Advice for Parents

Spotting the signs

Any child can experience sexual abuse, of 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 it is important to know how to 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 guidelines are not meant to diagnose sexual abuse, but alert you to the possibility that it may be the source of the problem, and happening to a child you know.

Signs and symptoms of abuse or exploitation may 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 a threat to themselves or others.
  • Learning difficulties, lower educational attainment, difficulties in communicating.
  • Behavioural problems including anti-social and criminal behaviour.

Children and young people who are sexually abused experience a wide 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 over time. Children and young people may need signficant help and suppot to recover from sexual abuse.


Worried about your child?

Child sexual exploitation can be hard to detect and abusers are very clever in their manipulation. Some young people won’t even be aware that it is happening to them.

It’s not always easy to know what our children are up to or if anything is bothering them, but any combination of these tell-tale signs is a strong indicator that something is wrong and you should get help.

  • Bruising on their arms or body.
  • Regularly using drugs or drinking alcohol.
  • Mood swings, aggression towards others.
  • Truancy or a drop in performance at school.
  • Self-harm, e.g. cutting or eating disorders.
  • Change in appearance, or borrowing clothes from others.
  • Always tired.
  • Unexplained relationships with older people.
  • Staying out late, not returning home.
  • They have unexplained gifts, expensive clothes, mobile phones.
  • Unexplained money, frequently taking part in activities requiring money.


What can I do?

Teach your children about healthy relationships. Talk through strategies to help them protect themselves if they find themselves in difficult situations. Help them learn how to keep safe.

We know that abusers often threaten or scare children or make themselves indispensable to the child and those around them, such that telling is not an option for the child. It’s always best to help children keep safe in the first place, but parents and carers may need support to talk to children about it.


Parents Against Child Sexual Exploitation (PACE)

PACE works alongside parents and carers of children who are, or are at risk of being, sexually exploited by perpetrators outside of the family. They offer guidance and training on how child sexual exploitation affects the whole family.

  • FREE ‘Keep them Safe’ Online Learning Tool for Parents:
  • Working with the Police – The role of parents in investigating child sexual exploitation: View PDF
  • Know The Signs: Emma’s Story – A Victim’s Perspective of Child Sexual Exploitation



Parent Info

Parent Info provides high quality online information to parents and carers about their children’s wellbeing and resilience. This service is free and ranges across a wide range of subject matter, from difficult topics about sex, relationships and the internet or body image and peer pressure to broader parenting topics like sleep.



Talking PANTS teaches children important messages, like their body belongs to them and they should tell an adult if they’re upset or worried.

Get together and singalong with Pantosaurus to get the conversation started.



Staying safe online

Sometimes grooming and sexual exploitation takes place online. Make sure you know how to keep your children safe.

If you are worried about something that has happened online, help is available from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, known as CEOP (

If your child shares something online that they wish they hadn’t, they shouldn’t feel guilty. Help is available from ChildLine who can also help you and your child get the image removed. Visit their website at, or call 0800 1111.

Advice for Professionals