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How Can I Tell?

A Parent’s Guide to Recognizing the Signs of Sexual Abuse

National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse
New York State
134 South Swan St., Albany, NY  12210

What Kind of a Problem?

Sexual abuse of children is a widespread and tragic problem – affecting children of all ages and from all walks of life.  Children may be abused by strangers, but that is rare. More often, they are abused by someone they know and trust, a relative, friend, neighbor, coach, babysitter, scout leader, parent.  Sexual abuse is not usually a violent act.  The child is involved in “games” or seduction over a period of time.

It is also a secret problem – children often do not tell anyone.  Sometimes they don’t say anything because they don’t want to upset their parents or are so very embarrassed.  Children often think – and are told – that what is happening is their own fault.  Or, they may believe that no one cares what happens to them.  They might be frightened by the abuser’s threats to harm family members if the child tells “the secret.”  Young children may not even know there is something to tell; they are taught to respect and obey adults, who “know best.”

Then, how can I know?

Because it is hard for most of us to even think about the possibility that our children could have been sexually abused, it is important to know the physical signs and changes in your child’s behavior that might indicate they have been.  These are “warning signals.” While there are causes other than sexual abuse for many of these signs, they should cause concern and be looked into.

Physical Signs

– Irritated or itching genitals or anus.
– Pain or injury to areas of the genitals or the mouth.
– Urinary infection, difficulty with urinations.
– Unusual and offensive odors.
– Cuts and bruises.
– Vaginal or penile discharge.
– Pregnancy.
– Venereal disease; children cannot catch venereal disease from nonsexual means.
Any of these signs should lead you to take your child for a medical exam. Whether or not they are the result of sexual abuse, they should be medically treated.

Changes in Behavior

Often there are no physical signs when a child has been sexually abused.  Behavior changes are more common.  For example:

– Reluctance or fear of a person or certain places, such as showers and washrooms.

– Clinging, anxious, irritable behavior.

– Going back to babyish habits like thumbsucking.

– Sudden self-consciousness about genitals.

– Fear of examinations of the mouth.

– Sudden interest in others’ genitals, sexual acts and sexual words.

– Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age.

– Acting out sexual or abusive behavior with toys, animals or other children.

– Nightmares, bedwetting, fear of the dark, difficulty falling asleep, other new fears.

– Increase or decrease in appetite.

– Drawings that are scary or use a lot of black and red.

– Vehement overreaction when the child is questioned about being touched.

What if I’m just not sure?

The one most reliable sign of sexual abuse is that the child says so.  You may need to “open the door” for your child to tell you.  Sometimes children talk in a “roundabout” way and you have to listen carefully for the clues.  For example, “I don’t like to be alone with Mrs. Smith” or “Mr. Jones acts funny with me.”

Be careful not to plant ideas in the child’s mind or to suggest what you expect to hear.  You will get further, and get a more accurate story, if you ask open-ended questions.  For example, “Something is bothering you.  Can you tell me about it?” “I’d like to know more about this.” Be very patient, take plenty of time; don’t push and prod.

Stay as calm as possible.  Children often stop talking if they think that what they are saying makes you upset.

You may need to have your child examined by a doctor or talk to a counselor who specializes in child sexual abuse.

What if my child does tell me about being sexually abused?

Believe your child.  Accept what your child tells you; don’t deny or ignore it.  If in doubt, err on the child’s side.

Allow your child to talk, but don’t press.  If you insist that your child tell you over and over about the specifics, she or he may clam up and may not be able to explain as well to authorities who need to be involved.

Protect your child immediately from the suspected offender.  You can start repairing the damage at once by assuring your child that the abuse will not continue.  Assure your child that it is not his or her fault, that you are glad she or he told, and that there are many people who will help your family.

While reassuring that you will do everything you can to protect your child, don’t promise anything that you can’t control.  For example, don’t promise that the offender will go to jail – or won’t go to jail; the court system has control over that.

What else should I do?

Report the abuse to the authorities immediately.  If the abuse was by a member of your household, or in a foster home or daycare setting, call the Child Abuse & Maltreatment “hotline” at 1-800-342-3720.

If the abuse was by someone else outside of your family, report to the local or state police or sheriff’s department.  If you prefer, you can also make this kind of report to the “hotline,” who will contact the police.

Help your child work with the professional handling the case.  You may need to be a strong advocate for your child, staying with and reassuring the child during questioning.  Or request that your child be interviewed by a specialist trained in child sexual abuse or in interviewing children.

If you haven’t already done so, get a medical exam at once for your child, even if he or she appears to be unhurt.  You need this to protect your child’s health, as well as for possible evidence.

Find support for yourself.  This can feel like the worse thing that ever happened.  Find someone you trust to talk to, to unburden yourself.  Take care of your own feelings, for your child’s sake as well as your own.

Try to keep as calm a home environment as possible.  Protect your child, but don’t make him or her feel too isolated or different.  Take life one day at a time; you don’t have to solve everything in one day.

Your pediatrician may be able to refer you to a counselor who specializes in child sexual abuse.

In most parts of New York State, the local rape crisis program deals with child sexual abuse concerns, and may be able to provide consultation, counseling, and referrals.

If you need help finding local sources of help, call the Prevention Information Resource Center (PIRC) in New York State, 1-800-342-7472, a program of National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse – New York State.


NCPCA-NYS thanks the Dutchess County Task Force for Child Protection and the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, from whose work sections of this pamphlet were drawn.