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How to Recognize the Signs of Child Abuse

There are many kinds of child abuse, and many children are being abused right now. Any intentional harm of someone under the age of 18 qualifies as child abuse.


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Meredith Kirby

4 months ago | 4 min read
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In both the child and the abuser

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and we can all do our part to help prevent child abuse.

One caring adult taking the time to pay attention can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

Identifying child abuse is not always easy. Not all child abuse is violent, sexual or obvious. Psychological abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect can cause just as much harm as more overt abuse.

There are many kinds of child abuse, and many children are being abused right now. Any intentional harm of someone under the age of 18 qualifies as child abuse.

Abuse in childhood can cause severe damage to a person which lasts a lifetime. Adult survivors of child abuse can have physical injuries, brain damage, mental health issues, substance abuse issues, problems with relationships, trouble with the law– and may even be at risk to become abusers themselves.

Here are some warning signs to look for in both children and adults to help identify and stop child abuse:

Signs in children

It’s important for adults to recognize when a child is being abused because abused children are often afraid to say anything.

The child may fear that they will be punished, or will not be believed if they speak out. They may think that their abuser is too important or powerful to be stopped.

Abuse does not discriminate. It can happen to children of any race, religion, gender, or socioeconomic class.

Abuse might be happening if the child:

  • Stops spending time with friends or enjoying usual activities
  • Suddenly changes moods or behavior; anger, depression, lack of confidence
  • Self-harms or attempts suicide
  • Has problems with eating or sleeping
  • Frequently runs away from home
  • Is frequently absent from school or does not want to leave school
  • Goes to great lengths to avoid certain people
  • Avoids certain situations, like taking a bus or visiting family
  • Has unexplained injuries, or injuries which don’t match the explanation
  • Doesn’t have good hygiene or clean clothes to wear
  • Steals food or money, or hides food for later
  • Is overweight, underweight, or undergrown for their age
  • Does not have access to prescribed medications or glasses
  • Has sexual knowledge inappropriate for their age
  • Exhibits inappropriate sexual behavior towards other children
  • Pregnancy, STDs, or STIs.
  • Harms animals or destroys property
  • Has developmental delays or regressions, problems with speech
  • Says they were abused

Signs and risk factors in adults (abusers)

While recognizing the signs of abuse in children can be difficult, it can be even more difficult to recognize that an adult may be an abuser or at risk of becoming an abuser.

Here are some red flags:

  • Ignores social cues about boundaries (in general)
  • Does not let children set physical boundaries
  • Teases or belittles children who try to set boundaries
  • Encourages silence and secrets in children
  • Watches child pornography
  • Asks adult partners to dress or act like a child or teen during sex
  • Minimizes hurtful or harmful behaviors when confronted
  • Has close relationships with minors/teens/child “friends”
  • Hugs, tickles, kisses or wrestles with children against their will
  • Insists on spending uninterrupted time alone with a child
  • Turns to a child for comfort by sharing personal information normally shared with adults
  • Gives children drugs, alcohol, or pornography
  • Makes sexually explicit jokes around children
  • Often comments on the body, sexuality, or sexual development of a child
  • Is isolated from friends and family
  • Is unemployed or under financial pressure
  • Abuses drugs or alcohol, or has a history of bad behavior while under the influence
  • Has a history of violence in adult relationships
  • Says they abused someone

Signs in (abusive) parents

No one wants to imagine a parent harming their own child, but parents and family members are much more likely to harm children than strangers.

Take notice if the parent:

  • Uses corporal punishment (spanking, etc.)
  • Uses “the silent treatment” as punishment
  • Frequently yells at or threatens the child
  • Limits the child’s contact with others
  • Shows little concern for the child’s needs or emotions
  • Blames the child for their problems
  • Belittles the child, calls them names, or mocks the way that they try to communicate
  • Expects the child to provide them with physical care or emotional support

What to do if you think abuse is occurring

If you’ve recognized the signs of abuse in a child or the signs of an abuser in an adult, you should definitely do something about it.

Observers are often afraid to get involved because they feel they might not know the whole story. Even if you just suspect a child is at risk, you can still take steps to make sure that the child is safe.

  • Document everything that happens, including times and dates
  • Make a police report — you can call a non-emergency line or dial 911
  • Call a child abuse hotline, like these:

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline:

1–800–4-A-CHILD (1–800–422–4453)

Prevent Child Abuse America:

1–800-CHILDREN (1–800–244–5373)

You can also call these hotlines if you think that you might harm a child.

They can provide referrals to counselors, support groups, and other resources that can help you. Help is widely available. You do not have to harm anyone. Abuse is a cycle, and you have the power to break it.

We can all work together to prevent child abuse by forming strong, supportive communities. Together, we can create a culture where abuse is not normalized or accepted.

Abuse is allowed to continue because it happens in the shadows. We can help to put a stop to it by shining light into these dark corners.

Abused children often suffer in silence. We all have the power to be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves.

Be that voice: speak up!

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