Sexual abuse of children is any inappropriate sexual behavior that can occur between a child and, most often, an adult. Sexual abuse is not only categorized as touching a child inappropriately; looking sexually at, or exposing oneself to, a child is considered abusive behavior. It is especially important to realize that sexual abuse is rarely a one-time occurrence and that a pattern of abuse can be realized if you know what the major warning signs of sexual abuse are. This awareness can be especially helpful in identifying changing behaviors in male children, as their reaction to sexual abuse will differ from that of sexually abused female children.
Signs of physical abuse are the most common way to prove that a child has been a victim of sexual abuse. Though some children may incur injuries in normal play, some injuries cannot be explained away in such a manner.
The most common physical manifestations of sexual abuse include damage to the genital area, externally or internally. This damage can include redness, pain, bleeding or bruising and is usually accompanied by the inability to walk or sit properly.
Another sign of sexual abuse resulting from genital contact can include the child's contraction of sexually transmitted diseases or recurring infections. These diseases can cause discharge to be emitted from the anus or cause the child to have recurring sore throats because of forced oral sex by the abuser.
These are not the only physical signs an abused child may exhibit, but they are the most common signs that are often found with sexually abused children.
The emotional signs of sexual abuse are slightly more difficult to define, but it is certain that a child will experience extreme emotional changes because of the abuse. This change comes about because the child is forced into situations that are not age-inappropriate; they do not have the mental capacity to properly evaluate and react to what is happening in the abuse situation.
Because of the fact that they do not understand the abuse and why it is happening (as a good portion of abusers know their victims personally), the child's emotions may become significantly negative in relation to the view of himself. He may become withdrawn, depressed or self-destructive, and he may develop seemingly irrational fears and a mistrust of others because of the closeness of the abuser to the victim. This inability to outwardly express himself comfortably, coupled with the shame that often comes with the stigma of being sexually abused as a male, often leads to the development of low self-esteem in the victim. This suppression can also lead to future behavioral extremes, ranging from completely submissive to overly aggressive.
Behavioral changes in a child are also a good indication that he is, or has been, the victim of abuse. Most commonly, if a child is attempting to act in a sexual way that is considered abnormal to other children in their age group (for example, attempting to commit sexual acts with other children or even other adults), this is a good indication that the child may be a victim.
The child may turn to hurting himself as well as actively avoiding social situations and other people as a coping mechanism for dealing with the pain brought about by abuse. Hurting oneself can include causing direct physical harm (such as cutting), as well as engaging in risky, damaging behaviors (such as having unprotected sex or abusing drugs and alcohol).
A child may react to the abuse by finding shame in doing everyday tasks. This can include developing problems using the bathroom, or fearing having to remove clothing at appropriate times, such as when preparing to bathe. Reactions may be to hide possible marks left by the abuser or as a defense against allowing the abuse to happen again.
Distinguishing Abuse from Development
Though all of the previously mentioned signs can occur when a child is experiencing an especially traumatic and emotional problem, it should be taken into consideration that when two or even all three of the groups of signs exhibit themselves in an individual, the occurrence of sexual abuse is likely. Not all signs must occur for abuse to be present, but if you suspect abuse, talk to a professional who is trained in dealing specifically with the behaviors of children, such as a counselor or a psychologist. By identifying the pattern of abuse, the earlier it is detected and the child is treated, the less likely this problem will affect the child for a longer period of time than if the child were not treated at all.