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Child Development Theory: Middle Childhood (8-11)

Sexual Abuse Warning Signs

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW

danger signParents of school-aged children need to be alert for signs their child is acting out sexually in ways that seems inappropriate or premature. Children of this age who are engaging in sexual intercourse or adult sexual behaviors, including but not limited to oral sex and mutual masturbation require immediate parental attention and intervention. Age-inappropriate sexual behaviors may indicate that participating children have been sexually abused, or exposed to a peer who has been sexually abused. It's important to keep in mind that not all sexual abuse is violent in nature. Any intentional exposure of children to sexually explicit materials, and any sexual touching, by an adult or older child may qualify as sexual abuse.

Warning signs that children may have been sexual abused include:

  • children's excessive fascination with adult sexual themes
  • children's display of sexualized actions, gestures, language, or knowledge in advance of peer's actions, gestures, language or knowledge suggesting a much greater level of experience or sophistication than peers.
  • children engaging in or attempting extensive mutual sexual play with same age or younger children
  • children engaging in excessive masturbation or demonstrating a preoccupation with sexual activities and ideas
  • children engaging in sexual behaviors in public
  • children's interest in or actual attempts at initiating sexual contact with older children, adolescents, adults, or animals.

Other signs of possible sexual abuse which are not sexual in nature include:

  • sudden, intense sleep problems such as insomnia or nightmares
  • increased moodiness, fear or anxiety
  • school and activity avoidance (social withdrawal)
  • decreased attention to hygiene
  • unexplained trust issues
  • uncharacteristic compulsions or exacerbations of existing issues

Children's significant and uncharacteristic physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches may also be indications that a child has been sexually abused or has been in a sexually compromised position. Essentially, any behavioral indication that something has disturbed a child's essential feelings of physical or emotional safety may possibly be a sign that abuse has occurred.

Defining the list broadly as we have may result in false positives where parents come to suspect abuse which has not occurred. Parents are encouraged to resist the urge to become hysterical should they suspect abuse has occurred, and to investigate and verify their suspicions before acting on them. For more information on identifying and preventing child sexual abuse, please see our related center on Abuse. 

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