How to Recognize Signs of Child Abuse

The following was written by guest blogger Amy Williams, providing a perspective for parents, neighbors, educators, babysitters, volunteers and any other adults who are around children and teens.

While no one wants to discover a child is being harmed, it is important that we know how to identify the warning signs a child is a victim of abuse. Often, children are reluctant to seek help or alert an adult they are being abused, because it is painful to talk about, they fear retaliation, or they want to protect their abuser. This secrecy can make it difficult to identify child abuse, especially when we consider the symptoms of child abuse can range anywhere between physical and psychological signs or a combination of both.

Child Abuse Warning Signs

Early intervention or getting help is a crucial step in helping a child, listed below is a compilation of possible symptoms of child maltreatment:

  • Physical injuries with a pattern, often with straight lines or circles
  • Injuries or bruising to areas that are often protected, these include: the insides of arms or thighs, the back, the groin area, and their bottoms
  • Explanation for the injury changes or is inconsistent
  • Old injuries, faded bruises, or evidence of previous “accidents”
  • A lack of medical attention for injuries
  • Delayed or regression of development skills
  • Unusual interactions with a parent or adult- a child is afraid of upsetting a parent or the adult is not involved with the child
  • Low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or thoughts of self harm
  • Frequent absences from school
  • A sudden drop in grades at school
  • Avoids going home
  • Frequent complaints of headaches, stomach aches, or other ailments with no medical cause
  • Acting out with inappropriate behaviors like violence, sexual activity, fears, tantrums, fighting, drug experimentation, or even running away

Abuse Without Bruises: Signs of Emotional Abuse

Not all abuse involves bruising or broken bones. Many children experience emotional abuse which involves intentionally saying things to inflict internal pain or turmoil. A good example of this form of abuse is an adult telling a child they are worthless and adding other phrases to make them feel unwanted. Children who are emotionally abused may exhibit the following symptoms:

  • Emotionally detached from what is happening around them
  • Doesn’t react in the expected way to pain, peers, adults, or life changes
  • Takes measures to avoid a specific parent or caregiver
  • Displays more fear, anger, or sadness than normal
  • Performs poorly in school or other activities that they once enjoyed
  • Demonstrates self-harming behaviors

Recognizing Signs of Sexual Molestation Abuse

Sexual abuse can be difficult to discover, especially if it isn’t recent. This form of abuse covers any forced activity that is sexual in nature the child doesn’t consent to or comprehend. This includes sexual acts, fondling children, and even the showing of inappropriate pornography materials.

To make matters worse, today’s victims have also been cyberbullied and harmed with revenge porn. Revenge porn typically involves taking intimate photos and then sharing them online without permission of the victim. Unfortunately, sexual abuse has far lasting consequences that can haunt a child for a lifetime.

A child with symptoms of recent sexual abuse might exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Avoid going to the bathroom
  • Acts uncomfortable or in pain while sitting or using the restroom
  • Has a discharge from genitalia
  • Has bloody underwear or pants
  • Displays a surprising amount of knowledge about sex, this is alarming in young children or preteens
  • Exhibiting many of the above listed signs of child abuse

Signs a Child Might be Neglected

Neglect, a form of child endangerment and abuse, is often harder to detect. Kids get dirty, stay up late on occasion, and don’t always remember to shower, and kids are incredibly adept at covering for their parents. However, child neglect might be a real possibility if we are seeing a repeated pattern of the following signs:

  • Weight loss
  • Weight gain
  • Dirty clothes
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Poor personal hygiene
  • Inadequate clothing for the weather
  • Unprepared for activities or school

Looking Forward

Talking about child abuse isn’t fun and can be very sobering. However, it’s important to note that the specific warning signs and symptoms can vary from what is listed above. If children exhibit one or two signs, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are victims of abuse. However, if we witness several of these red flags and feel there is cause for concern, we should always take a closer look at the situation.

It’s obvious we need to identify, treat, and prevent child abuse. In our day to day lives, we interact with our neighbors, son’s friends, students in that religious class we teach, or scouts in our daughter’s troop. As parents, neighbors, educators, babysitters, and volunteers this is even more true, because we have consistent contact with children. Our involvement provides us with an opportunity to be a child’s advocate and take the appropriate measures to get help if we suspect a child is being abused.

Amy Williams is a free-lance journalist based in Southern California and mother of two. As a parent, she enjoys spreading the word on positive parenting techniques in the digital age and raising awareness on issues like cyberbullying and online safety. @AmyKWilliams1

Editor’s Note:  If you suspect abuse of a child, please call a child abuse hotline:
Orange County Protective Services  (714)940-1000 or (800)207-4464
National Hotline: 1-800-4-A-CHILD
You can file a report anonymously.

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