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Recognizing the signs and symptoms of sexual abuse in children

Despite efforts to raise awareness and curtail the problem, child abuse still happens with disturbing frequency. Annually state and protective services receive a staggering 3.4 million referrals for abused or neglected children.

Statistics say one in five girls and one in eight boys will experience abuse in some form by age 18. Most abuse happens at the hand of someone the child knows and trusts. Educate yourself and your child about unsafe people and situations, but learn to recognize signs of abuse.

Identifying the warning signs

Abused children often feel shame or guilt and will not report the problem. The child may also feel confusion in cases where the abuser is someone the child trusts. Spotting indirect disclosure signs allows adults to offer help and support to the child.

  • Withdrawal: Abused children often withdrawal from friends and family, preferring isolation.
  • Behavior changes: Sudden behavior changes such as exhibiting fear, aggression or hyperactivity indicate a red flag. Depression and anxiety are other warning signs.
  • Sexualized behavior: This includes sexual interest or behavior not appropriate for the child’s age. Signs also include using sexual language and sudden interest in sexual media.
  • Genital pain: An abused child may have trouble walking or running, sitting and doing normal activities. Blood in the child’s underwear is another sign.
  • Abusing other children: This includes inappropriate touching and behavior.
  • Changes in sleep patterns: Abused children face difficulty falling or staying asleep and may suffer from nightmares or regress to bedwetting.
  • Rebellion: Children suffering abuse may start rebelling or behaving defiantly in ways not previously exhibited.

Lifelong implications

Victims of abuse suffer severe long-term consequences. The resilient nature of children allows the physical damage to heal, but psychological trauma takes longer to overcome. The risks for abused children include cognitive difficulties, antisocial behavior and personality disorders. Adults abused as children are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and addiction.

Not all warning signs signal abuse, but always investigate to be sure. Children who cannot protect themselves need advocates to act on their behalf.

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