What are the warning signs that a child is being sexually abused?

Published 12 Dec 2017

Children who are sexually abused often experience feelings of shame, guilt and fear that can prevent them speaking out against their attacker.

In fact, survivors take an average of 22 years to come forward after the abuse began, according to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show that 5,559 cases of child sexual abuse were substantiated across the country's states and territories in 2015-16, yet many incidents go unreported.

Children often show indicators of emotional and physical distress that could indicate they are being abused. But what warning signs should loved ones look out for?

Physical signs

There are various physical signs of sexual abuse, some of which are obvious, while others can be difficult to spot. Potential abuse indicators include:

  • Sexually transmitted diseases;
  • Injuries to the genitals, buttocks, upper thighs and breasts;
  • Difficulties in going to the toilet due to genital injuries;
  • Frequent urinary tract infections;
  • Foreign bodies in vaginal, rectal or urethral openings;
  • Adolescent pregnancies;
  • Anxiety-related illnesses such as anorexia or bulimia; and
  • Psychosomatic symptoms, including stomach aches.

Behavioural signs

Children who are being abused may not exhibit any physical symptoms but can show behavioural changes that suggest traumatic experiences. These include:

  • Regressing to earlier childhood behaviours, such as bed-wetting or refusing to speak;
  • Fear of certain places, people or activities that relate to their abuse;
  • Declining hygiene and self-care;
  • Uncharacteristically poor academic performance;
  • Age-inappropriate sexual activity, particularly where this is persistent or pathological;
  • Age-inappropriate drawings or stories that depict sexual activity;
  • Difficulties sleeping and frequent nightmares;
  • Promiscuity;
  • Drug and alcohol dependence; and
  • Depression, anxiety disorders and/or suicide attempts.

What should I do if I suspect a child is being abused?

Many children do not disclose their abuse directly, if at all.

Parents or guardians who notice physical or behavioural symptoms of abuse in their children shouldn't ignore these changes.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) advises people who suspect that a child is being sexually abused to contact local authorities to discuss their concerns or seek further information on what to do next.

The AIFS website contains contact information, websites and other details for reporting suspected child abuse.

If you would like a free and confidential consultation about child sex abuse laws in Australia, please contact Gerard Malouf & Partners Compensation, Medical Negligence & Will Dispute Lawyers.

We can help guide you through your options, as well as advise you on the compensation that may be available.