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Warning Signs of Abuse in Children

It is not easy for parents or caregivers to recognize when their child is being sexually abused because of the amount of secrecy and manipulation that is taking place to protect the offender from being found out. However there are several “warning signs” that you might observe that would constitute indicators that the child may have something going on that needs to be explored further. According to “” here are a few of those warning signs.


Physical Signs Indicative of Abuse:


  1. The child has a sexually transmitted infection (STI’s).

  2. There are signs of physical trauma to the genital area, such as unexplained bleeding, bruising, or blood on the sheets, underwear, or clothing.


Behavioral Signs Concerning for Abuse in Children:


  1. The child engages in excessive explicit sexual speech or demonstrates a knowledge of sexual topics that is not consistent with their age and development.

  2. The child appears to be keeping a lot of secrets and is not talking or interacting with family members and friends.

  3. The child does not want to be left alone with certain people or shows that they are afraid of being away from their primary caregivers.  This is especially concerning if the behavior develops suddenly.

  4. The child engages in regressive behaviors or resumes behaviors that they have grown out of such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. 

  5. The child is overly compliant.

  6. The child engages in sexual behaviors that are not appropriate for the child’s age.

  7. The child is spending an unusual amount of time alone.

  8. The child seems to avoid changing clothes or bathing and appears to have abnormal hygiene issues.


Emotional Signs the Child May Have Been Abused:


  1. The child has a change in eating habits.

  2. The child has a change in mood or personality, such as increased aggression.

  3. The child has a decrease in confidence or self-image.

  4. The child worries excessively or expresses fearfulness that seems abnormal.

  5. The child has an increase in unexplained health problems such as stomach aches and headaches.

  6. The child has a loss or decrease in interest in school, activities, and friends.

  7. The child has nightmares or fear of being alone at night.

  8. The child engages in self-harming behaviors.


Warning Signs that an Adult May be an Abuser:


  1. The adult does not respect boundaries or listen when someone tells them “no”.

  2. The adult engages in touching that a child or child’s parents/guardians have indicated is unwanted.

  3. The adult tries to be a child’s friend rather than filling an adult role in the child’s life.

  4. The adult does not seem to have age-appropriate relationships.

  5. The adult talks with children about their personal problems or relationships.

  6. The adult spends time alone with children outside of their role in the child’s life or makes up excuses to be alone with the child.

  7. The adult expresses unusual interest in child’s sexual development, such as commenting on sexual characteristics or sexualizing normal behaviors.

  8. The adult gives a child gifts without occasion or reason.

  9. The adult spends a lot of time with your child or another child you know.

  10. The adult restricts a child’s access to other adults.

  11. The adult has had previous allegations of physical or sexual abuse with other children or adults.

  12. The adult appears to have an unhealthy obsession with pornography.




Grooming is a deliberate practice engaged in by offenders to target a child for abuse, isolate that child from protective persons, manipulate the child into engaging in sexual behaviors with the adult and then creating secrecy surrounding that relationship to prevent anyone from finding out about it.


There are typically several “stages” that take place in grooming tactics, but it is important to understand that an offender may not engage in all of these stages with a child, and that these stages may move from one to the next very rapidly. Also, in circumstances where the child victim is completely dependent on the offender, or if the offender is a direct relative or lives in the home with the child, some of these stages may be unnecessary for the offender to deliberately engage in with the child.


It is also important to understand that offenders only groom children because they have intents to have sexual contact with the child. If anyone you know engages in these behaviors with a child, their intent is almost certainly to have sexual contact with that child. You may need to act appropriately if you suspect that this is taking place. Also, it is important to note that offenders don’t only manipulate or “groom” children, but they also groom everyone around the child (including family and protective caregivers) as well as society as a whole. Offenders are very skilled at making people believe that they are “such a great person” and that they “would never hurt or molest a child”. However, that is exactly what their intent is to do.


The Stages of Grooming:


1. Identifying and targeting the victim. Any child or teen may be a potential victim. The offender will select a target child for abuse based on a number of different characteristics. However, it is most often the case that offenders target children who appear to be easier targets for that abuse and the least likely to tell someone about the abuse. The offender may also choose a child that already seems to have “built-in” credibility issues that way the child is less likely to be believed even if they do disclose about the abuse.


2. Gaining trust and access. Once an offender has identified a good target child to victimize, the offender will attempt to gain the trust of the parents and caregivers and set them at ease. This process is intended to disarm any suspicions about the offender and to ensure that the family and the child feel like the offender is a safe and trustworthy person.


3. Playing a role in the child's life. Once the offender has gained the trust of the family, the offender will attempt to fill a significant role in the life of the child. Maybe the child is in need of guidance and the offender wants to help direct the child so that the child improves in their behavior. Or maybe the family has a tough schedule and it doesn’t allow for the child to be properly cared for, or the child needs rides to and from sports practices because the parents are incapable of getting off of work in time. The offender will then fill those gaps and become a person that the child and the family depend on and can’t live without.


4. Isolating the child. Once the offender has sufficiently endeared themselves with the family and the child, the offender will begin to manipulate the child and tell the child that the offender is the only person that the child can rely on and trust. The child will be treated differently, as if they are more mature, and the offender will give the child the things that make the child feel older and less like a little kid.  The offender will attempt to be alone with the child as much as possible and the offender will talk to the child about all of the child’s problems and relationships until the child thinks that the offender is the only person who truly cares for them.


5. Creating secrecy around the relationship. The offender will then begin to introduce some things to the child such as allowing the child access to things that the child should not have (pornography, weapons, cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, etc…) so that the child believes that if they get caught with these things they will get into trouble.  The offender will tell the child that they think that they child can handle it, but nobody else will believe that and that they can both get into a lot of trouble if anyone finds out.  The offender will also talk to the child about sexual related things or begin to touch the child regularly in “innocent” ways to make the child feel like those topics of conversation and those touches are normal.


6. Initiating sexual contact. The offender will then begin to sexualize the relationship and also manipulate the child into believing that this is something that the child wants to do or has to do as well.  The offender will continue to press the need for secrecy and that these are things that nobody can ever know about.  The child will begin to feel trapped at this point and will feel that they cannot escape the sexual contact or the nature of this relationship.


7. Controlling the relationship.  The offender will continue to isolate the child and maintain secrecy while continuing to sexually abuse the child.  The offender will also use all manner of threats, coercion and manipulation to keep the child from telling anyone about the sexual abuse.  The offender may tell the child that they will both get into trouble and go to jail if anyone ever finds out about what they are doing.  Or the offender may tell the child that they will be taken away by CPS and never get to see their family again if someone finds out.  Or the offender may threaten to hurt or kill the child or someone the child loves or a pet that the child loves if the child ever tells anyone.  The offender may also tell the child that even if they do tell someone, that nobody will ever believe them, and that the offender will not get into any trouble.  All of these threats or manipulations are intended to create fear in the child about telling and prevent the child from telling anyone about about this secret.

If your child or a child you know is currently suffering from abuse or neglect, contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453) today.


It is typically mandatory under the law in any state, that these things be immediately reported to law enforcement once a disclosure of sexual abuse is made by any person.  Failure to do so and act protectively for a child may be a crime depending on the circumstances.  Even if you or someone else was the victim of sexual abuse as a child, and the victim is an adult today, you should still report it to the authorities.

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