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Signs and symptoms

Who does it happen to?

Any child can experience sexual abuse, any age or gender. If it happens to them, it isn’t their fault, they are not to blame.

Not all children who have been sexually abused will have symptoms, but the following is a list which may help you spot the signs or ask further questions to reassure yourself. Many adults find it difficult to believe it is happening or that the abuser could be responsible. This is a common reaction on discovering sexual abuse. It does happen and children do get sexually abused. The following list is not meant to diagnose sexual abuse, but alert you to the possibility of that it may be the source of the problem, and happening to a child you know.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms, include

  • avoiding being alone with people, such as family members or friends
  • seeming frightened of a person or reluctant to socialise with them
  • becoming sexually active at a young age
  • being sexually promiscuous
  • using sexual language or know information that you wouldn’t expect them to
  • physical symptoms such as anal or vaginal soreness, an unusual discharge, sexually transmitted infection (STI) or pregnancy.

The long term effects of abuse and neglect can include:

  • emotional difficulties such as anger, anxiety, sadness or low self-esteem
  • mental health problems such as depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), self-harm, or suicidal thoughts
  • problems with drugs or alcohol
  • disturbing thoughts, emotions and memories that cause distress or confusion
  • poor physical health such as obesity, aches and pains
  • struggling with parenting or relationships
  • worrying that their abuser is still a threat to themselves or others
  • learning difficulties, lower educational attainment, difficulties in communicating
  • behavioural problems including anti-social behaviour, criminal behaviour.

Children who are sexually abused experience a range of short and long term symptoms. Research often focuses on physical signs and symptoms but it’s often the emotional and psychological effects that cause more harm in the long term. Children may need help to recover from sexual abuse. In York there is an NSPCC service that helps children who have been sexually abused. Their carers also get help as part of the service.

Find out more about the effects of child sexual abuse on the NSPCC’s website.

Children and young people can also develop harmful sexual behaviour. They will have usually experienced abuse and neglect themselves in some form . They can be helped and having such behaviour doesn’t mean they will grow into an adult sex abuser. Find out more about the behaviour and how children can be helped here


For support or if you're are concerned that a child has been sexually abused please contact the NSPCC 24 hour helpline.
Tel: 0808 800 5000

Front Door

If you have a concern that a child is vulnerable or at risk of significant harm please contact the Children's Front Door:
Phone: 01904 551900


If you think a child is in immediate danger contact the police on 999.