How to Spot Signs of an Abused Child

Updated November 21, 2016

It is important to know when a child is being abused. Knowing can mean the difference between a child's life or death. Child abuse is more common than you might think. It occurs in all social classes and all ethnicities. It can be emotional, neglectful or physical abuse; it might even be a combination of all three. Physical and sexual abuse are the easiest to identify. They often leave physical evidence behind. Emotional abuse and neglect are subtle and hard to spot. When you have an instinct or evidence that a child is being abused, it is your duty to report it. You might be the child's only hope.

Look for bruises, welts, burns or cuts when searching for signs of physical abuse. Oftentimes they cannot be explained. Some injuries might have recognisable patterns from a belt or hand.

Search for abnormal behaviour. The child might act fearful, shy away from contact, and appear to be scared to go home. The clothing he is wearing might not be appropriate for the weather, such as a sweatshirt in the summer.

When looking for signs of emotional abuse, watch to see if the child is excessively shy, scared, or fearful of doing something wrong. Look for age-inappropriate behaviour, such as an older child acting as if she is a younger child. Low self-esteem can be another symptom of emotional abuse, as can uncontrolled aggression.

Seeing soiled diapers, unclean hair, dirty clothes, and body odour can be a sign of neglect. Weight loss and dull skin and/or hair can be a sign of an insufficient diet. Disruptive and troublesome behaviours or withdrawn and passive behaviours might be exhibited.

Warning signs are prominent when spotting signs of sexual abuse: sexual knowledge, through the child's language and behaviour; copying adult sexual behaviour; displaying sexual acts such as inappropriate touching, mouth kissing, and attempting to stick their tongue in someone else's mouth. The child might even act in a seductive manner. Physical signs include: trouble sitting or standing; having stained, bloody or even torn undergarments; and soreness, swelling, redness, and irritation around the child's genitals.

Evaluate the parents or caregiver. They might display signs of anger-management or control issues. They might give untrue explanations of the injuries, and the explanations may be different than the ones the child gives. Belittling the child, shaming him or being extremely critical of the child could be signs of abuse. Unusual protectiveness of the child and limited contact with other children and adults could be signs as well. Lastly, the parents might have problems with drugs and alcohol.

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