Early warning signs of possible child sexual exploitation

Youth who are being targeted for sexual exploitation will often demonstrate sudden and/or extreme changes in attitude, behaviour, physical appearance and language.

Look for sudden and/or extreme changes in:


  • Withdraws physically and emotionally from home and family (won't talk; will act like others are not in the room)
  • Experiences extreme mood swings ("high/happy" followed by angry outbursts or depressed mood). Mood swings may also be drug related
  • Experiences change in appetite (appetite is greater or less than usual)
  • Refuses to talk about his/her activities (very secretive)
  • Lies -- especially about where they are, or where they have been
  • Is very protective of "boyfriend," "girlfriend," or new acquaintances
  • Uses confrontational, aggressive, and/or abusive language/behaviour
  • Has secrets with an adult or older child
  • Engages in sexual activities with toys or other children, such as simulating sex with dolls or asking other children to behave sexually
  • Looks for other places to live where there is more freedom (relatives, foster or group home). May make false claims about the home environment to allow this to happen

Physical appearance

  • Dresses more provocatively, or "wilder"
  • Has bruises on body (evidence of abuse)
  • Packs a change of clothes when going out


  • Adopts slang terms and mannerisms never used before (ruder or cruder streetwise talk)
  • Uses disconnected speech (one or two-word codes rather than sentences)
  • Uses labels when referring to friends or self (adopting a street name)

Clues around the house

Youth often leave physical clues which may indicate that they are being targeted for sexual exploitation. Some clues are:

  • Unexplained money, e.g. frequently going out to expensive restaurants
  • New and expensive clothing or trinkets with explanations that do not add up, e.g. "It's my friend's."
  • Drug-associated objects (finding cans with holes, burnt knives or twisted spoons, rolling papers)
  • New pager or cell phone
  • Long-distance phone bills for cell numbers
  • Phone calls from numbers which do not reveal on a call display unit
  • Matchbook covers with hidden cellular/pager numbers inside
  • Business cards and receipts for places which are unusual for a young youth to frequent (e.g. nightclubs)
  • Phone calls from strangers at odd hours of the day or night, "hang-ups" when anyone other than the youth answers
  • Many condom packages
  • Weapons

Source: Information Guide: Prevention of Sexual Exploitation of Children/Youth, Ndaawin, 2003