Sexual abuse Signs, symptoms and effects
Children who are sexually abused may:
Stay away from certain people
- they might avoid being alone with people, such as family members or friends
- they could seem frightened of a person or reluctant to socialise with them.
Show sexual behaviour that's inappropriate for their age
- a child might become sexually active at a young age
- they might be promiscuous
- they could use sexual language or know information that you wouldn't expect them to.
Have physical symptoms
- anal or vaginal soreness
- an unusual discharge
- sexually transmitted infection (STI)
Things you may notice
If you're worried that a child is being abused, watch out for any unusual behaviour.
- suddenly behaves differently
- problems sleeping
- eating disorders
- wets the bed
- soils clothes
- takes risks
- misses school
- changes in eating habits
- obsessive behaviour
- thoughts about suicide
Find out more about the signs, symptoms and effects of child abuse.
The effects of sexual abuse on children
Sexual abuse can ruin childhood, and the impact can last a lifetime. Although we should remember that every child and situation is different.
What research tells us about the effects of child sexual abuse
Children who are sexually abused experience a range of short and long term symptoms. Research often focuses on physical signs and symptoms but it’s often the emotional and psychological effects that cause more harm in the long term.
Alexander (2011) calls sexual abuse a "chronic neurologic disease" and discusses how the effects create decades of negative consequences for victims. The consequences of child sexual abuse can include depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress and an impaired ability to cope with stress or emotions (Allnock et al, 2009).
Child sexual abuse can have a more fundamental effect on brain functioning, where a child's brain becomes damaged by the abuse they have suffered (Mizenberg, Poole and Vinogradov, 2008). The effects of sexual abuse can include dissociation, memory impairment and reduced social functioning (Whitehead, 2011).
Being sexually abused as a child, especially when that abuse is not discovered, can lead to confused ideas about relationships and sexual behaviour.
Sexual abuse can also have physical consequences for children, from sexually transmitted diseases to pregnancy. These physical effects add to the significant emotional and psychological damage inflicted by the abuse (Whitehead, 2010).
Children who are sexually abused can be manipulated by their abuser to believe that the abuse is their fault. The feelings of shame and guilt that come from the abuse can reduce the likelihood of that child telling anyone about the abuse (Allnock, 2009).
Being sexually abused as a child, especially when the abuse is not discovered, can lead to confused ideas about relationships and sexual behaviour.
Some people block out the abuse – meaning that they don’t remember parts of their childhood. It can also lead to symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. If a child doesn't tell anyone about the abuse, if it isn't discovered or when children don't receive the right kind of help and support, the damage can last a lifetime (Goodyear-Brown, 2012).
Regularly asking children and young people about their wellbeing gives them the space and opportunity to tell when they are ready (McElvaney, 2015).
We know that therapeutic services can help children who have been sexually abused. Our evaluation of Letting the Future In provides evidence about what works well in the service and what works less well.
Adults who were abused as children
Children who have been abused or neglected may experience physical or emotional harm. The effects can be short term but sometimes they last into adulthood. If someone has been abused as a child, it is more likely that they will suffer abuse again. This is known as revictimisation.
Long term effects of abuse and neglect include:
- emotional difficulties such as anger, anxiety, sadness or low self-esteem
- mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self harm, suicidal thoughts
- problems with drugs or alcohol
- disturbing thoughts, emotions and memories that cause distress or confusion
- poor physical health such as obesity, aches and pains
- struggling with parenting or relationships
- worrying that their abuser is still a threat to themselves or others
- learning difficulties, lower educational attainment, difficulties in communicating
- behavioural problems including anti-social behaviour, criminal behaviour.
Working with the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC)
We’ve worked in partnership with NAPAC since December 2012 to help provide 24/7 support to survivors of child abuse. Our helpline practitioners provide immediate support and advice 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and direct people to NAPAC for further help.
Let's talk PANTS!
Child sexual exploitation
Harmful sexual behaviour
Further information and advice
Help and advice for professionals
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Alexander, R. (2011) Introduction to the special section: medical advances in child sexual abuse, part 2. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 20(6): 607-611.
Allnock, D, et al (2009) Sexual abuse and therapeutic services for children and young people: the gap between provision and need: full report. London: NSPCC.
Calder, J., McVean, A. and Yang, W. (2010) History of abuse and current suicidal ideation: results from a population based survey. Journal of Family Violence, 25(2): 205-214.
Goodyear-Brown, P. (ed.) (2012) Handbook of child sexual abuse: identification, assessment and treatment. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley.
McElvaney, R. (2015) Disclosure of child sexual abuse: delays, non-disclosure and partial disclosure: what the research tells us and implications for practice. Child abuse review (24, 3: 159-169.
Minzenberg, M. J., Poole, J. H. and Vinogradov, S. (2008) A neurocognitive model of borderline personality disorder: effects of childhood sexual abuse and relationship to adult social attachment disturbance. Development and Psychopathology 20(1): 341-68.
Whitehead, J. (2010) Back to basics: sexual abuse. Protecting Children Update, 71: 8-9.
Whitehead, J. (2011) How do children cope with sexual abuse? Protecting Children Update, 84: 9-10.