The possibility that a child could be experiencing sexual abuse is frightening for many child care providers. Knowing how to identify the signs of sexual abuse is an important first step in helping a child who is being victimized.
What Child Care Providers Should Know about Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse includes a wide range of behavior: fondling a child’s genitals, intercourse, rape, sodomy, exhibitionism and commercial exploitation through prostitution or pornography. Sexual abuse may begin with inappropriate touching or fondling and progress to more intensive or traumatic forms of sexual abuse, including intercourse and rape.
Sexual abuse is often a secret. Sometimes children report sexual abuse immediately after the incident. At other times, the abuse goes on for months or even years before the child reports it or before it is discovered by someone else.
Children often do not report because they are afraid. The perpetrator may frighten the child into hiding the abuse by threatening to harm the child or the child’s parent. In some cases, perpetrators tell children they will be harmed by monsters or other creatures that young children are typically afraid of if they tell about the abuse. The abuser often knows how to manipulate children and promises them gifts of attention in exchange for playing sex games.
The physical signs of sexual abuse include some that a provider might notice while caring for young children. For example, while helping the child use the bathroom, a caregiver may notice a child’s torn, stained or bloody underclothing or bruises or bleeding in the child’s external genitalia, vaginal or anal area. If a child says that it hurts to walk or sit, or if he or she complains of pain or itching in the genital area, a caregiver should take note and watch to see if it is a recurring condition.
- Young children who have been sexually abused also may exhibit behavioral signs of the abuse. They may show excessive curiosity about sexual activities or touch the breasts and genitals of adults.
- Some children who have been sexually abused are afraid of specific places, such as the bathroom or a bed. Sexually abused children also may act out their abuse using dolls or talking with other children about sexual acts. Such premature sexual knowledge may be a sign that they have been exposed to sexual activity.
There is a great deal of controversy regarding the use of dolls, particularly anatomically correct ones. It's not always easy to determine whether a child who demonstrates interest in genitalia is an indication of sexual abuse. Child care providers should not encourage a child to demonstrate what might have happened to them using dolls unless they have received adequate training to conduct such assessments.
Identifying the Signs of Sexual Abuse
Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when...
- Has difficulty walking or sitting.
- Suddenly refuses to participate in physical activities.
- Reports nightmares or bed-wetting.
- Shows sudden changes in appetite.
- Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior.
- Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14.
- Runs away from home.
- Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver.
The parent or adult caregiver:
- Is unduly protective of the child.
- Severely limits the child’s contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex.
- Is jealous or controlling with family members.
- Is secretive and isolated.
Examples that Might Suggest Sexual Abuse
Five-year-old "Maria" displays precocious sexual behavior. Her child care provider often observes her masturbating when she is off by herself. One afternoon, her caregiver heard her asking one of the boys if he wanted to have oral sex. On another occasion, the provider saw her laying the dolls on top of each other and whispering to one of the dolls, "I promise not to hurt you."
A provider is helping "Jason," age 4, get to sleep at naptime. For several weeks, Jason has been having a hard time settling down. When he does fall asleep, he sometimes wakes up crying about monsters. Today, he turns to his child care provider and says, "I’ve got a secret, but I can’t tell you what it is."
"Anna," 3 1/2 years old, is wiggling around in her seat a lot. Her child care provider asks if she needs to go to the bathroom. Nancy says, "No, it’s not that. My bottom hurts where Gary poked me." Gary is her 15-year-old brother.
For More Information
To learn more about preventing, recognizing, and handling child abuse and neglect in child care settings, visit the Child Abuse and Neglect section, or check out the following eXtension Alliance for Better Child Care articles: