Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Sexual Abuse 

Karen MacKeigan, B.A., DAMHW, DECE 

Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is a common form of trauma that impacts both men and women.  It is estimated that one in three girls and one in six boys experience CSA before the age of eighteen.  Moreover, 95% of abusers are known to survivors (Little Warriors, 2021).  That is an incredibly high percentage of known abusers, which is why it is essential that we, as adults, are aware of the signs and symptoms of CSA in order to promote its cessation.   

The four types of child sexual abuse are exposure abuse; non-genital touching; genital contact; and penetrative abuse (Little Warriors, 2021).  Child sexual abuse can impact each young survivor differently, including physical, emotional, behavioural, and psychological signs.  It isn’t always easy to identify sexual abuse because perpetrators often take steps to hide their actions (RAINN, 2021). It is important to note that although some of the warning signs may be nonspecific and do not all equate to sexual abuse, they are worth being mindful of.   

RAINN (2021) presents physical, behavioural, and emotional warning signs as such:  

Physical signs: 

  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) 
  • Signs of trauma to the genital area 

Behavioural signs: 

  • Excessive talk about or knowledge of sexual topics 
  • Keeping secrets outside of the usual 
  • Not wanting to be left alone with certain people  
  • Regressive behaviours (i.e., bed wetting, thumb sucking)  
  • Sexual behaviour that is inappropriate for the child’s age 
  • Trying to avoid removing clothing to change or bathe 

Emotional signs: 

  • Change in eating habits; loss of appetite 
  • Change in mood or personality; i.e., aggressive behaviour 
  • Decrease in confidence or self-image 
  • Excessive worry or fearfulness 
  • Increase in unexplained health problems; i.e., stomach aches and headaches 
  • Insomnia and/or nightmares 
  • Loss or decrease in interest in school, activities, and friends 
  • Self-harming behaviours 

When taking into consideration how vast the percentage is for perpetrators known to survivors, being mindful of the behaviours exhibited towards children can help to end the occurrence of childhood sexual abuse before it begins, if not sooner than later.  Sandra J. Dixon (2008) weighs in by adding that “nearly all molesters engage children in tickling, roughhousing, picking the child up, massaging, cuddling, holding, patting, rocking, kissing and touching. The predator touches the child in front of the parents, at first appropriately, and soon inappropriately. That’s how bold they are. If the parents don’t stop it, the child thinks that they approve.” 

It is imperative that we, as adults, speak out about childhood sexual abuse because most children won’t.  Speaking out and bringing awareness to this crime helps to shine a light on these young survivors and ultimately helps them to reclaims their voices.  Here at The Gatehouse, we consistently strive to create a safe and inclusive space for survivors to heal and reclaim their voices by providing support, community, and resources to those impacted by childhood sexual abuse. 

References 

Dixon, S. J. (2008). Invisible girl. BOKCL. 

Little Warriors. (2021). Information and resources: Statistics and research. Little Warriors. https://littlewarriors.ca/about/information-resources/  

Little Warriors. (2021). Information and resources: What is child sexual abuse? Little Warriors. https://littlewarriors.ca/about/information-resources/  

RAINN. (2021). Warning signs for young children. RAINN. https://www.rainn.org/articles/warning-signs-young-children