Spot the signs

In 2019 alone, an estimated half a million children in England and Wales experienced some form of sexual abuse.

Most children who are being sexually abused don’t tell anyone about it at the time. So it’s important to look out for signs. You might notice changes in their behaviour, mood and appearance, or be concerned about the behaviour of someone around them.

If something doesn’t feel right, and you’re worried about a child, you can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000. The helpline is confidential. You don’t have to tell them who you are, where you live or share your contact details.

What to look out for

There aren’t always signs that a child is being sexually abused, but below you can learn about some of the most common things to look out for. They don’t always mean that a child is being sexually abused – but it’s best to reach out for support if you have concerns.

Any form of sexual or sexualised activity with a child is abuse. This can involve physical contact or non-contact activities, such as exposing a child to pornography.

Children with special educational needs and disabilities are at increased risk of being abused.

Has their behaviour changed?

Are they using the bathroom more frequently, or mentioning pain or discomfort when using the bathroom? Do they have unexpected incontinence or blood in their underwear?

Are they having nightmares or wetting the bed? Are they overly tired, restless or on their phone late at night?

Have they become secretive about what they are doing on the internet or when out and about?

Have you noticed they are frightened of, or try to avoid being alone with, a person or people they know?

Have they changed their eating habits? Do they seem to have developed eating issues? Are they refusing to eat or overeating?

Are they hurting themselves physically?

Has their mood changed?

Are they exhibiting behaviour that you would expect of a younger child, such as sucking their thumb?

Are they unusually concerned or become upset if they do not respond to a message or phone call, or visit someone at a specific time?

Are they becoming aggressive, angry or expressing other violent behaviours?

Are they talking badly about themselves, saying things like “I'm stupid” or “I'm an idiot” when they make small errors?

Have they suddenly lost interest in schoolwork, leisure activities or friends?

Are the people around them safe?

Is someone around the child spending unusual amounts of time alone with the child? Are they singling the child out, either to favour or to bully them? Are they insisting on hugging or kissing the child when the child does not want to?

Online or offline, have they started hanging around with new ‘friends’, who may be older than them?

Do you have a strange or bad feeling about the people around them?

Have you seen new phones, expensive clothes or accessories - and you don’t know how they got them?

Have they started to use alcohol or other drugs, or started smoking?

Have they gone missing from home or school? Perhaps for a short time, perhaps overnight?

Do they look like they are safe and well taken care of?

Have you seen physical injuries, like bruises or cuts?

Are their clothes dirty, or do they have a strong body odour?

Has the child become pregnant or contracted a sexually transmitted infection?

Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, anywhere

Child sexual abuse happens in many different places and situations. The abuser could be a family member, another child, or someone in a position of power – someone you may not expect it to be. Below are just a few examples of some of the ways child sexual abuse can happen.

At home

Around two thirds of child sexual abuse reported to the police is perpetrated by a family member or family friend, often a father, step-father, sibling or other male relative.

John is 7 years old

Chris, John’s uncle, has moved to the area, and is spending a lot more time at John and his mum’s house.

Whenever Chris comes to John’s house, John always finds an excuse to leave the room, making sure he is never alone with Chris. Chris seeks opportunities to spend time alone with John, taking a special interest in him over his siblings.

John’s mum has noticed that he isn’t eating as much as he used to, and has begun to wet the bed at least once a week.

At school

Children find it harder to recognise sexually harmful behaviour when it comes from another child or young person – close to 90% of girls and 50% of boys say being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they do not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.

Abdi is 12 years old

He found the transition from primary to secondary school difficult, and his teachers have noticed that his behaviour has clearly deteriorated this year.

He has a new group of friends, who are constantly in contact, in person and online. He is disruptive in lessons and uses sexually explicit language towards his classmates.

Abdi’s family has said it is more difficult than ever to get him to school.


Children and teenagers can be targeted online and groomed into sending sexual pictures of themselves. In 2020, charities discovered 68,000 such images online – a 77% increase on 2019.

Kamilla is 13 years old

She has just started Year 9, and has always had lots of friends, at school and outside of it.

At home, Kamilla’s dad has noticed that she is spending a lot more time on her phone and iPad.

She shouts at her older siblings when they ask her who she is talking to, and her dad has heard Kamilla crying in her bedroom at night.

Out and about

Abusers can attempt to groom children into believing they are in a legitimate relationship before coercing them into having sex. This grooming can extend to coercing them into criminal activity or having sex with others.

Yvonne is 15 years old

Three weeks ago, she and her three best friends took a trip to the city centre. While they were there, Yvonne went off by herself to ‘meet a boyfriend’.

When she got back, she wouldn’t tell her friends where she had been and had clearly been crying. Since then, her friends have noticed she has become withdrawn and there are scratches on her arms.

When her mum asked about this, Yvonne blamed the neighbours’ pet cat, and went to her room. At school, Yvonne has started going missing at lunchtimes with no explanation.

What you can do next