The issue of sexual abuse is a nightmare for parents, educators, and caregivers alike – and for good reason. When I was a young clinician, one of the most eye opening experiences I ever had was when I wandered into the local police station and asked to look through the list of registered sex offenders. That’s public record, by the way, so anyone can (and I’d argue should) find out where the registered sex offenders are living in your community.
What does a sexual offender look like?
Well, I sure found out that day. The truth of the matter is … they look like everyone: young and old, light skinned and dark, from all ethnic backgrounds, rich and poor, from all walks of life.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with both sexual victimizers and victims of sexual abuse alike (both children and adults) in several different inpatient and outpatient settings over the course of my career. Offenders aren’t just adults – I’ve worked with children who sexually act out as young as eight years old. There have been Level 3 (considered at highest risk to offend) Sex Offenders as young as ten years old. That’s why I often tell young people that if they are getting a creepy feeling about someone – no matter how old – listen to that still, small voice and run away.
Signs of Sexual Abuse
There are telltale signs of sexual abuse. Allow me to share with you a bit of my experience and give you some things to look for.
[Note: Look for overall patterns. If a child is being abused, it’s likely you will see several of these things listed below.]
The biggest overall sign that you will see are changes in behavior. What kinds of behavior?
Children who have been abused often display combinations of the following behavior:
Becoming withdrawn and unusually quiet
If you have a normally chatty child who suddenly becomes withdrawn, sit up and take notice.
Increased fear and anxiety
Fear is one of the biggest hallmarks of a child who has suffered abuse. Over time, they can become hypervigilant, constantly on the alert and lookout for danger. You may especially see increasing fear and anxiety as night and bedtime approach.
When I worked in a residential treatment facility, I had some kids who would sleep with their backs to the door. I’ve had kids be hyper-focused on making sure their bedroom doors and windows were locked. I’ve also known older kids who were abused who would sleep with weapons (like knives) under their pillow. There is a reason they felt they needed protection.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder first came to the attention of professionals when military veterans returning from combat were experiencing overwhelming stress, anxiety, panic, and fear related to the traumatic experiences of combat. Well, we often see the exact same kinds of disturbances in children who have been abused.
People who have experienced trauma can often be emotionally “triggered” by various stimuli that will cause them to immediately feel heightened feelings of stress, anxiety, and panic. Triggers can include things such as certain smells, sights, songs, movies, and people who look like, act like, sound like, or remind them of the offender. Panic attacks are also very commonly seen.
Sleep Disturbances, Disturbing Dreams, Flashbacks, and Pervasive Memories of the Assault
Related to the above symptom, children who have been abused will often have sleep disturbances. They may be often be overly tired, as they can have a difficult time either getting to sleep and/or staying asleep. Nightmares and night terrors are very common. Children can often have unexpected flashback vivid memories of the experience as well. Their thoughts can become dominated by the assault, which can make it very difficult to concentrate in school or to even care about schoolwork. For some, it can be extremely hard for them to think about anything else.
Kids who have been sexually abused can often become quite depressed. There are many hallmark signs of depression, as I shared in a recent article on depression.
In addition, children who have experienced abuse (depending upon the frequency, severity, and length of time) have a greater prevalence of suicidal thoughts and attempts. In older adolescents and teenagers particularly, dark clothing, cutting, self-inflicted wounds, self-mutilation, and excessive or extreme tattoos or piercings can also be possible signs as well.
Crying, Tearfulness, or Emotional Apathy and Detachment
Excessive crying and being easily moved to tears are normal responses for children who have suffered trauma. As they get older and if the abuse goes on for awhile, the opposite is often true, as they can eventually become hardened and calloused. These children can appear emotionally numb, as if they’ve shut off their emotions like water from a faucet. That can be very true because allowing yourself to feel may simply hurt too much. They may eventually become emotionally detached, feeling like someone else experienced the abuse, not them. A lot of later dissociative disorders can begin just like this.
Increased Aggression, Agitation, and Hostility
For the child who has been abused, the world is often seen as a hostile place. These children don’t trust very well, can get frustrated easily, and can get angry seemingly at the drop of a hat. They may automatically view people they meet with immediate suspicion and believe that the entire world is out to harm them.
Since most sexual offenders are male, it’s very common for these children to strongly distrust and dislike most males. If they come from a traditional two parent home, it’s also not uncommon for them to have aggressive and hostile feelings toward the non-abusing parent. Such children may hold a grudge against these parents and other caregivers around them, subconsciously saying to themselves, “Why didn’t you protect me?” Fights, hitting things, property destruction, yelling, and engaging in heated arguments are all quite commonplace.
Hurt, Guilt, and Shame
These kinds of feelings go with the territory for children who have suffered abuse. These children often carry inappropriate feelings of guilt and shame, often thinking the abuse was all their fault. The abuser is often very good at reinforcing this message, as they will often tell their young victim that they are responsible and then blackmail them by threatening to tell or to hurt the people they love unless they continue to comply. They may be told that they enjoyed the abuse and that in fact it was their idea. As a result, kids who have been abused may often take responsibility for seemingly everything and everybody else’s behavior.
