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How to recognise and respond to child sexual abuse

Disclosing an experience of child sexual abuse is a difficult thing to do. It can take victims and survivors years to disclose, and some never do. Some of the reasons victims and survivors may delay or not disclose include:

  • not understanding that what happened to them was child sexual abuse
  • fear of not being believed
  • feelings of shame, or concern about being judged or blamed
  • concern about relationships, including worry about ‘burdening’ someone with knowledge of the abuse, or the impact on their family
  • having previously disclosed to someone and having a negative experience
  • threats by the perpetrator not to tell.

When victims and survivors do disclose, this can be in a number of ways, including:

  • directly, usually by telling someone they trust
  • indirectly or partially, for example by telling someone part of their story to see how they respond before providing more information
  • inadvertently, for example asking questions about what happened to them
  • through changes to behaviour.

How a child may disclose child sexual abuse

Only a small number of children and young people will actually tell someone directly that they have been sexually abused. It is more common for children and young people to tell people indirectly.

One of the ways that we can help keep children and young people safe is by understanding how they may behave, talk or change if they have experienced abuse. Abuse can affect children and young people in many ways, so being aware of a range of common signs of abuse helps us protect them as early as possible.

Children and young people are still learning to communicate and express their feelings, and may not understand what has happened to them is abuse. It can be difficult to recognise when a disclosure is made.

Signs and indicators of child sexual abuse

Children and young people may express a range of physical and emotional symptoms that could mean they are distressed or going through trauma, including sexual abuse. The age and developmental level of the child or young person will affect how these symptoms present themselves. Some children and young people who have been sexually abused will not show any signs or symptoms.

Physical signs that a child may have experienced child sexual abuse include:

  • headaches
  • stomach aches
  • bed-wetting
  • loss of appetite and weight loss
  • nightmares and sleep disturbances
  • bruises on soft parts of the body, like buttocks or thighs
  • changes in the genital area, such as redness, swelling, or discharge
  • pain or burning when going to the toilet.

Children and young people who are sexually abused may find it difficult to process and deal with their distress after the trauma they have experienced. Emotional or behavioural changes could include:

  • depression, anxiety and mood changes, including social withdrawal and disassociation
  • self-harm or suicidal ideation
  • poor self-care or personal hygiene
  • harmful and volatile substance use
  • over-compliance and eagerness to please
  • aggressiveness and anger
  • running away
  • desexualisation – for example, wearing baggy clothes to hide their gender
  • anxiety-related illnesses – such as anorexia or bulimia
  • fear and avoidance of certain people and places.

For very young children, or children and young people with disability, there are extra signs to consider:

  • behavioural issues, particularly those the child or young person has not shown in the past – including emotional outbursts, self-harm and heightened aggression
  • regression in developmental achievements
  • developmental delays – for example, delayed speech, crawling or walking
  • self-stimulatory behaviours – for example, rocking and head banging.

If a child or young person is a victim of grooming, blackmail or sexual exploitation, they may show some or all of the following signs:

  • developing an unusually close connection with an older person
  • having gifts or money that have been given by new friends or having large amounts of money that they cannot account for
  • being very secretive about their phone, internet and social media use
  • going missing for long periods or appearing at school extremely tired
  • being dishonest about where they have been and who they were with
  • being collected from school by an older or new friend
  • substance abuse
  • assuming a new name, having false identification, a stolen passport or driver’s licence, or a new phone.

The Raising Children website also includes more information on recognising the signs of child sexual abuse.

Responding to disclosures

Any direct, indirect or suspected disclosure of child sexual abuse should always be believed and responded to. It is important to emphasise that it is not the victim or survivor’s fault and they have shown courage and done the right thing by telling someone.

It is important not to disbelieve or ignore a disclosure, ask a victim or survivor why they didn’t disclose sooner, or minimise the abuse.

The Emerging Minds website details the five SAFER steps for responding to disclosures, focusing on children and young people. The five steps are:

  • Stay calm
  • Ask open questions
  • Focus on safety
  • Explain next steps
  • Report.

You can find more information on these steps at the Emerging Minds website.

The Bravehearts website also includes useful tips on what to do if a child, young person, or adult discloses harm to you.

Remember that if the victim or survivor is an adult and there are no children at current risk of harm, it is important to empower them to make their own decisions, including whether or not they want to report to police or whether or when to seek support.

Please visit our Make a report page for more information about what to do if you know about or suspect abuse. The information on this page may bring up strong feelings for some people. Remember, you are not alone. You can visit our Get support page to find a list of services that can provide support.