One of the most practical things that you can do to prevent child sexual abuse is be aware of behavioral signs of at-risk people: Someone who may be on the path to sexually abuse a child, or someone who already has but has not been caught by law enforcement. These signs can also signal other distress that is unrelated to sexual abuse, but may indicate a person needs help. Chances are high that if you see these behaviors, it is someone you know and trust, and they can be present in children almost as often as adults. There is no profile for someone who is at-risk to abuse a child, just behaviors.
If you know a child is being sexually abused or that someone is abusing a child, then ignore this section and visit Reporting Allegations To Law Enforcement. Be aware that it is law enforcement’s job to know the law, how it applies, and how to investigate allegations and suspicions properly, and not yours. No amount of information given on this site gives you the expertise to play detective into criminal behavior.
Knowing these behavioral signs is just a first step. It is well worth noting that these behaviors are things that, individually, we may see in people every single day, but dismiss as irrelevant, or excuse because it is someone we care about. Because of this, when you sense a possible concern about someone, it may be helpful to keep a notebook handy and write down when you spot individual behavior aside their name and the date you observed the behavior. The point is not to be a detective, but to assure yourself that you are not just seeing things or paranoid by keeping an objective record of some kind, something you can refer to later.
The Purpose Is Getting Help To Those Who Need It, Not Labeling People
This list of behaviors is comprehensive, and any one item on the list can often mean nothing, while several items on the list may be cause for a conversation about what you are seeing. The purpose is not to label, accuse, or defame the person. Again, it is highly likely that the person is someone you know and care about.
You want to help them, and that is the purpose of this list: Help identify those who may need help, and be a support to them as you direct them to that help. “Get help,” is not a phrase used to hurt or belittle people, it is you, as a concerned person, showing that concern by talking people through their options and walking with them to show that you care. If you are not able to show that compassion, then tell someone about your concerns so that they can show compassion and help the person in question.
This may seem self-explanatory, but sometimes people are just unable to respect someone else’s wishes. They may violate social boundaries, like doing things that are socially unacceptable. They may violate emotional boundaries, like saying things to hurt other people and not seeming to care that they are causing emotional pain. They may violate physical boundaries, like touching, slapping, or poking when someone is telling them not to.
Like the first behavior, but for children. The person may hug, tickle, kiss, roughhouse, hold, or touch a child when the child says they do not want this. Disrespecting a child’s wishes can be a way of testing the child’s boundaries to desensitize the child to other boundary-crossing behaviors or sexual behaviors. It can also be a simple lack of social skills – by itself this can also indicate a developmental disability such as autism.
Similar to ignoring a child’s wishes, but this can be done in a way that seems innocent (Joe, you will hurt my feelings if you don’t give me a hug and kiss) or in ways that are teasing, belittling, or bullying a child when the child tries to assert their boundaries.
Children are not capable of handling adult concerns, and an adult who tries to sooth their frustrations or concerns by sharing them with a child may be having difficulty with something that is going on in their life. Normally, these concerns are issues that would ordinarily be shared with adults like personal, financial, confidential, or other kinds of activities and concerns that seem odd to share with a child.
This may be as seemingly innocent as requiring hugs from children to “get through a rough spot”, or snuggling with a child. It could also be something more upsetting, like having the child give massages, demanding kisses, or other odd behavior.
Sometimes, the person may say or do things that do not fit the situation (and not for comedy’s sake). They may say something that is insulting to others and not realize it, or something that ignores the social cues in a situation. A common thought might be, “They’re just not getting it.” Again, this can be a sign of a developmental disability as well.
This can take many forms, like telling a dirty joke when children are around, saying something that would be considered flirting if it were an adult being spoken to, or sharing a personal sexual issue with a child. This can also be pointing out sexual images to children.
This can also take many forms. Some examples might be sharing a game, sexual material, drugs, or alcohol with a child and asking them not to tell anyone about it. This can also be someone who texts, calls, emails, chats, or spends an excessive amount of one-on-one time with a child. Red flag words might be “Hush, that’s our secret,” or “That’s our private time, no one needs to know about that.”
Note that secrets and surprises are not the same thing: Children should know the difference, that a surprise is a temporary withholding of information for parties or gifts, where a secret is meant to be kept permanently.
If someone tries to excuse or justify something that needs no justification, thoughts you might have are, “You don’t have to justify yourself to me, I get it.” This can also be them justifying behavior that is criticized, and with their justifications you might think, “Yeah, you did it, you know you did it, just apologize already.” Someone who justifies their behavior constantly, or defends choices that are clearly harmful to other people, or outright denies that something was harmful at all would fall under this category.
Seeking time private with a child may be a natural, healthy thing within a family, but if someone inside or outside the family insists on being fully alone with a particular child, this can be cause for concern. Unusual amounts of time alone, unusual interest in a particular child, or that the time alone is uninterrupted or uninterruptible are also causes for concern. Another aspect of this is spending lots of time with children rather than adults.
Many people do inappropriate things under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and while they are responsible for their behavior regardless, drug or alcohol use can be a sign that someone is unable to cope with the stresses of daily life. This is a warning behavior that may need an intervention at the direction of a medical professional trained in chemical dependency.
This goes beyond simple concern that one might have for a child’s well-being, like inquiring about who a child likes or directing them to resources if they are struggling with particular issues. Concerning behaviors might be someone who interrupts a child’s dates with the child’s peer, interfering when the child dates others, or talking about the child’s body and how attractive they look. Behavior would look like jealousy from an adult interested in another adult, but this is different when it is directed towards a child.
This could be obvious, such as walking in on children or others when they are using the bathroom, but may be less obvious like peeking when no one appears to be watching or insisting on helping a child bathe or clothe themselves.
The person might turn a blind eye to a child’s behaviors when those behaviors are clearly problematic, or they might even encourage these behaviors. Allowing a child to violate other children’s boundaries, encouraging a child to be sexual with other children, or allowing a child to view pornography are also examples of ignoring inappropriate behaviors.
Some behaviors might be giving gifts to children, babysitting for free, giving children money, going on special alone trips with children, and overall appearing to be “too good to be true”. While some people are that genuinely good, in combination with other behaviors, you may want to have a conversation.
Often, the biggest tool we have to preventing sexual abuse is our gut instinct. It is also worth paying extra attention to that instinct if our gut reaction is triggered in addition to these behaviors. The best course of action to take when we see multiple behaviors can depend on each situation, but generally, it may be helpful to have a series of conversations with the person who is displaying these behaviors so that you can better understand them and show your concern for the person involved. To learn how to have these conversations, visit How To Have A Conversation.