Frequent Enuresis and/or Encopresis
Wetting or soiling the bed (unrelated to normal age toileting issues) is something that is seen in children (even as old as teenagers) who have been or are being sexually abused. In and of itself, this isn’t something that if I’m seeing I would automatically assume means a child is being abused. Consider this one in the context of other signs and symptoms listed here for you. That said, if you have an older child who is past the normal toileting years and is having this issue, this is something that warrants further medical investigation.
Pain in the genital areas, the anus, or difficulty swallowing
Especially for young children, this is one of those signs that should be a waving red flag for you. This is a possible sign of recent assault. If you’re seeing it for some unexplained reason, I’d highly recommend having a doctor check it out.
Fear of Intimacy and Closeness
Kids who have been abused frequently find intimate relationships to be very difficult for them. Even though some may be very outgoing, friendly, likeable, and fun, they have a tendency to be emotionally withdrawn and keep people at arm’s length. The thinking is, “If I don’t allow people to really get to know me, they can’t hurt me.”
Aversion to or excessive seeking of intimacy, hugging, touching
Kids who have been sexually abused often have issues with physical contact and intimacy. They may recoil and react strongly, pushing people away when hugged or touched. However, the opposite can also be true, as I’ve seen children who have been abused being overly clingy and very needy for physical affection. These children can display poor physical and social boundaries.
Depending on the level of abuse, they may have a hard time discerning the difference between sexual touch and normal appropriate displays of physical affection. They may falsely assume that a person who shows them appropriate physical care is actually “in love” with them, so may end up responding with inappropriate touch.
Sexual Promiscuity or Aversion to Sex
It’s quite common for children who have experienced sexual abuse to either be quite sexually promiscuous or to want nothing whatsoever to do with sex. Many high school girls who have been sexually abused as children find themselves quick to jump in bed with young, hormone-driven guys. These girls are not only starved for touch and attention, but sexual intercourse has become for them synonymous with affection.
The Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA) conducted a study that found that 57% of the women who were working as prostitutes reported being sexually abused as children. The reverse can also be true. Many males who were sexually abused as young children find sex and physical displays of affection to be quite repulsive. That can end up having an impact if they eventually choose to get married and fail to get the needed help to resolve this issue.
Sexual Acting Out
Let’s be clear here. It’s very common, especially in preschool aged children, to see “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” kind of behavior. It’s also not uncommon for some school aged kids (especially boys) to have poor social skills and boundaries when it comes to inappropriate public displays (i.e. showing off their bottom, slapping a friend’s private areas, etc.).
But children who have been sexually abused can also be quite forward (and perhaps even aggressive) when it comes to sex. This really starts to become a problem when it becomes clear that the motive of the initiator is related to power, control, and dominance over the other. Whenever you see sexual acting out toward another child, that needs to be investigated, addressed, and dealt with.
Animal Abuse and Sadistic Cruelty
Children who have been severely abused may eventually start to vent those feelings of frustration, anger, and bitterness upon animals. Some can be quite brutal and cruel in their treatment of animals. I’ve also known children who have sexually abused or molested family pets. If you are seeing children act in this way, I strongly encourage you to seek help from a professional.
Displaying much younger or older behavior
Age appropriate social skills are something that children who have been sexually abused often struggle with. Many children who have been regularly abused don’t relate well to their peers. Older children may end up playing with children who are much younger than they are. They may act fairly immature and far younger than their physical age.
I’ve worked with older adolescents who continue to cling to baby blankets and stuffed animals. I’ve seen victims of sexual abuse who continued to habitually suck their thumb as teenagers. The opposite may be true as well. Some children may act like adults, relating to older people and even be able to hold adult conversations. I’ve seen girls as young as six years old who insist on dressing up like mature women (putting on makeup, painting their nails, etc.).
Advanced Level of Knowledge About Sex
Children who have experienced abuse often have detailed knowledge about sex far in advance of that of their peers. If you’re a 1st Grade Teacher and you find out that one of your 7-year-old students has detailed knowledge about intimate adult acts, sit up and take notice.
Disturbing Forms of Play
Young children especially will often act out past and current conflicts in their own lives through the act of their play. Again, if you as a Kindergarten teacher have a 5-year-old girl who is playing Barbie and happen to notice that she is having Barbie and Ken do the deed … warning bells should be going off inside your head.
Disturbing Forms of Creative Expression
Often you will see the trials and tribulations of children’s lives expressed through the things they choose to create. As an adult, you should pay particular attention to:
Drawings, Paintings, and Sculptures
Is the overall theme dark, aggressive, and/or disturbing in nature? One 7-year-old boy I worked with years ago drew a picture with crayons I never forgot. The background was colored solid black and in the middle was an ominous dark figure who had long, red, razor claws, dripping with blood.
Stories, Poems, Songs, Journal Entries, or Social Media
Older children, adolescents, and teens especially may write stories, poems, or songs that either allude to or flat out tell the tale of their life’s struggles. Today, social media sites such as Facebook are a hotbed for this kind of expression for teenagers. If a particular story was posted on a frequently visited social media website … if a disturbing picture was sent to friends via Instagram … or if a journal page was conveniently left open in a heavy trafficked area of the house, that may not have been “an accident.”
