How to Recognize Signs and Symptoms of Child Abuse

Written by shewanda pugh
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How to Recognize Signs and Symptoms of Child Abuse
Early intervention is key when dealing with suspected child abuse. (Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images)

Child abuse comes in many forms, the most visible of which are cuts and bruises. Like physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and neglect leave scars. While the warning signs for some forms of abuse may be subtle, and others blatant, they all are nonetheless recognisable. If a child exhibits signs of abuse or neglect, it's important to act promptly.

Skill level:
Moderately Challenging


  1. 1

    Watch for signs of emotional abuse. A child who seems excessively withdrawn, fearful and anxious about doing something wrong might be experiencing emotional abuse. An emotionally abused child often will exhibit little attachment to her parents or caretakers, and either seems inappropriately adult-like or inappropriately child-like. For example, a very young child might serve as caretaker for children close to her age, and be able to effectively cook, clean, draw a bath and more. An older child who is a victim of abuse might rock, suck her thumb or otherwise exhibit behaviour common in children much younger than her. She may also display extremes in behaviour, such as being extremely aggressive, compliant, passive or demanding.

  2. 2

    Look for evidence of neglect. The first sign of a neglected child is that of consistently poor hygiene. Dirty clothes, uncombed, matted hair and noticeable body odour are all signs of a child who is being neglected. Additionally, neglected children dress inconsistently with the weather (e.g., not wearing a coat in the wintertime) and wear poorly fitting or just plain dirty clothes. A neglected child is often deprived of medical care and may suffer from untreated illnesses or physical injuries.

  3. 3

    Be alert for signs of physical abuse. Child victims of physical abuse have frequent cuts, welts, bruises or broken bones. Often, their injuries will display a particular pattern, such as a hand print, shoe print or belt buckle. In order to cover up evidence of these injuries, they will often dress inappropriately for the weather, for example, by wearing a turtleneck or jacket in warm weather. Child victims of physical abuse often seem to be alert or watchful, as if expecting something to happen, and may shy away or flinch from sudden movement. They may also seem afraid to go home.

  4. 4

    Be on the lookout for evidence of sexual abuse. Child victims of sexual abuse may exhibit trouble sitting or walking and often display inappropriate knowledge of sex or sexual acts. The child himself may even appear seductive. Additionally, victims of sexual abuse often display a strong desire to stay away from a specific person, usually without explanation. Often, these children are reluctant to change clothes in front of others and are unwilling to participate in physical activities. They may also run away from home. Pregnancy and/or the presence of sexually transmitted diseases, in a child under the age of 14, might also indicate sexual abuse.

Tips and warnings

  • Contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline if you suspect a child may be the victim of abuse. Reporting can be done confidentially.

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