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Recognizing the Signs of Child Abuse

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

The Casey Anthony story grabbed headlines around the world.  It tore at people’s emotions, and brought up the topic of child abuse once again. Though there are hundreds of thousands of cases of child abuse, most don’t make the headlines. The children simply suffer in silence.

Child abuse is much more than bruises and broken bones. No caring person would want to let a child suffer, yet many people are either scared to interfere, aren’t sure what to do, or they don’t recognize the signs of child abuse.

While physical abuse is shocking due to the scars it leaves, not all child abuse is as obvious. Ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, or making a child feel worthless or stupid are also child abuse. Regardless of the type of child abuse, the result is serious emotional harm.

There are several types of child abuse; physical, emotional, child neglect, and sexual abuse.

The earlier child abuse is recognized and stopped, the better chance of recovery with appropriate treatment. offers these warning signs of child abuse.

Warning signs of emotional abuse in children

▪       Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong.

▪       Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive).

▪       Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver.

▪       Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, tantruming).

Warning signs of physical abuse in children

▪       Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.

▪       Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen.

▪       Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.

▪       Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.

▪       Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days.

Warning signs of neglect in children

▪       Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather.

▪       Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor).

▪       Untreated illnesses and physical injuries.

▪       Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments.

▪       Is frequently late or missing from school.

Warning signs of sexual abuse in children

▪       Trouble walking or sitting.

▪       Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior.

▪       Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason.

▪       Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.

▪       An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14.

▪       Runs away from home.

There are certain situations in the home that can add to the neglect of children. The home life may appear perfectly fine, but when one or more of these situations exist – child neglect is more likely.

Domestic violence. Witnessing domestic violence is terrifying to children and emotionally abusive. Even if the mother does her best to protect her children and keeps them from being physically abused, the situation is still extremely damaging. If you or a loved one is in an abusive relationships, getting out is the best thing for protecting the children.

Alcohol and drug abuse. Living with an alcoholic or addict is very difficult for children and can easily lead to abuse and neglect. Parents who are drunk or high are unable to care for their children, make good parenting decisions, and control often-dangerous impulses. Substance abuse also commonly leads to physical abuse.

Untreated mental illness. Parents who suffering from depression, an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness have trouble taking care of themselves, much less their children. A mentally ill or traumatized parent may be distant and withdrawn from his or her children, or quick to anger without understanding why. Treatment for the caregiver means better care for the children.

▪       Lack of parenting skills. Some caregivers never learned the skills necessary for good parenting. Teen parents, for example, might have unrealistic expectations about how much care babies and small children need. Or parents who where themselves victims of child abuse may only know how to raise their children the way they were raised. In such cases, parenting classes, therapy, and caregiver support groups are great resources for learning better parenting skills.

▪  Stress and lack of support. Parenting can be a very time-intensive, difficult job, especially if you’re raising children without support from family, friends, or the community or you’re dealing with relationship problems or financial difficulties. Caring for a child with a disability, special needs, or difficult behaviors is also a challenge. It’s important to get the support you need, so you are emotionally and physically able to support your child.

What should you do if you suspect that a child is being abused?  You should report the incident or family. Critical time is lost when people do nothing.

Many people are reluctant to get involved in other families’ lives. Understanding some of the myths behind reporting may help put your mind at ease if you need to report child abuse

▪     I don’t want to interfere in someone else’s family. The effects of child abuse are lifelong, affecting future relationships, self-esteem, and sadly putting even more children at risk of abuse as the cycle continues. Help break the cycle of child abuse.

What if I break up someone’s home? The priority in child protective services is keeping children in the home. A child abuse report does not mean a child is automatically removed from the home – unless the child is clearly in danger. Support such as parenting classes, anger management or other resources may be offered first to parents if safe for the child.

▪    They will know it was me who called. Reporting is anonymous. In most states, you do not have to give your name when you report child abuse. The child abuser cannot find out who made the report of child abuse.

▪       It won’t make a difference what I have to say. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it is better to be safe than sorry. Even if you don’t see the whole picture, others may have noticed as well, and a pattern can help identify child abuse that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks.

To get help or report abuse in the US or Canada, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).

If the situation is an emergency – call 911 immediately.

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One Response to “Recognizing the Signs of Child Abuse”

  1. I am a adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse by my biological father and his friends. In 2007, he was sentenced to 674 years in prison for 12 counts of aggrevated sexual abuse of a child. He just won an appeal due to the statute of limitations. A lot of people tell me that I should have spoke up when I was a kid, but get real. Kids are not very likely to 1. know what’s going on is wrong 2. be able to talk to anyone about it. Everyone needs to be more aware of the signs of a predator and of a victim. I am trying to get more news station to run my story to help bring light to this horrible epidemic, but at this point, only one station in Waco has run it. The only way to help victims is to make everyone talk more about it and educate the public. We need to make people open their eyes!

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