What Behavioral Changes Indicate Someone Is Being Sexually Abused?

Countless sexual abuse victims stay silent about their traumas. Many survivors – especially young children – feel scared, ashamed or confused about what they experienced and are unable to come forward. As a parent, guardian, teacher or friend, it is important to keep a close eye on your child and others in your life. If you know what to look for, you can detect the signs of sexual abuse by changes in the victim’s behaviors.

Children Ages 0 to 4

The signs of sexual abuse change by age. They can manifest themselves in different ways based on the victim’s grasp of what happened, memory of the event and a child’s abilities of self-expression. Some of the behavioral changes that you may be able to observe in a child from birth until around age four include:

  • Incessant or inconsolable crying
  • Lack of appetite or trouble swallowing
  • Fear of others
  • Fear of being touched
  • Sudden, unexplained fear of a certain place
  • Developmental delays or missed milestones
  • Delayed speech
  • Regression in habits or behaviors, such as bed-wetting or thumb-sucking
  • Pants-wetting unrelated to potty training
  • Nightmares
  • Clinginess

If your infant or toddler is displaying persistent signs of distress, delays in speech or walking, does not play with other children, or constantly appears afraid or anxious, these could be early signs of child sexual abuse. 

Children Ages 4 to 11

As a victim of child sexual abuse ages, the behavioral signs connected to sexual trauma change. At ages 4 to 11, possible behavioral signs of sex abuse include:

  • Regression or an older child behaving like a younger child
  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • Unusual knowledge of or curiosity about sexual subjects
  • Drawing private parts
  • Using new words for body parts that you didn’t teach them
  • Excessive play with their own privates
  • Sex play with friends, toys or pets
  • Reluctance to remove clothes, such as for bath time
  • Seeming distracted or distant
  • Lack of interest in playing
  • Sudden change in eating habits
  • Frequent stomach aches
  • Tantrums or outbursts 
  • Anger and aggression 
  • Being bullied or bullying others
  • Insecurity 
  • Sudden changes in behavior or personality

When a child learns to talk, he or she may start asking odd questions about sexual subjects, private parts or secrets. Starting school can also result in indicators of sexual abuse in a small child, such as isolation from other kids, outbursts in class or poor school performance.

Adolescents and Teens Ages 11 to 17

As a child moves into prepubescence, adolescence and the teenage years, the behavioral signs of sexual abuse will also mature to encompass more “adult” activities, such as romantic relationships, substance abuse, partying and self-harm. The behavioral indicators can include:

  • Trust issues
  • Trouble with close or romantic relationships
  • Low self-esteem or poor self-image
  • Lack of personal hygiene/unkempt appearance
  • Frequent health complaints
  • Lack of appetite
  • Unexplained weight gain or weight loss
  • Poor performance in school
  • Truancy
  • Bullying or fights 
  • “Cries for help,” such as lashing out at others
  • Dropping “clues” in conversations, such as questions about sexual issues
  • Isolation from others
  • Withdrawal from hobbies or activities 
  • A general lack of interest 
  • Substance (drug and alcohol) use
  • Sexual promiscuity
  • Teen pregnancy
  • Running away from home
  • Suicidal thoughts, behaviors or tendencies
  • Self-harm behaviors, such as cutting
  • Suicide attempts

Keep in mind that many teenagers exhibit some of these behaviors as they deal with the standard issues and hardships of adolescence. If there are multiple indicators or the behavioral signs are persistent, however, view it as a potential red flag for sexual abuse.

What to Do if You Notice Behavioral Signs of Sexual Abuse

If you suspect that your child or someone else that you know is a victim of sexual abuse based on his or her behaviors, talk to them and offer your support. Tell them that you’re there for them, that they aren’t in trouble and that you believe them. Then, explain that help is available. They can talk to you, a counselor, a therapist, a hotline, a doctor, the police and a Los Angeles sexual abuse lawyer for support and assistance. Sexual abuse is a terrible crime that no one should have to suffer in silence.