Advice and information if you are worried about the sexual abuse of young children

Sexual abuse of young, pre-school children can leave them feeling afraid and confused and other difficult feelings which are hard for them to make sense of and communicate to adults around them.

Indicators of sexual abuse in young children

Children of a certain age aren't able to verbalise or fully communicate abuse, so signs/indicators are helpful tools for parents/carers to be aware of, as they can help identify that a child may have been sexually abused.

These signs/indicators shouldn't be viewed in isolation as many can be 'normal' behaviours that a young child may display as part of their developmental progression, any signs or indicators should be assessed by a trained professional within the child's wider social and family context, and never in isolation.

If you are or have been concerned that a child may have been or is being sexually abused, possible signs and indicators to be aware of are:

  • changes in personality, e.g., a normally outgoing child may become very passive and compliant, or a usually calm child may become more demanding and aggressive
  • regression, e.g., a toilet trained child may begin soiling themselves or wetting the bed
  • avoiding being alone with adults
  • becoming withdrawn/unable to engage in play
  • fear of being left alone or separated from their parent(s) or carer(s)
  • age inappropriate knowledge of sexual behaviours or sexual language
  • changes in appetite
  • disturbed sleep patterns and nightmares
  • pain or irritation around the genital area
  • fear of getting undressed
  • uncharacteristic aggressive behaviour

This a complicated area and it is difficult to identify if a young child has been sexually abused, but if you have any concerns - even if you're unsure - it is important that you seek help and support.

If you have immediate concerns for a child's safety dial 999.

For help, advice and guidance about a child's safety contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000.

Coping with the trauma of sexual abuse

After discovering sexual abuse, family members will be struggling with a range of feelings, and it is likely to be useful for them to have support in bearing them.

Despite the negative impact that sexual abuse has, a warm, loving, empathic approach towards children can make a huge difference in helping them to recover. Children affected by abuse may also need support in processing their feelings about what has happened.

In these situations, many families of offenders will also be facing difficult feelings and issues, such as shock, stigma and shame. Although, negative feelings towards offenders are likely to be strong, their families still deserve a sensitive and supportive response.

Help and support

If you have been affected by the issues in this news story, talking to someone can help - you can get support from the NSPCC Helpline 24 hours a day on 0808 800 500. If you have immediate concerns for a child's safety please dial 999.

If you are a child or young people who is worried or concerned about the issues in this news story you can contact ChildLine for free on 0800 1111 or visit the ChildLine website. ChildLine counsellors are available 24 hours a day for children to talk to whatever their worry. Children and young people can talk to ChildLine in confidence, meaning what you say stays between you and ChildLine.

Any adult who thinks they have a sexual interest in children and wants help can contact the Lucy Faithful Foundation via their website or by calling 0808 1000 900.

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