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Signs of sexual abuse and how to respond

Signs of sexual abuse

Sexual abuse happens when someone forces or entices a child or young person to take part in sexual activity, either directly or as an observer, via the internet or when photos are taken and sent on mobile phones.

Sexual abuse can include inappropriate touching, oral sex, sexual intercourse, exposing children to pornography, using a child in the production of pornography or luring children through the internet for sexual purposes.

Sexual abusers can be anyone including family members, close friends, carers and people working with children. Most often the sexual abuser is known to the child.

Sexual abuse can happen anywhere— in homes, at school, at camps, on transport and in care situations.

Trust your own knowledge and gut feelings about your child and note any changes to their body or behaviour.

The physical signs of sexual abuse include:

  • injuries to private areas—mouth, breasts, buttocks, inner thighs, and genitals
  • discomfort when going to the toilet
  • inflammation and infection of genital areas
  • frequent urinary tract infections/bowel problems
  • getting a sexually transmitted disease
  • pregnancy.

The likelihood that abuse is happening increases if there is more than one sign.

Other signs of sexual abuse include:

  • acting out sexual behaviour with dolls, toys, siblings and other children
  • explicit sexual behaviour and knowledge that is not age- appropriate
  • changes in behaviour when personal care needs are attended to e.g. being bathed, nappy changed or during toileting
  • sleep disturbances or night terrors
  • abnormal wetting and soiling problems
  • loss of appetite
  • hurting themselves
  • obsessive and compulsive washing
  • out-of-character behaviours
  • increased anxiety
  • aggression, withdrawal or crying
  • telling someone that sexual abuse has happened
  • hinting that something has happened.

One sign alone might be an indicator that sexual abuse is happening or there could be no indicators at all. The likelihood that abuse is happening increases if there is more than one sign. It is also important to keep in mind that these behaviours might not necessarily be connected to sexual abuse. They might be connected to other problems for which the child needs help.

Responding to sexual abuse

Children who report abuse need immediate support and comfort. It is important to listen to what the child is saying and believe them. Avoid questioning the child about the abuse, leave this to the professionals.

As soon as possible make notes recording what the child actually said, the date and time the child made the report and when the abuse might have happened. Record the actual words the child used to describe the abuse. If the child cannot speak in words, record how they have communicated the abuse.

These notes might be used to assist in a prosecution.

Stop all contact with the person who is suspected to be the sexual abuser.

Report abuse

Go to the police station and make a report.

Call for police assistance: 131 444

Call the Child Abuse Report Line (CARL): 131 478

Get help

You know your child best.

  • If your child is behaving differently or complaining about something hurting, like their bottom, take them to the doctor. Ask the doctor to check for signs of abuse if this is not offered.
  • Be persistent—if you are concerned seek a second opinion.
  • You and your child might find counselling helpful.

Getting help quickly can stop sexual abuse and help your child to feel better sooner.


Child Abuse Report Line

Phone: 131 478