What is child sexual abuse?

Child Sexual Abuse
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What are the symptoms of sexual abuse of a child?

Sometimes children who’ve been sexually abused have physical symptoms, such as genital or anal pain. But more often a child will have changes in behavior, like knowing more about sex than expected or having nightmares or mood changes. If you notice symptoms or behaviors that concern you, talk to your child’s doctor.

How is child sexual abuse diagnosed?

It can be hard to diagnose sexual abuse. If possible, the child should be seen by a team of child abuse experts. They'll do a physical exam and interview the child and the parent or caregiver. They'll also ask about the child's medical history and about any changes in the child's behavior.

What if you think your child was abused by someone close to you?

If you suspect someone who's close to you, it may not be safe to take home information about child abuse. And it may not be safe to search online on your devices. Consider asking a trusted friend to keep this information for you or to help you find online resources. Or you could use a computer at a public library.

If you've done online searches, it may be a good idea to clear your device's search history so no one can see the sites you visited. Search for "delete browser history" to learn how.

If you're concerned about your or your child's safety, it's important to plan ahead. Think of places you could go or people you could call for help. You may want to save or memorize their phone numbers. And you might pack a bag so you can leave quickly. Talk to your doctor or a counselor. They can offer resources and support.

What is sexual abuse in children?

Child sexual abuse is any sexual contact between an adult and a child (or between an older child and a younger child). This includes sexual acts and touching. But it doesn't always involve physical contact. For example, showing pornography to a child or taking nude photos of a child is sexual abuse.

Normal sexual play is not sexual abuse. Normal sexual play occurs between children of similar ages who spend time together. It usually involves looking and touching. It's playful and mutual, not forced.

Often children are sexually abused by people they know, like a family member or caregiver. A child who has been abused may be afraid to talk about it. The abuser may threaten or persuade them not to tell. The child may worry about getting the person in trouble. Or a child may feel that they are to blame for what happened.

Sexual abuse is never the child's fault.

Child sexual abuse: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think a child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You witness the sexual abuse of a child. If possible, save evidence of the abuse. Don't let the child change clothes, eat, drink, bathe, brush their teeth, or clean up in any way. Write down all the details about the abuse and the abuser.
  • You believe that a child is in immediate danger of being abused.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You know or think that a child has been sexually abused, even if there are no physical injuries.
  • You know or think that a child may be in danger of abuse. You can also call your local police or child protection services.

Contact your doctor if:

  • A child tells you about being sexually abused. You can also contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline. Call or text 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) for free, confidential advice and support.
  • You notice behavior changes in a child, such as:.
    • Knowing more about sex than expected or acting very sexual.
    • Having sleep problems.
    • Having mood changes, such as seeming depressed, anxious, or angry or being more withdrawn than usual.
    • Having problems in school.
    • Acting out in risky ways, like running away or using drugs.
    • Hurting themself or attempting suicide.
  • You see possible physical signs of sexual abuse, such as:
    • Discomfort while the child sits or uses the toilet.
    • Genital or anal pain or discharge, or blood in their underwear.
    • Headaches.
    • Belly pain or constipation.

How can you care for a child who has been sexually abused?

  • Find a safe place for the child, away from the person who abused them.
  • Believe the child, and offer love and support. If the child talks about the abuse, let them know that talking about it is a brave thing to do. Reassure the child that what happened was not their fault.
  • Find a counselor for the child. Children who've been sexually abused are at risk for problems such as depression and anxiety. Counseling can help a child cope with and recover from sexual abuse.
  • Empower the child. Teach children that their body is their own. They get to decide who touches them. If they don't want to be hugged by other people, respect their decision. Teach them the correct names for their body parts. Encourage the child to tell you if someone makes them uncomfortable.
  • Take care of yourself. It can be hard to deal with the sexual abuse of a child. Talk to a counselor or call a local or national crisis hotline for advice or support.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.

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