No parent ever wants to have to wonder if someone is hurting their child. Unfortunately, statistics show that this kind of abuse is prevalent enough that every parent needs to know the warning signs and what to do if they suspect someone is abusing their child. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 6 boys and 1 in 4 girls in this country will be sexually abused before the age of 18, but even numbers as heartbreaking as those may not tell the whole story because sexual abuse of minors is frequently underreported. Because adolescents may be afraid or ashamed to speak up, parents, family members, and other adults in their lives have to be able to speak up for them.
In order to be their voice, you need to know what sexual abuse looks like in teenagers. Unfortunately, it is difficult to paint a clear picture because this kind of abuse can result in a range of symptoms and not all abuse survivors experience the same ones. There are a set of symptoms however that are commonly seen and that can provide clues that sexual abuse is or has occurred. These symptoms are often grouped into physical symptoms and behavioral symptoms.
Physical symptoms are not usually present and, with this kind of abuse, may not be noticeable by others. These symptoms can be diagnosed by medical professional in some cases but a lack of physical symptoms does not mean there is no abuse or has not been any abuse. Physical symptoms include:
- Genital and anal findings including torn/missing hymen, abrasions, injury, scarring, and the presence of bodily fluids like semen
- Pregnancy in a child or young teen
- Sexually transmitted disease in a child or young teen
These symptoms include a wide range of behaviors and psychosocial indicators which are grouped into two categories, sexual indicators and non-sexual indicators. Sexual indicators are more predictive, meaning that adolescents that display these indicators have a higher probability of being victims of abuse. It is important to note however that the reliability of these indicators changes at different ages. For example, a sexual indicator that shows up in young child might carry more weight than it would in a teen. Sexual indicators include:
- Adolescents with inappropriate levels of sexual knowledge for their age that is often displayed in unintentional statements, meaning, they are not trying to be shocking or to show that they have this knowledge.
- Sexually explicit drawings
- Acting in a sexual manner towards others in ways that are not age appropriate like sexual aggression towards younger children, inviting sexual interaction with older people, and sexual activity with animals or toys.
- Sexual indicators specific to teens include promiscuity, being sexually victimized by peers, and prostitution.
- Telling someone they have been sexually abused as research shows that most often, adolescents are telling the truth when they make this claim.
Non-sexual indicators are also important because they can indicate sexual abuse but they can also alert parents to other problems. For this reason, it is important to watch for these indicators but to understand that they may signify some kind of trauma and that the trauma may be sexual abuse rather than taken as acceptance that sexual abuse has occurred. Non-sexual indicators specific to teens include:
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Self-destructive behavior including cutting, self mutilation, suicidal gestures and attempts, and running away
- Criminal behavior
- Depression, anxiety, and social problems
- Difficulties in school
- Sudden changes in behavior
- Sexual Abuse in Teenagers: What Parents Need to Know (doorwaysarizona.com)
- Teen Body Image: What’s Normal and What’s Not (doorwaysarizona.com)
- What is PTSD? (doorwaysarizona.com)