse. Child sexual abuse is never a child’s fault. There is an inherent power differential between adult and child, and by law a minor is not able to consent.
A big chunk of the answer to this question is that the information on how to spot CSA in children simply has not been widely discussed in the past. Historically, even basic information about CSA has not been discussed due to its unfortunately taboo nature. This is a detriment to our society as a whole, as silence about the epidemic helps it spread. It also encourages myths. I still hear chatter of “stranger danger” related to CSA, when in a majority of cases the perpetrator is a family member or trusted adult in the child’s life. Since the CDC estimates 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused as children, it is crucial for parents to be aware of this information, even if it at times can be uncomfortable or upsetting to learn. While there isn’t a guaranteed way to prevent child sexual abuse as a parent, knowledge can certainly be power.
29 signs of sexual abuse in children:
- Withdrawal, isolation from peers
- Regression: bedwetting, thumb-sucking, baby talk when child already moved past those milestones.
- Excessive bathing
- Crying or crying without provocation
- Unusual need for
“you’re okay” reassurance, sudden onset of many new fears
- Genital itching, infections, urinary tract infections, STIs
- Bedwetting and toilet training habits change
- Suicide attempts
- Drop in academic performance
- Loss of sleep, nightmares, fear of sleeping alone
- Attention getting behaviors: truancy, stealing, vandalism, etc.
- Drug, alcohol abuse, self-abuse like cutting or hurting self intentionally, disordered eating
- Running away from home, prostitution
- Overly seductive behavior
- Post-traumatic play (for example, acting out sexual abuse with dolls), sexually explicit drawings and/or stories
- Touching other children or adults inappropriately
- Excessive responsibility: child functions as parent
- Extremely pervasive negative self-image
- Physical complaints: headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, colds, always sick, etc.
- Difficulty urinating
- Child not wanting to go home after school
- Child not wanting parent to work, fear of being alone with offender
- Self-destructive behavior
- Signs of being uncomfortable with someone formerly trusted
- Unusual shyness
For parents: Just because some signs exist, it is not guaranteed to mean your child has been sexually abused, however CSA should be considered. If some of these signs sound familiar, do not panic. Your reaction is paramount in helping your child. First and foremost, be present for your child, listen, and always let them know you believe them. For further resources, visit one of my favorite organizations: Darkness to Light at http://www.d2l.org/site/c.4dICIJOkGcISE/b.6069265/k.29C/Get_Help_Related_to_Child_Sexual_Abuse.htm or RAINN at https://www.rainn.org/get-help. If you or your child are in immediate danger, please call 911 immediately.
For adult survivors: Many adult survivors I’ve worked with found this list to be validating. It can also cause feelings of grief that no one seemed to notice their signs. If you are an adult survivor and need support at this time, please feel free to contact me, it would be my honour to help move through these feelings with you. If you are in the Vancouver, BC area and are interested in joining a CSA Survivors Group (female adults), check out more info and contact with questions or interest.
Just as you practice an escape plan for fire in your home, being knowledgeable about signs child sexual abuse is a preventative measure for any empowered parent. By arming yourself with this information, you are giving your family a wonderful gift.
Helen Thomas MC, RCC, LPC