Warning signs of abuse

What are the emotional and behavioural signs of abuse in children?

Child sexual abuse is difficult and uncomfortable to think about but, as supportive adults, it is important to recognise the warning signs.

Emotional and behavioural signs that a child may have been sexually abused can include:

  • an unexpected change in behaviour or personality
  • regressive behaviours such as bed wetting
  • nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • acting out in sexual ways with toys or objects
  • becoming withdrawn, depressed, anxious or very clingy
  • being inappropriately affectionate
  • an unaccountable fear of particular people or places
  • outbursts of anger
  • becoming secretive
  • changes in eating habits (overeating or under eating)
  • use of drugs or alcohol
  • showing sexual awareness inappropriate to their age
  • unexplained money or gifts.

What are the physical signs of abuse in children?

As well as emotional and behavioural signs, there are physical signs to be aware of in children. This may be uncomfortable and distressing to read, so make sure you take care of your wellbeing.

Physical signs that a child may have been sexually abused can include:

  • unexplained signs of trauma in the child’s private body areas or parts and mouth area (bruising, bleeding, swelling, sores, infection)
  • difficulty walking, standing or sitting
  • bedwetting or soiling themselves
  • poor personal hygiene or excessive bathing
  • physical pain or itching in the genital area
  • pregnancy
  • sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • disturbed sleep
  • recurring physical ailments
  • other visible bruising or cuts on arms, legs or face
  • self-harming or body dysmorphia.

These lists should be used with care. Although these are all signs that sexual abuse may be happening, there could be other reasons for these behavioural or physical changes. However, if you notice a combination of worrying signs, it may be time to seek help or advice.

Visit the Parents Protect website for more information on the warning signs of abuse.

Signs of grooming in adults

There may be cause for concern about the behaviour of an adult if they:

  • insist on physical affection or physical play with a child – kissing, hugging, wrestling
  • give excessive gifts to the child
  • take photographs or keep mementos of other children
  • talk about sex frequently, tell sexual jokes and have inappropriate conversations in the presence of children
  • single out and give special attention to one child
  • seek to be or is often alone with a child in a house, car or room
  • display child-orientated behaviours or engage in childlike behaviour
  • are overly interested in a child’s personal development
  • refuses to allow a child privacy or to make their own decisions on personal matters.

None of these signs is proof that an adult is committing sexual abuse so it is important to use them with care. Some of these grooming behaviours, like gift giving or praise and rewards, can look like kind and genuine actions from an adult towards a child, which make them difficult to distinguish. 

However, there is often a threshold – some behaviours will be normal, healthy and appropriate and others will trigger a gut feeling that something isn’t right.

Don’t ignore a gut feeling – speaking up and looking for advice or support can help protect children.

If you have concerns always follow your organisations safeguarding and reporting policies. If you are concerned about another adult’s behaviour, then you can contact our confidential Stop It Now! helpline for advice.

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