Hiding in Plain Site: Warning Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

By SUE BOLDE, Executive Director

Hiding in plain sight…

• Amanda (14 yrs.) always wears long sleeves to cover the numerous self-inflicted cuts and burns on her arms.

• Cari (8 yrs.) suddenly begins wetting her bed at night.

• Joshua (5 yrs.) is discovered having oral sex with his 3 year-old sister in the hall bathroom.

As adults, we may think that children who are sexually molested would naturally alert someone about their abuse. Not so! In fact, an alarming 73% of child victims don’t tell anyone about their abuse for at least a year. Another 45% of victims keep it to themselves for at least 5 years, while still others NEVER disclose their abuse. (Smith et al., 2000; Broman-Fulks et al., 2007)

Children who have been molested may… or often MAY NOT… display behavior that is indicative of sexual abuse. For children who are acting outside their norms, be alert to these potential warning signs:

  • Knows more than normal about sex for their age
  • Masturbates excessively
  • Has a sudden fear of touch or is frightened of a certain person(s)
  • Starts wetting the bed or has nightmares
  • Changes eating habits
  • Can’t sleep
  • Exhibits low self-esteem
  • Seeks excessive attention
  • Seems depressed
  • Begins self-mutilation (e.g., cutting, burning, hitting, etc.)
  • Shares suicidal thoughts or actually attempts suicide
  • Uses drugs or alcohol
  • Has problems at school or is frequently absent
  • Sexually abuses others
  • Tells stories about a “friend” being abused

It’s important to keep in mind that if a child displays any of the above behaviors, that does NOT automatically mean that the child is a victim of sexual abuse. It does, however, indicate that something may not be “right” in that child’s life, so it’s important to further explore potential root causes of the behavior. If you are concerned that child in your life MAY be a victim of abuse, please refer to our 7-Step Response to Child Abuse Disclosure outline for a step-by-step tutorial of how to have the conversation and what to do if a child discloses abuse.

The number of child-on-child (or youth perpetrated) sexual abuse cases is on the rise in our country and as kids head back to school, it’s important to be attentive to changes in a child’s behavior, habits, and moods. To help, we invite you to download our free infographic called, “Child Clues,” which offers an at-a-glance list of the 9 primary warning signs that may indicate a child is in trouble and needs help.


I encourage all of us to be better informed about these potential warning signs so we can protect ALL the children in our lives! ♥

*Please note: Any names, ages and specific examples of child abuse have been altered to protect the identity and privacy of child victims and their families.

About Sue ♥

Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director Sue Bolde has a BA in psychology from the University of California Santa Barbara and an MA in art therapy from the University of Illinois. Her professional career includes clinical work with children and teens at the University of Chicago, graduate-level instruction with students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and certification as a Montessori teacher and yoga instructor. She is currently a teacher in training with Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute as well as a Michigan ACE Initiative trainer.

About Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center ♥

The nationally accredited Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center brings help, hope, and healing to child victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, and violence. Our mission is to protect children by supporting multidisciplinary investigations into alleged cases of child abuse by conducting child forensic interviews in an environment that is child-sensitive, supportive and safe. We help heal child victims and their families through our in-house therapeutic services and offer prevention education throughout the region via our Team Zero program. As the Grand Traverse regional response center for the investigation of child abuse, we collaborate with multidisciplinary teams in six counties – Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau, and Wexford – in addition to the Sovereign Nation of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. More than 1,400 children have been referred to the Traverse Bay Children’s Advocacy Center since our founding in 2010.