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Recognizing Child Sexual Abuse

Adults or youth can perpetrate child sexual abuse. The following actions are sexual abuse and should immediately be reported to the authorities if you know or suspect they are taking place:

  • touching a child’s genitals, buttocks or breasts

  • coercing a child to fondle him/herself or someone else

  • exposing oneself to a child for sexual purposes in person or online

  • inappropriately viewing private behaviors of a child in person or online

  • taking sexually explicit or provocative photographs or video of a child

  • showing pornography or sexually suggestive images to children in person or online

  • talking in sexually explicit or suggestive ways to children in person, by phone, by internet, via text messages or other social media messaging apps​

Recognizing warning signs in children

Children often disclose abuse through unusual behaviors or changes in behaviors, not words. Because many forms of abuse are not physically evident, adults should recognize certain behavioral cues as signs of potential abuse. Consider the possibility of abuse when a child has:

Unexplained Injuries

Visible signs of physical abuse may include unexplained burns or bruises in the shape of objects. You may also hear unconvincing explanations of a child’s injuries.

What to do if you suspect a child is being abused

If you suspect or know that a child (someone 18 or younger) is being abused, call:

1-800-855-SAFE (7233)

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If a child is in immediate danger, call 911 for immediate assistance.

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Changes in behavior

Abuse can lead to many changes in a child’s behavior. Abused children often appear scared, anxious, depressed, withdrawn or more aggressive. They may suddenly refuse to change clothes or participate in physical activities at school or sports.

Returning to earlier behaviors

Abused children may display behaviors shown at earlier ages, such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, fear of the dark or strangers. For some children, even loss of acquired language or memory problems may be an issue.

Fear of going home

Abused children may express apprehension or
anxiety about leaving school or about going places
with the person who is abusing them.

Changes in eating

The stress, fear, and anxiety caused by abuse can
lead to changes in a child’s eating behaviors, which
may result in weight gain or loss.

Changes in sleeping

Abused children may have frequent nightmares, have
difficulty falling asleep, or bedwetting,  and as a result
may appear tired or fatigued.

Changes in school performance and attendance

Abused children may have difficulty concentrating in school or have excessive absences, sometimes due to adults trying to hide the child’s injuries from authorities.

Lack of personal care or hygiene

Abused and neglected children may appear uncared for or neglected. They may present as consistently dirty and have severe body odor, or they may lack sufficient clothing for the weather.

Risk-taking behaviors

Young people who are being abused may engage in high-risk activities such as using drugs or alcohol or carrying a weapon.

Inappropriate sexual behaviors

Children who have been sexually abused may exhibit overly sexualized behavior or use explicit sexual language. Chronic masturbation or acting out sexual scenarios with dolls, toys, or friends.

Signs of depression

Children may show signs of depression, anxiety, aggression or suicidal ideation, including cutting and other forms of self-harm.

Signs of physical pain

Headaches, stomach pain, change in appetite or eating disorders, “bathroom accidents,” sleeping difficulty, trouble sitting or walking, urination pain, unexplained injuries around the mouth, and irritation, bleeding, or infection of genitalia.

Change in child or teen's behavior when a particular person is present

Unwilling or afraid to be left with a particular person, and reluctant to discuss periods of time they have spent with a particular person.


Reasons survivors may not tell

There are many reasons why children may not disclose abuse. It can take a child weeks, months, years or an entire lifetime to fully reveal abuse using words. Many abusers make threats to ensure that survivors or other family members do not tell.

Other reasons survivors may not tell include:

  • Shame or embarrassment

  • Fear that they will not be believed

  • Fear that they will be blamed

  • Fear that they will get someone in trouble

  • Worry that their parents will be upset or angry

  • Fear that disclosing will disrupt or separate the family

  • Communication or developmental differences​

When children do tell you about abuse, what do you? Read about how to respond to disclosure and how to report suspected abuse.

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