Child Sexual Abuse Warning signs
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
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 in children and adolescents of possible child sexual abuse
Children often show 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 this 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- Becoming withdrawn or very clingy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
- Any one sign doesn’t mean that a child was or is being sexually 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 your family doctor. Your doctor will help you understand what may be happening and test for sexually transmitted indicators, damage or 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 are rarely 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 could be a greater cause for concern if the behaviour of an adult or young person was:
- 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 mind 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, and their awareness and curiosity about sexual matters changes 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 the early warning signs of more harmful behaviours. Occasionally, as parents we may need to re-explain to our children why we would prefer them not to continue with a particular mode of behaviour.
Disabled children may develop at different rates, depending on the nature of their disability; 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 concerns that they may 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 and look through our information on other organisations who work in NI.
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 behavioural issues.
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. There is information on the website on who is available in your area to provide the support, advice and assistance you need.
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
What you can do if you see warning signs
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 they deem this to be appropriate. If you choose not to do that, it is important that you talk to the person whose behaviour is concerning you.
Make sure everyone knows that it’s OK to talk with you about what may have already happened – that you love them and only want what’s best for them. For additional resources or for advice on developing a strategy that works for you and your family speak to your local child services.
Want to know more?
If you want to know more about sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, sexual abusers and protecting children please look at the links on our website to many organisations within Northern Ireland that can offer you additional support and advice.
How can we prevent child sexual abuse?
Create a family safety plan to protect children
If you are concerned about keeping your child safe from sexual abuse, consider creating a family safety plan designed to create a safer environment and a support network for everyone in your family.
Children and young people are safer when parents and caregivers take the time to learn about sexual abuse and warning signs.
When creating a family safety plan it is important to know what is mean by a risk factor and what risk factors might look like:-
- A risk factor – is something that puts someone at risk of sexually abusing a child.
- It could be a physical factor e.g. being in close proximity to a child
- A situational risk factor, say a lack of parental oversight
However alongside being aware of risk factors other protective factors – the things a family can do to keep the family safer are important to be aware of and consider.
- Protective factors can include good communication within the family
- Supportive relationships
- Appropriate rules and boundaries
Such protective factors are the building blocks of a loving family and provide a good foundation for developing an effective family safety plan.
Below is an example of what could be included in a Family Safety Plan:-
Family Safety Plan
- Who is going to be involved in this plan? (Mum/Gran/Children)
- Who are we worried about? (Our child)
- What is it we are worried about happening? (What happened before?)
- As part of a Family Safety Plan (what do we already have in place?)
- Step (Read a book with my child that educates on abuse and is age appropriate)
- Who is responsible for this? ( Mum)
- What steps will we as a family take to ensure that everyone is safe?
- Staying Safe Online
- Step (Upload the NSPCC – Net Aware App on social media to learn what they do)
- Who is responsible for this? (Mum, will upload the app to learn the risks of each site)
- Step (Move the computer to a public space)
- Who is responsible for this? (Dad will set up the computer in the kitchen)
Parents who make a commitment to speak up as soon as they have a concern, instead of waiting for certain evidence of harm, play an even more crucial role in a child’s safety. Here are some things that you and your family can do to protect children from sexual abuse:
Know the Warning signs
- “Warning signs” when noticed offer an opportunity for you to prevent harm, it’s a chance for protective adults to recognise possible risk factors and to take action to safeguard their children.
- Remember the old adage- prevention is always better than cure; the most effective prevention takes place before there’s a child victim to heal or an offender to punish.
Open up the lines of communication
- Whether talking with a child, adolescent, or adult, about sexualised behaviours or your concerns, the conversation is just a beginning and not a one-time event.
- Let everyone in the family know it is OK to ask questions. It is important for adults to set the tone for everyone by talking about the range of healthy sexual behaviours; what constitutes an unhealthy sexual behaviour and by encouraging everyone to speak up about sexual abuse.
- The NSPCC has developed a guide for parents and carers to use with young children to help keep them safe. The Underwear Rule teaches children that their body belongs to them; they have a right to say no, and that they should tell an adult if they’re upset or worried. https://www.nspcc.org.uk/globalassets/documents/advice-and-info/pants/pants-2018/pants-parents-guide-online.pdf – the guide for adults to use with children.
- Using books or our comics can help you start these important conversations with your children. However, before you read them with your child read them through yourself first, so that you can judge if the information is appropriate for your child and to ensure you are familiar with the story. Finally, see these stories as a springboard to further conversation, discussion and continued teaching and learning. If you have any questions that you want answered prior to starting these conversations with your child, you can contact us via our website at www.uberheroes.co.uk and go to the “Ask an Uberhero a question” we will answer these within 24 hours
Educate everyone in the family
Understand healthy sexual development in children as well as the sexual behaviours that may be of concern to you as a parent/carer.
- Learn the warning signs of a child who may have been hurt by sexual abuse as well as the warning signs in an adult, adolescent or child who may be touching a child in a sexual way. Your concerns may be about non-touching behaviours as well (e.g. showing pornography to a child).
- Teach children the proper names for body parts and what to do if someone tries to touch them in a sexual way.
- Remember to let young children know that no one has the right to touch their private parts (unless for medical reasons) and that they should not touch anyone else’s private parts.
Set clear family boundaries
- Talk openly about and set clear family boundaries with family members and with other adults who spend time around or supervise the children (e.g., if a child does not want to hug or kiss someone when saying hello or goodbye then he or she can shake hands instead).
- If a child is not comfortable with a particular adult or older child then you or some other adult must let that person know (e.g., tell him or her that you don’t want your child to sit on his/her lap).
- As a child matures, boundaries within the home will need to be adjusted (e.g., knock on the door before entering your teenager’s room).
Get safe adults involved
- Be sure that no one in your family is ever isolated. Identify one or more supportive people for every member of the family.
- Research shows that one of the key factors in a child’s resilience (ability to bounce back after stressful situations) is that he/she had someone to talk with and confide in. Be a safe, responsible and consistent resource person for a child or adolescent.
- If someone seems too good to be true then trust your instincts and ask more probing questions – this friend or family member may not be a safe person for your child. Unfortunately, unconditional trust doesn’t protect children from harm.
Take sensible precautions with who has access to your children
- Be aware of who is paying attention to your children and who their friends are.
- Don’t ignore your instincts, if you feel uneasy about the interest people are showing in your child – Act on this
- Obtain information about the safeguarding policy and procedures of any clubs or organisations your child may be in or want to join. Ask for proof that adults working in a voluntary capacity with children have been Access NI checks.
Know your local resources and how to access them
- Learn about the agencies in your area, we have a list of these on the website. Know who to call for help and advice and how to report concerns if you learn that a child has been sexually abused.
Seek help and advice – you are not alone
- If you are concerned about the sexualised behaviour of a parent, cousin, sibling, friend, or neighbour, it is important to talk with them. If you are concerned about your own thoughts and feelings towards children, help is available.
- 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.