Recognising signs of abuse in Children

Childline, an organisation that offers services for abused children and their families reports that:

  • One in four children in South Africa will be abused at some time in their childhood.
  • Just as many boys as girls under 10 are abused.
  • 80% of offenders are known to the child.
  • 99% of perpetrators of sexual abuse are men.
  • Worldwide only 5% of offenders are convicted.

With these shocking statistics it is imperative that everyone working with children is able to identify that a child is in trouble. A caring adult needs to be in a position to take steps to protect the child. Sometimes children talk about the abuse, but if the child does not make the abuse known, the following signs may be seen as possible indicators of abuse. Please note, they do not confirm the abuse, but provide an indication that further exploration is needed.

Problems at school.

There is usually a decline in school performance, due to difficulty concentrating co operating with others or obeying authority.

Personality changes.

A normally confident, outgoing child may become withdrawn or a shy, introverted child may become aggressive. Many become irritable, fearful of new situations and believe they are unlovable.


The child may avoid company. They may become particularly reluctant to be in the company of the perpetrator.

Destructive or violent behaviour.

The child may break toys, rip up books or hurt other children.

Self destructive behaviour.

Some children and teenagers deliberately inflict pain on themselves by cutting, pulling out their hair or eyelashes or eyebrows. They may start stealing, running away from home or other places of care. Some refuse to eat others eat compulsively. Some abused children neglect their bodies and do not pay attention to appearance or personal hygiene. Drug or alcohol abuse is common amongst abused teenagers.


Children may start to show behaviour that is typical of younger stages of life such as thumb sucking, bed wetting, soiling, using baby talk and refusing to sleep alone.

Sleep difficulties.

The child may have trouble sleeping or have nightmares and may suddenly demand a night-light.

In addition to the above, the following signs may indicate that the abuse is sexual in nature:

  • A sudden lack of trust or efforts to avoid a person that the child knows well.
  • A sudden effort to avoid certain places.
  • Becoming upset when it is time to bath or remove clothes.
  • Exhibition of sexualised behaviour such as acting sexy and cute or inappropriate touching of other children.
  • Being overly affectionate or knowledgable in a sexual way.
  • Drawing explicit pictures.
  • The child may develop unexplained illnesses such as stomachache or headaches.
  • The chills may show an awkward posture or way of walking due to injury.
  • Serious rebellion towards the mom, whom the child blames for not protecting him or her.
  • Talking about the abuse.
  • Having a distorted body image, not liking one’s body.
  • Stains on the child’s underwear.
  • Irritation or itching around the private parts.
  • “Love bites” or bruising.
  • In the case of adolescent girls, pregnancy or signs of abortion.

Dealing with the sexually abused child.

Let the child know you are open to talk. Ask “is someone hurting you? Or are you afraid of someone? Have you got a problem at school?” the child may say “no” at first, so you may need to ask again at a later time. If the child tells you about the abuse, give the child all the time he or she needs to talk. The child may tell you a little at a time and watch your reaction. If the child feels you are too upset, they may stop talking. He or she may have been threatened by the perpetrator.

The child may be worried you will no longer love him or her or that you will blame him or her. Try to stay calm and not transmit your anger, shock or embarrassment. Set the child’s mind at rest. They are allowed to talk and you believe them. Reassure the child he or she is not to blame and will not be punished. Acknowledge that it is brave of the child to talk and that the matter will be kept private, but that there are some people who have to know to keep the child safe.

Allow the child to express feelings. Although you may be shocked or horrified, don’t impose your views on the child. They may still love the perpetrator, especially if it is a family member.

Make sure you are reliable and honest. Don’t make false promises such as “it will all be better now.”

Make a point of showing ongoing concern for the child, so they don’t feel you were so shocked or disgusted with them that you have withdrawn.

Keeping the child safe.

It is imperative that you ensure that the child is safe. It is compulsory for any person who is aware of abuse or anyone who suspects abuse to report the matter so that it can be investigated to ensure the safety of the child. This applies to physical, sexual or emotional abuse as well as neglect of the child. Childline can assist you in gauging whether your concerns are valid. The matter can be reported to Child Welfare , Christelike Maatskaplike Raad Kidz clinic or iThemba rape crisis centre in your area. Reporters may remain anonymous, but if they are willing to be identified, the investigation can be speeded up. The matter can also be reported to the police. If you know about the abuse, you are obliged to report it.. Abuse can only survive in a climate of secrecy.

Crimes against children confront us with the reality of the depravity of man. It is very distressing and stressful. Intervention requires specialised knowledge and every effort should be made to ensure that the child is safe and receives the appropriate treatment and care.


Petty A. 2005. Sexual trauma :only study guide for MGG 202 –X. Pretoria. Unisa.

Udall E. 2003. Rape. Robson Books. National Magazine Company LTD. London.

Compiled by DR. B.L. WADE


Olive Branch 37 Wordsworth Avenue Farrarmere Benoni
Tel: 072 122 4766 / 011 849-7473.
Dr Barbara Wade is an accredited member of Saaswipp (the South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice) and practices in the field of individual and family therapy, as well as specializing in all forms of trauma