Child sexual abuse: how parents can spot warning signs and talk to their kids about abuse

Little boy, sitting in a dark, playing with smartphone
Posted at 2:30 PM, May 26, 2021

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — Following the news of a Chautauqua County man pleading guilty to possessing and producing child pornography while facing two dozen child sex abuse charges, 7 Eyewitness News has put together resources to help parents spot warning signs and talk to their kids about abuse.

Editor's Note: This article contains language about topics which include sexual abuse and sexual assault, which may be disturbing or triggering to some readers.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services says every nine minutes officials respond to reports of child sexual abuse.

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN) there are several warning signs that indicate that a young child has been sexually abused, whether it's physical, behavioral, or emotional.

Among the physical warning signs are if a young child has a sexually transmitted infection, or if there are signs of trauma around the genital area such as unexplained bleeding or bruising.

RAINN adds the following behavioral signs which may indicate that a child has been sexually abused

  • Excessive talk about or knowledge of sexual topics
  • Keeping secrets Not talking as much as usual
  • Not wanting to be left alone with certain people or being afraid to be away from primary caregivers, especially if this is a new behavior
  • Regressive behaviors or resuming behaviors they had grown out of, such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting
  • Overly compliant behavior
  • Sexual behavior that is inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Spending an unusual amount of time alone
  • Trying to avoid removing clothing to change or bathe

RAINN adds the following emotional signs which may indicate that a child has been sexually abused

  • Change in eating habits
  • Change in mood or personality, such as increased aggression
  • Decrease in confidence or self-image
  • Excessive worry or fearfulness
  • Increase in unexplained health problems such as stomach aches and headaches
  • Loss or decrease in interest in school, activities, and friends
  • Nightmares or fear of being alone at night
  • Self-harming behaviors

The network advises parents to look for sudden changes in behavior and to trust your gut if you feel like something is off; and to listen to your child if they tell you that someone is making them uncomfortable.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, 93 percent of child sexual assault victims child sexual assault victims know the perpetrator, including family members, members of faith communities, coaches, teachers, and other helping professionals.

RAINN warns that parents should be cautious of an adult who spend time with children and exhibits the following behaviors

  • Does not respect boundaries or listen when someone tells them “no”
  • Engages in touching that a child or child’s parents/guardians have indicated is unwanted
  • Tries to be a child’s friend rather than filling an adult role in the child’s life
  • Does not seem to have age-appropriate relationships
  • Talks with children about their personal problems or relationships
  • Spends time alone with children outside of their role in the child’s life or makes up excuses to be alone with the child
  • Expresses unusual interest in child’s sexual development, such as commenting on sexual characteristics or sexualizing normal behaviors
  • Gives a child gifts without occasion or reason
  • Spends a lot of time with your child or another child you know
  • Restricts a child’s access to other adults

According to the Department of Justice, females between 16 and 19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of sexual assault and or sexual abuse.

RAINN says parents of teens should look out for the following signs which may indicate that their teenager has been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, and that you should reach out to them

  • Unusual weight gain or weight loss
  • Unhealthy eating patterns, like a loss of appetite or excessive eating
  • Signs of physical abuse, such as bruises
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or other genital infections
  • Signs of depression, such as persistent sadness, lack of energy, changes in sleep or appetite, withdrawing from normal activities, or feeling “down”
  • Anxiety or worry
  • Falling grades
  • Changes in self-care, such as paying less attention to hygiene, appearance, or fashion than they usually do
  • Self-harming behavior
  • Expressing thoughts about suicide or suicide behavior
  • Drinking or drug use

The network is also advising parents about warning signs that their teenager might be in an abusive relationship.

Some of the warning signs for parents that may indicate their teenager may be in an abusive relationship include the following actions from their partner

  • Tries to get them to engage in sexual activity that they aren’t ready for
  • Sexually assaults them or coerces them into unwanted sexual activity
  • Refuses to use contraception or protection against STIs during sexual activity
  • Hits them or physically harms them in any way
  • Doesn’t want them spending time with friends or family
  • Makes threats or controls their actions
  • Uses drugs or alcohol to create situations where their judgment is impaired or compromises their ability to say "yes" or "no"

RAINN is also warning parents about the dangers of technology and how they can be connected to sexual abuse, such as teenagers being sexually harassed by being sent unsolicited sexual images or videos or being coerced into sending sexual images or videos which can cause your teenager to feel manipulated, unsafe, and exposed.

When it comes to having those difficult discussions with your child or teenager when it comes to the dangers of sexual assault and sexual abuse, RAINN says you should begin those difficult but important discussions at a young age.

When engaging in these discussions, it's important to teach children about their body parts and to indicate that some of their body parts are private.

It's imperative to instill the idea that it is okay to say "no" to someone, and that they won't get in trouble for saying no.

As parents, it is crucial to make time for your children when they come to you to discuss sensitive topics and that your child should feel comfortable discussing secrets with you, and to show them what it is like to do the right thing.

RAINN advises parents to continue to have engaging conversations with their teenagers on the importance of safety.

The network advises parents to have discussions with teens about what they see in media, whether it's television, movies, social media, etc., and to use real life experiences that will help stress the importance of safety.

When it comes to your teenager, it's important to discuss the importance for teenagers to look after their friends and to speak up if they see warning signs.

Regarding teenagers, it is also important to directly discuss sexual assault simply so it is on their radar and so any misconception can be corrected.

If you are looking for someone who is trained to assist with subjects of sexual assault and sexual abuse, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or online by clicking here.

For additional resources in Western New York, you can contact Crisis Services at (716) 834-3131.