Child Sexual Abuse – The Warning Signs

two little girls playing doctorAdult sexual abusers groom children (and their parents) rather methodically. By paying attention to warning signs, adults can disrupt behaviors of concern.

Behaviors of Concern in Adults

Pay attention to adults who spend excessive time with children instead of peers, who have a “special” kid friend, and who turn to children for comfort or activities normally shared with people their own age. Notice adults who insist on hugging, kissing, or wrestling a child, even when the child does not want to be touched. Other behaviors of concern include adults who play secret games with kids and who ignore privacy boundaries.

Behaviors of Concern in Children and Teens

Pay attention to behaviors of concern in juveniles, who account for up to 50% of child sexual abuse cases. Like adult offenders, teens who abuse often prefer spending time with younger kids rather than their own peers. Notice youth who have sexually explicit conversations with, or show pornography to, younger children. And, when there is more than three to four years difference in age, sexual activity is concerning. With young children – even among similarly aged kids – pay attention to advanced sexual knowledge and coercive element to sexual exploration (bully and threatening – e.g., “I won’t be your friend unless you let me touch your private parts.”)

Warning Signs That a Child is Being Abused

About 60 percent of children who are being abused exhibit emotional or physical signs, which means 40 percent do not, making it even more important to be a listening and engaged parent. Signs of abuse vary by age and can be physical, emotional, and verbal. By way of example, here are signs that a preschool-aged child might exhibit. Please note that this list is not exhaustive and these signs do not mean a child is necessarily being abused. Preschool-age children: depression and anxiety; startle response; fear of being with a particular person or in a certain place; sleep disturbances; aggression; regression of developmental milestones; physical pains (e.g., upon urination or walking) and blood or discharge; advanced knowledge about sex expressed through words or drawings.

Sexual Play between Children

Children are sexual beings and exploration between kids is normal, when it is consensual and free from physical or emotional coercion. In contrast sexually abusive youth use dominance, coercion and threats. Sexual play is of concern when:

  • One child is three to four years older than the other child
  • One child has more power or advanced knowledge than the other child
  • One child uses force, threats or bribes to gain compliance
  • The sexual play involves activities that are advanced or not age appropriate (e.g., mimicking oral sex or intercourse)

Tomorrow we’ll talk about what to do should you observe a behavior of concern; meanwhile, what might you do if you picked your child up at daycare and a staff member was tickling one of the children?

Feather Berkower

Feather Berkower has been a leader in child sexual abuse prevention since 1985. Her highly regarded workshop, Parenting Safe Children, empowers adults to keep children safe from sexual abuse. Feather is also the co-author of Off Limits: A Parent's Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

  1. Molly

    Thank you, Feather, and Dr. Greene, for publishing these warning signs!


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