Sexual Abuse Recognition

As a follow-up from the last post, I wanted to have more information for educators in identifying sexual child abuse in your students.  As a K-12 educator, in many states it is not mandated to take classes on child abuse recognition, even though you are mandated to report if you suspect child abuse.  As a preschool teacher, I am required by law to take classes on child abuse recognition every three years.  I just completed my three-year requirement, and realized that much of what I have on my blog coincides with this class.  And because many are not aware of all the signs, it’s only right to share them here.   

Did you know:   70-90% of children involved in sex trafficking have a history of being abused, usually through sexual abuse.¹  Also, those who are caught in sex trafficking are often physically abused, and usually emotionally/ mentally abused in order to keep the child prisoner.  For that purpose, the signs of physical and emotional abuse will also be discussed, as these are easier signs to pinpoint.  For the most part, determining behavior of sexual abuse is subtle or has very few signs, unless found by a medical examiner (i.e., a school nurse).

Sexual abuse by definition is any illegal sexual act on a child: incest, rape, indecent exposure, fondling, child pornography, and child prostitution.  Sexual exploitation which includes prostituting or using a child in porn, is the crux of sex trafficking.

Sexual Abuse Behaviors:
-Children expressing age-inappropriate knowledge of sex or sexual behaviors that seem too mature for the child’s age.
 -Highly sexual play
-Sexually explicit
-Post-traumatic stress disorder through fearfulness, excessive daydreaming, and re-traumatized from reactions or situations, causing flashbacks.
-Unexplained fear of a person or place, or trying to avoid a familiar adult
-Nightmares, sleep interruptions, and withdrawal

The emotional damage of sexual abuse is devastating.  It is a major breach of trust.  The perpetrator tries to manipulate the child into silence with real or implied threats, or gives the victim gifts.   The manipulation piece of this puzzle can result in a whole range of emotions: self-image problems, low self-confidence, guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, and mood instability.    Any drastic changes in personality with these emotional traits in mind could be a result of abuse. 


Side Note:  Keep in mind that a child who abuses another child may have been abused themselves.  Sometimes this occurs with sexual abuse/ sex trafficking, particularly when a boyfriend may prostitute their girlfriend.  These perpetrators may show signs of violence, manipulative behaviors, and exploitive sexual behavior. Sometimes teenage girls may be in an abusive relationship with a boyfriend, and this may be evident in signs you may see in your students.


Because sexual abuse is more difficult to detect, we will also list the things to look for under physical and mental/emotional abuse.  These seem to be more obvious in an abuse situation, particularly in the classroom where you will be in contact with these children. 

Physical Abuse Signs: cigarette burns, immersion burns, patterned burns, rope burns to unlikely parts of the body, cuts (to gums, eyes, mouth, lips, genitalia), questionable welts and bruises (particularly if they’re clustered or at different stages of healing), shape of object patterns (finger or hand patterns, belt patterns, etc.), human bite marks, any marks on the body where the explanation does not match the injury, and any marks on softer parts of the body or parts of the body that rarely sees injury, especially if this happens often.

Emotional/ Mental abuse can include ridicule, rejection, intimidation, belittling, indifference, unconcern about child’s problems (can also include school work), bizarre discipline.

Emotional/ Mental Abuse Signs:  antisocial traits, destructive traits, sleep disorders (where child constantly falls asleep in class), habit disorders (rocking, biting, sucking, etc.), behavioral extremes (overly compliant or overly enraged), pleasure in hurting people or animals, delinquent behaviors (drinking, drugs, etc.), self-destructive behaviors (including suicide attempts, cutting, etc.), self- fulfilling prophecies (living up to what the abuser says).

On top of the physical and emotional clues, a teacher may be able to pinpoint abuse through these academic signs:  learning difficulties, interrupted concentration, academic deterioration, excessive absences, and lack of self-discipline. Remember, any changes in how a student performs in the classroom could be signs of abuse and is worth looking into for the sake of the child.


Side Note:  Prostitution can occur in families.  It is common that a parent, sibling, or other family member will prostitute one of their children.  When working with families, watch the interaction between your student and their parents for possible signs of abuse (during parent-teacher conferences, meet the teacher, open house, etc.). 


The strongest clue that sexual abuse is occurring is if a student tells you they have been abused.  Even if the child is a “storyteller”, you need to take this seriously.  This telling is reportable, and may be the only sign to you that the child is being abuse.  By believing and listening to the child, you can resolve doubt in favor of the child.  The child’s safety and protection is of utmost importance.  A child disclosing information to an adult is a difficult thing for them to do.  There are many reasons why:  they have a sense of shame, they may be loyal to the abuser (Stockholm syndrome), fear of not being believed, and/or a fear of negative consequences to the child or their family (threatened by the abuser either said or implied).  Students may also send messages about their abuse in indirect ways.  One is bringing up a scenario “What if…..”  A disclosure can also be with strings attached: “Promise you won’t tell if I tell you?”   


So how do you respond if a child tells you they’re being abused?  It is most important to remain calm and not to respond emotionally as to not scare the child from disclosing this information.  Remember how difficult it must be for your students to talk about the situation to you.  Whatever you do, do not ignore the child or not respond at all.  This will give the child a feeling of abandonment.  If a child does come to you, sit near the child (not behind a desk), and give the child a space without interruptions from others.  Do not touch the child.  Listen and respond without emotion, showing that you’re listening through your response (i.e.  I appreciate you telling me about this.  This must have been very hard for you to do.).  Do not ask “why” questions:  this is very confusing for most children, and will give them a sense that it was their fault.  If a child shows you physical signs of abuse, do not react emotionally.  If their injuries are in private areas, refer them to the school nurse.  After this, you are mandated by law to report this disclosure.  Calling your local child abuse hotline, local child/family services, the local police/ sheriff’s department, and if you suspect sex trafficking, call the national human trafficking hotline at



Source: American Institute for Resuscitation