How to Recognize Abuse – and What to Do About It

Kendall Circle Headshot

By Kendall Wolz
Mental Health and Wellness Manager at Mosaic Georgia

As adults, we have a collective responsibility to help keep children safe. We should be vigilant and informed about the signs of child abuse. Our recognition of the signs could be the lifeline that a child desperately needs.

5 Reasons Adults Need to Know the Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

  1. Protection and Prevention: early detection of grooming and abuse may alter the trajectory of a child’s life. Child sexual abuse often occurs in contexts where the perpetrator has a trusting relationship with child and/or caregivers. In many situations, the perpetrator has frequent access to the child. Early intervention can prevent sexual abuse from escalating and can stop it entirely. Not only does the recognition of abuse protect the child who is being harmed, but it may also prevent future children from being harmed.
  2. Providing Support: children who have experienced abuse will need access to supportive resources such as counseling, advocacy, and a medical examination. When adults recognize the signs and symptoms associated with child sexual abuse, children can access these resources quickly.
  3. Legal and Moral Responsibility: in some jurisdictions, adults are legally obligated to report suspected child abuse. Mandated reporting laws do not require absolute knowledge that abuse is occurring, rather reports are required if there is reasonable suspicion a child is being sexually abused or maltreated. Beyond legal requirements, there is a moral imperative to act in the best interests of vulnerable children.
  4. Breaking the Cycle of Abuse: research reveals the devastating impacts of adverse childhood experiences. A 2021 study found that approximately half of child sexual abuse victims report sexual revictimization later in life which indicates the desperate need for intervention and supportive services during childhood and adolescence.
  5. Raising Community Awareness: when adults are informed and proactive, they contribute to a community culture that does not tolerate abuse. This heightened awareness can lead to better protection policies, more resources for victims, and a community that collectively works to safeguard its children.

Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

Parents, teacher, coaches or caregivers may feel concerned or overwhelmed at the thought of identifying signs of abuse. She’s been acting withdrawn and not herself lately but how do I know if that’s just typical teenage stuff? Am I overthinking it? Is something really wrong? By educating ourselves and becoming aware of what to look for we can feel more prepared to trust ourselves to notice when something might not be quite right.

Effects of abuse manifest with both behavioral and physical signs.

Someone experiencing the trauma of abuse may exhibit extreme changes in behavior including sudden mood swings such as rage, fear or withdrawal. They may also express fear or dislike of certain people or places. Victims may detach from others and become depressed.

Sexual behaviors may emerge such as age-inappropriate interest in sexual matters, like simulating sex with dolls or asking other children to behave sexually. Excessive or compulsive masturbation may occur.

Sleep disturbances can be common such as nightmares, fear of the dark or trouble sleeping. In some instances a regression to infantile behavior such as bedwetting or thumb sucking can be seen.

Physical signs may include abdominal pain or unexplained stomach illness, loss of appetite or trouble eating or swallowing, sudden weight loss or gain and difficulty with bowel movements or urination. If there is indication of unexplained bruises, pain, bleeding or redness on the child’s genitals or anus, or frequent vaginal infections or irritations, this could be a sign of misconduct.

Once I Know, What Should I Do?

If a child is seen to display some of the symptoms listed above, they should be asked open-ended questions in a calm, neutral, and caring manner.

Examples of questions might include:

If a child or teen suddenly has a new relationship with an individual who is older than them or that they display some secrecy about:
Tell me more about your relationship with X. What do you like about them? What do you not like about them?

If a child or teen begins using new words for body parts or exhibits knowledge in sexual acts inappropriate for their age:
Will you tell me what you mean when you refer to X? How did you learn about that? How did you feel when you learned about it? .

If a child is experiencing sleep disturbances:
Take note of what has changed in the child’s routine, how the child’s nutrition/eating schedule may have changed (for example caffeine intake). Are there any new stressors in the household?

If a child or teen experiences avoidance or withdrawal:
Tell me about the last time you remember spending time at/with X. What feelings/sensations do you notice in your body when they are around?

These questions can be used as a guide to open communication about the signs/symptoms an adult may notice. It is important to avoid close ended questions, those that a child or teen may respond to with a yes or no.

If a child discloses they have been harmed or abused, they need a calm, nurturing response from the adult.

Adults should strive to respond with calmness, comfort, and action. Examples of verbiage to respond to a disclosure of sexual abuse are:

“You are very brave and I appreciate you telling me what you’ve experienced. I believe you. It is important to me that you are safe. I am going to make some telephone calls so we can figure out how to keep you safe.”

“I believe you. I am so sorry that you have been hurt by a person you trusted. You did the right thing by sharing what happened to you. It is not okay that X hurt you. You are not in trouble for telling me. We are going to work together to figure out a plan to keep you safe. I am going to make a couple of phone calls to people who can help us with that goal.”

Where to Find Help

The next steps following a disclosure involve notifying the appropriate authorities, including law enforcement and the Child Protective Services Hotline.

If you have any questions about identifying abuse, please contact Mosaic Georgia at 866-900-6019 to speak with a trained advocate.

If you know a child or have a suspicion that a child has been victimized by child sexual abuse, call your local law enforcement agency at 911 or local child protective services (in Gwinnett County, Georgia – Gwinnett County Department of Family and Children’s Services at 678-518-5500).