What to look for in adults and children
What is considered child sexual abuse?
Child sexual abuse includes touching and non-touching activity. Some examples of touching activity include:
- touching a child's genitals or private parts for sexual pleasure
- making a child touch someone else's genitals, encouraging a child to play sexual games or have sex putting objects or body parts (like fingers, tongue or penis) inside the vagina, mouth or in the anus of a child for sexual pleasure
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Some examples of non-touching activity include:
- showing pornography to a child
- deliberately exposing an adult's genitals to a child
- photographing a child in sexual poses
- encouraging a child to watch or hear sexual acts
- inappropriately watching a child undress or use the bathroom
As well as the activities described above, there is also the serious and growing problem of people making and downloading sexual images of children on the Internet. To view child abuse images is to participate in the abuse of a child. Those who do so may also be abusing children they know. People who look at this material need help to prevent their behaviour from becoming even more serious.
Warning signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse
Children often show us rather than tell us that something is upsetting them. There may be many reasons for changes in their behaviour, but if we notice a combination of worrying signs it may be time to call for help or advice.
What to watch out for in children:
- Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects
- Nightmares, sleeping problems
- Becoming withdrawn or very clingy
- Becoming unusually secretive
- Sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings and seeming insecure
- Regressing to younger behaviours, e.g. bedwetting
- Unaccountable fear of particular places or people
- Outburst of anger
- Changes in eating habits
- New adult words for body parts and no obvious source
- Talk of a new, older friend and unexplained money or gifts
- Self-harm (cutting, burning or other harmful activities)
- Physical signs, such as, unexplained soreness or bruises around genitals or mouth, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy
- Running away
- Not wanting to be alone with a particular child or young person
Not any one sign means that a child is being abused, but the presence of several warning signs suggests that you should begin to ask questions and consider seeking help. Keep in mind that some of these signs can emerge at other times of stress such as:
- During a divorce
- Death of a family member or pet
- Problems at school or with friends
- Other anxiety-inducing or traumatic events
Physical warning signs
Physical signs of sexual abuse are rare; however, if you see these signs, take your child to a doctor. Your doctor can help you understand what may be happening and test for sexually transmitted diseases.
- Pain, discoloration, bleeding or discharges in genitals, anus or mouth
- Persistent or recurring pain during urination and bowel movements
- Wetting and soiling accidents unrelated to toilet training
Signs that an adult may be using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons
The signs that an adult may be using their relationship with a child for sexual reasons may not be obvious. We may feel uncomfortable about the way they play with the child, or seem always to be favouring them and creating reasons for them to be alone. There may be cause for concern about the behaviour of an adult or young person if they:
- Refuse to allow a child sufficient privacy or to make their own decisions on personal matters.
- Insist on physical affection such as kissing, hugging or wrestling even when the child clearly does not want it.
- Are overly interested in the sexual development of a child or teenager.
- Insist on time alone with a child with no interruptions.
- Spend most of their spare time with children and have little interest in spending time with people their own age.
- Regularly offer to baby-sit children for free or take children on overnight outings alone.
- Buy children expensive gifts or give them money for no apparent reason.
- Frequently walk in on children/teenagers in the bathroom.
- Treat a particular child as a favourite, making them feel 'special' compared with others in the family.
- Pick on a particular child.
Child abuse among children and young people
Age appropriate sexual behaviour
Children pass through different stages of development as they grow, and that their awareness and curiosity about sexual matters change as they pass from infancy into childhood and then through puberty to adolescence. Each child is an individual and will develop in his or her own way. However, there is a generally accepted range of behaviours linked to a child's age and developmental stage. Sometimes these will involve some exploration with other children of a similar age. It can be difficult to tell the difference between age appropriate sexual exploration and warning signs of harmful behaviour. Occasionally we may need to explain to children why we would prefer them not to continue with a particular behaviour.
Disabled children may develop at different rates, depending on the nature of their disability, and they can be more vulnerable to abuse. Children with learning disabilities, for example, may behave sexually in ways that are out of step with their age. Particular care may be needed in educating such children to understand their sexual development and to ensure that they can communicate effectively about any worries they have.
It is important to recognise that while people from different backgrounds have different expectations about what is acceptable behaviour in children, sexual abuse happens across all races and cultures. Each child develops at his or her own pace and not every child will show the behaviours described below. If you have any worries or questions about a child you know, talk to someone about it. Your health visitor, GP or child's teacher may be able to help, or you could ring the Stop it Now! Helpline on 0808 1000 900.
Pre-school children (0-5 years) commonly:
- Use childish 'sexual' language to talk about body parts
- Ask how babies are made and where they come from
- Touch or rub their own genitals
- Show and look at private parts
- Discuss sexual acts or use sexually explicit language
- Have physical sexual contact with other children
- Show adult-like sexual behaviour or knowledge
School-age children (6-12 years) commonly:
- Ask questions about menstruation, pregnancy and other sexual behaviour
- Experiment with other children, often during games, kissing, touching, showing and role playing e.g. mums and dads or doctors and nurses
- Masturbate in private
- Masturbate in public
- Show adult like sexual behaviour or knowledge
- Ask questions about relationships and sexual behaviour
- Use sexual language and talk between themselves about sexual acts
- Masturbate in private
- Experiment sexually with adolescents of similar age
NB. About one-third of adolescents have sexual intercourse before the age of 16.
- Masturbate in public
- Have sexual contact with much younger children or adults
Warning signs of sexually harmful behaviour
One of the hardest things for parents to discover is that their child may have sexually harmed or abused another child. In this situation, denial, shock and anger are normal reactions. If it is not responded to quickly and sensitively, the effect on the whole family can be devastating. For this reason it is vital to contact someone for advice about what to do as soon as you suspect that something is wrong. The positive message is that early help for the child or young person and their family can make a real difference. Evidence suggests that the earlier children can get help, the more chance there is of preventing them moving on to more serious behaviour. It is important to be alert to the early warning signs that something is wrong. If you are in this situation, remember that you are not alone. Many other parents and families have been through similar experiences and found the help they needed to rebuild their lives. The first step is to decide that it would be helpful to talk about the situation with someone else, The Stop it Now! Helpline is available to provide support, advice and assistance on 0808 1000 900.
Do you know a child or adolescent who:
- Seeks out the company of younger children and spends an unusual amount of time in their company?
- Takes younger children to 'secret' places or hideaways or plays 'special' games with them (e.g. doctor and patient, removing clothing etc.) especially games unusual to their age?
- Insists on hugging or kissing a child when the child does not want to?
- Tells you they do not want to be alone with a child or becomes anxious when a particular child comes to visit?
- Frequently uses aggressive or sexual language about adults or children?
- Shows sexual material to younger children?
- Makes sexually abusive telephone calls or/and sends sexual messages or images?
- Shares alcohol or drugs with younger children or teens?
- Views indecent images of children on the internet or elsewhere?
- Exposes his or her genitals to younger children?
- Forces sex on another adolescent or child?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you should talk to the child or young person and seek advice.
What you can do if you see warning signs
Create a Family Safety Plan. Don't wait for 'proof' of child sexual abuse. Visit our Family Safety plan pages for information and advice on the things to think about and include in a family safety plan.
If you are concerned about the sexualised behaviours in a parent, cousin, sibling, friend, or neighbour, you should consider contacting the police or children's services in your area; they can take action if appropriate. If you choose not to do that, it is important that you talk to the person whose behaviour is worrying you. At any point you can call the Stop it Now! Helpline on 0808 1000 900 for advice and support.
Make sure everyone knows that it's OK to talk with you about what may have already happened - that you love them and will help them. For additional resources or for advice on developing your Family Safety Plan, call our Helpline on 0808 1000 900.
Want to know more?
If you want to know more about sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, sexual abusers and protecting children - watch our Learning Programme here.