Excessively Crude Sexualized Language
Given today’s culture, this is one sign that can be increasingly hard to judge. After all, children from the inner city ghetto come from a radically different culture than those growing up in a predominantly upper class suburb. However, if you have a 5-year-old who can cuss the paint off a wall and whose language regularly sounds like he’s had exposure to pornography, there may be more going on that meets the eye.
Increased or decreased appetite
Kids who have been abused often find that their appetites and eating habits are affected. They either may not feel like eating that much or could find themselves eating too much. Some children who end up developing eating disorders may do so in response to sexual abuse. They may starve themselves as well as binging and purging due to having a distorted image of their own body. Conversely, they could also overindulge with food and eat to excess as a way to cope with very difficult feelings.
Power and Control Issues
It’s very common for kids who have experienced sexual abuse to have issues related to power and control. Since many haven’t felt like their lives are in control, they may generally react in one of two ways. In the case of youngest born children especially, they be overly compliant, non-assertive, and always looking to put others’ wishes ahead of their own needs. Additionally, it’s also common for children who have been abused to seemingly want to fight for control tooth and nail all the time and to argue a lot.
Attention Seeking, Hint Dropping, and Evasiveness
Older kids especially who have been abused will often be amongst the highest attention seekers out there. They may throw out little hints like breadcrumbs to their friends and other caring adults alluding to their abuse, seemingly leading them down the path to disclosure.
They want to be seen, to be noticed. But then just as quick as a wink, they can turn the switch and become evasive, elusive, shutting down on caregivers. They can be extremely secretive and manipulative as a way to maintain a semblance of power and control over their lives, which they commonly view to be quite out of control.
This is another commonly seen trait in children who have been sexually abused. If you’re seeing a kid whose clothes appear to always be dirty, who’s always grungy looking, and who constantly smells, just consider for a second why that might be. It’s entirely possible what you’re seeing is a defense mechanism in order to keep people away. The thinking here is, “If no one wants to be near me, I’ll be safe.”
Talking about and/or hanging around a much older friend
Let’s be very clear here. There are plenty of good samaritans out there who have a huge heart for young people. But make no mistake — there are wolves out there among the sheep. Bottom line: you as a parent, educator, guardian, and caregiver should be keeping an eye on the people with whom the children in your life are interacting, whether in person or online.
Receiving gifts, money, and/or possession of pornography
Abusers will often “groom” their victims by offering things such as these, making them willing to engage in sexual acts with them. Young children frequently don’t understand that what’s being done to them is wrong, and so are often told by crafty abusers that this type of attention is normal and natural.
Abusers often share pornography with their victims as a way to normalize these types of relations, even hoping to addict them to this type of lifestyle. The klaxon horn should be going off inside your head if you see young people suddenly show up with these things.
Alcohol and Drug Abuse
Drug and alcohol use can be a common coping mechanism for those who have experienced trauma in order to deal with pervasive difficult, disturbing, and conflicted thoughts and emotions.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 46% of runaway and homeless youth report having been sexually abused.
Sexual Identity Confusion or Rejection
This is one symptom that’s frankly not talked about a lot (for obvious reasons), but let me tell you it’s a big one. It’s not uncommon at all for young people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse to have confusion when it comes to their sexual identity.
Girls who have been molested may no longer see themselves as pretty … or may start to view being beautiful as a curse. In response, they may move to cut their hair, color it wild colors, and dress in ways that are unflattering or perhaps even socially unacceptable. It’s possible they may eventually consider being female too threatening or weak, so may start to identify with and adopt a “safer” male identity.
Males who experience abuse, on the other hand, may begin to question their own masculinity. Due to confusing (maybe even somewhat pleasurable) physiological responses related to their abuse, they may silently wonder whether or not they are actually gay. The effect of childhood sexual abuse upon the development of same-sex attraction isn’t something I alone have noted; the National Institutes of Health concluded the following in a recent study …
“Epidemiological studies find a positive association between childhood maltreatment and same-sex sexuality in adulthood, with lesbians and gay men reporting 1.6 to 4 times greater prevalence of sexual and physical abuse than heterosexuals.”
Warning: If you are seeing unusual signs like these in the children around you, don’t ignore it – report it. Call your local CPS Office or the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD.
How Christian Counseling Can Help
As you can see, the effects of childhood sexual abuse are both devastating and far reaching. If you have suffered this kind of abuse, the good news is you don’t have to remain broken. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came to set the captives free (Isaiah 61). If you are or were a victim, a well-trained Christian counselor can be a powerful vessel the Lord can use to bring healing and restoration. They can help you start to pick up the pieces of your life and to allow God to mold them into something beautiful to behold.
“Worried,” courtesy of Joseph Gonzalez, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Screen time,” courtesy of Annie Spratt, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Hide and Seek,” courtesy of Caleb Woods, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Field portrait,” courtesy of Caroline Hernandez, unsplash.com, CC0 License