Child Sexual Abuse – The Warning Signs

Adult sexual abusers groom children (and their parents) rather methodically. By paying attention to warning signs, adults can disrupt behaviors of concern to protect from child sexual abuse.

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?

Published on: April 17, 2014
About the Author
Photo of 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.

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I hope your grand daughter is well and that you were able to ensure her safety. I am going through a similar situation with my four year old son. He began with a sudden onset of wetting himself, became terrified of bedrooms and the dark out of nowhere, then started hunching stuffed animals, began masturbating like a grown man, is always angry and anxious with moments of excessive crying, and wakes up 4 to 5 times a night. He calls it “weenieing” when I ask why he wants to hunch stuffed animals and where/who he learned this from and he says his stepdad and his nana. The biological father resides with his nana and the stepdad lives in my home, which makes it very difficult to pinpoint the exact source. I made the decision that my son will remain by my side within eye sight at a times, as well as sleeping in his bedroom with him until the authorities and I can get to the bottom of it. My husband has been acting very strange and having moments of panic since my son outed him. It sickens me to my very core to imagine someone hurting a child. Especially my little boy in my own home. I’m trying avoid over concentrating on my husband so as to not overlook other possible facts/clues but I am unsure if my trust in him can ever be regained after this…

I have a 3 year old grand daughter,who just recently within the past 3 weeks or so has been just urinating on herself and then will cry she’s sorry,now she is already fully potty trained and does so good with it that she will wake up out of her sleep and say she has to potty now for the past couple of weeks she he just been peeing herself.She does go away for a week or more at a time to her other grandmothers who lives 2 hours away and there are young boys up there and there is a grown man that stays there as well,also at home her mother has a new boyfriend she moved in that she doesn’t really know much about and her mother is now pregnant,please please help me with this because I need to know if something is going on with my grand daughter,and one more thing I keep her a lot because her mother works and what not and she cries bloody murder when her mother comes to get her. Again PLEASE PLEASE HELP ME. Thank you

I don’t have any knowledge to help you, but you suspect it so you should act asap. It’s much better to be wrong, than the alternative. Perhaps go to an abused children help/support NPO/charity in your area for guidance on how you can act.

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