Top 5 signs of sexual abuse in your child

by Antonella Dési
Top 5 signs of sexual abuse in your child
Reading Time: 5 minutes

In a world where protecting children is paramount, recognising signs of sexual abuse is crucial. This article explores key indicators to empower adults in safeguarding children's well-being. By Antonella Dési.

Sexual abuse in children is a serious and prevalent issue in South Africa. According to a report by the South African Medical Research Council, it is estimated that one in three girls and one in five boys in South Africa will experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18.

What is even more concerning, is that these numbers are likely underestimated due to underreporting. The incredibly high prevalence of sexual abuse in children in South Africa is a significant concern, highlighting the need for increased awareness, prevention, and support services for victims.

Check out: Ghosting & gaslighting

The top 5 signs of sexual abuse:

So what are the major signs that you can look out for as a parent? Here are the top five:

  1. Behavioural changes: Children who are being sexually abused may exhibit sudden and unexplained changes in behaviour. They may become withdrawn, anxious, or depressed.

Patrick Zulu, social worker and a diversion coordinator for The Teddy Bear Foundation, explains that abused children may also become more aggressive or exhibit inappropriate sexual behaviour for their age: “Sometimes, children who have experienced sexual abuse tend to be reactive and abuse other children.”

Additionally, he notes that they may start to avoid certain people or places, especially those associated with the abuser.

  1. Physical signs: Patrick explains that physical signs of sexual abuse can vary widely and may not always be present. He lists some of the physical signs of sexual abuse: “You may see bruises and marks on the body that cannot be explained. Some children may experience pain, bleeding, or bruising in the genital or anal area. Look out for discharge or blood stains in the child’s underwear. They may also develop urinary tract infections or other unexplained health issues. Self-mutilation or self-harm is another major sign – often, when a child feels so bad about themselves, they want to hurt themselves to express this pain.”

Unexplained gifts and money are a major warning sign, notes Patrick: “Perpetrators often use money and gifts to lure their victims and buy their silence – so make sure that all gifts and money can be accountable.”

Read: Mental health in children

  1. Emotional distress: Children who are being sexually abused may experience a range of emotional distress. They may become more irritable or angry, have trouble sleeping, or experience nightmares. They may also exhibit signs of depression or anxiety. 

Adults need to pay attention to these emotional changes and take them seriously, notes Kavya Swaminathan, intervention supervisor for the Tears Foundation: “Parents should pay attention to their child’s drawings and imaginary play. They should also be highly cognisant of regressive behaviours, such as increased clinginess to a caregiver, bed wetting, or engaging in activities/play more commonly seen in children of a younger age.”

  1. Changes in relationships: Children who are being sexually abused may have difficulty forming or maintaining relationships. They may become more isolated or withdrawn or exhibit clingy or overly dependent behaviour. They may also have trouble trusting others or may have inappropriate boundaries with others.

Kavya says: “Each child is an individual and may exhibit signs of abuse differently, however, the most telling sign is always a behaviour change. This can come out in different ways, this may be in avoiding people they used to feel comfortable with, being scared or fearful of males or females in their life, bed wetting, disfiguration of their dolls, or even violent or unexpected outbursts.”

  1. Sexual knowledge and behaviour: Children who are being sexually abused may exhibit knowledge or behaviour that is inappropriate for their age. They may know more about sex than is typical for children their age, or they may exhibit sexual behaviour that is not developmentally appropriate.

 Kavya says, “Depending on how old the child is when the abuse occurs, they may develop unhealthy attachments with strangers or conduct themselves in a sexual manner inappropriate for their age. They may also express fear or discomfort with certain activities or situations.”

What can be done?

If you suspect that a child is being sexually abused, it’s important to take action immediately:

  • Listen and believe. If a child discloses abuse to you, it’s crucial to listen to them and believe them. Children rarely lie about sexual abuse, and it’s important to take their disclosure seriously, notes Kavya: “Open dialogue is always the first step – non-confrontational questioning and light probing.
  • Having the child checked out by a medical professional is always a good first step. Also, trust in your child’s instincts, this means that if your child does not want to engage with an adult or peer in their life, parents should take this into account and allow the child the space on whom they choose to interact.”
  • Report the abuse. If you suspect abuse, Patrick notes that you need to report it to the relevant authorities immediately: “The most important thing to do, is to report abuse straightaway to the authorities.

Reporting abuse is the first step in getting the child the help they need.” He offers the following contacts that concerned parents or caregivers can contact:

  • Offer support. Offer the child your support and reassurance, says Patrick: “Let your child know that they are not to blame for what has happened to them and that you are there to help them in whatever way you can.”
  • Seek professional help: Children who have been sexually abused may benefit from therapy or counselling to help them process their experiences and heal from the trauma. It’s important to seek out a therapist who specialises in working with children who have experienced sexual abuse.
  • Start a conversation 

Topics related to sex are often uncomfortable to speak about, as such TEARS Foundation aims to address these knowledge gaps, says Kavya: “We have launched our Speak UP initiative: a youth-focused program aimed and bridging these knowledges gaps with free to view interactive animated videos.

These videos act as a source of knowledge, but also a conversation starter, a place where parents can start the greater conversation.”

Watch them here:

Also read: child abduction and trafficking

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