How can you detect sexual abuse signs? While training in detecting sexual abuse has become more widespread, there are signs that often go unnoticed or are misidentified.

After reading my memoir, Under The Orange Blossoms, I have been asked numerous times, how did people around you not know that sexual abuse was taking place? I was part of a loving extended family, I had teachers that cared about me, and lived in a close-knit neighborhood–all great deterrents, but none were successful in preventing the abuse. 

Signs of sexual abuse are often categorized into physical signs, behavioral signs, and emotional signs. While physical signs of my sexual abuse were not apparent, I displayed some very clear behavioral and emotional signs.

The list of sexual abuse signs is a long list that varies based on age group. Signs of sexual abuse in a child, adolescent, adult, and elderly, can look very different. I want to share the ones with you that I displayed the most as a young child, as I can speak best to them.

“I lost my desire to learn because school was just a mental resting place out of harm’s way from my father. I had teachers who noticed my academic decline, but I don’t think the connection was made to the constant decline that happened over the years.”

9 Signs of Sexual Abuse I Displayed As A Child

1. Not wanting to be left alone with my dad 

I was very vocal about not wanting to be at home with my dad, but it felt like no one could hear me. Unfortunately, my aversion to being home alone with him was often seen as an exaggeration. When I was at home alone with my dad, I spent as much time as possible at the neighbors’ homes and riding my bike to keep from his reach. While it may be normal to want to spend more time with one parent than another, I showed signs of fear and anxiety when it was suggested to stay home alone with my father.

2. Decreased interest in school 

I used to love school. I always enjoyed the social aspect of school, but as a small child, I genuinely enjoyed learning as well. As the abuse from my father increased, I felt my interest in school start to decrease, so much so, that my grades began to fall. I was often referred to as ‘Spacey Cindy’ and while it brought lots of laughs to others, detaching from reality was a learned, protective mechanism for survival. 

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of childhood trauma greatly affects learning. There is a theory that PTSD destabilizes type 2 ryanodine receptors (RyR2 receptors) in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is essential to learning and when RyR2 receptors are destabilized, neurons can die. 

I lost my desire to learn because school was just a mental resting place out of harm’s way from my father. I had teachers who noticed my academic decline, but I don’t think the connection was made to the constant decline that happened over the years. My teachers tested me individually and made accommodations for me to catch up, but not once did they question my parents or me about any concerns at home. Maybe they just attributed my lack of interest in school work to my personality as a child who was more interested in socializing than focused learning. I hid behind my smiles and became a master at hiding the terror of the secrets in our home out of fear.

I think if someone had seen the larger picture of how the decline worsened over time, it would have raised some red flags.

3. Change in eating habits 

I had always been skinny, but I remember so clearly the control I held onto over my eating. Everything else in my life was pulling me apart, so I clung to holding onto the control I had over what I ate. It was the only control I had.

My mom fed us delicious, healthy food, but despite that, I began to eat less and less.  I noticed as a child that I was losing weight, and though that wasn’t my goal, it felt good to know that I was responsible for gaining or losing weight.  Controlling my eating was a tangible way to attempt to regain power.

4. Consistent stomach aches 

The quote, “The body always remembers” couldn’t be more true. I thought stomach aches were just part of daily life. I didn’t realize how much my body held onto. My stomach would tighten and would remain in a knot for sometimes days at a time. Even during the period when my body blocked out the trauma, I still experienced stomach aches that I couldn’t pinpoint. Despite the brain not remembering the abuse, the physical body stores the memory through cellular memory which can manifest itself in stress and physical sickness.   

5. Increased aggression 

I’ve always had a spark in my personality, but I wouldn’t define myself as an angry person, even on a bad day. The abuse turned on a rage inside of me that at points scared me. The abuse stirred up feelings of deep hate, feelings I had previously never felt. Not being able to talk about what was happening, the complication of my abuser being my father, and the fear he instilled in me made me despise even looking at him. It was this deep-seated hate that led me to physical and verbal outbursts that were not in my character. The hate for my father was so strong that I contemplated ways of killing him. The aggression compounded over time and while I wasn’t proud of the aggression, it was a protective factor that I believe shielded me from further abuse. 

While I showed my aggression at home, I knew to keep quiet at school. My fear of my father held me tight to never express my anger to others about him. If outsiders knew that I was angry, I risked betraying my mother and sister as harm could come to them. If I protected them, I was protecting myself. I was being loyal to myself by holding the secret even though that same loyalty was never reciprocated. 

6. Risky behavior 

As a teenager, I was fearless in nature because life at home felt far more dangerous than in the real world. I would take risks like swimming in the ocean at night, hitchhiking, and skiing off the path. I felt numb inside, and putting myself at risk made me feel awake and alive. Promiscuity in teenagers is common. This was not my path but it is a very common tell of sexual abuse history. 

7. Night terrors

I experienced night terrors often through childhood that intensified as the memory of the abuse returned. They were vague, to begin with, but became more vivid as time went on. I would wake up shouting and screaming and my sister who shared a room with me had to comfort me back to sleep. Although no one outside of my home knew of the terrors, they led to a serious lack of sleep which impacted my energy and focus during the day which was visible to others.

8. Low-self esteem

I struggled with low self-esteem, confidence, and trust early on. Despite the affirmation I received from my mother, the abuse from my father destroyed my ability to find confidence in myself and in others. The confusing messages of “love” caused me to feel unlovable in a way that I desired and needed.  Self-esteem and confidence were established after acceptance of who I was and finding self-love again later in life.

9. Distrust of adults

I did not trust any adult figures. All women and men were a suspect to me, as being someone who could hurt, lie or betray me. I did not engage much with adults because of this growing up. I clung to loyal friends and developed trust in others.

Conclusion

While there are many signs to signal sexual abuse, the nine signs mentioned above were signs that I experienced personally as a child. I believe that genuine relationships and a little awareness can go a long way in detecting and preventing sexual abuse.

If you have other signs that you would like to share, please feel free to do so in the comments below.

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