Abuse and Neglect: Recognizing the Signs of Abuse and Neglect

This information was taken directly from Child Welfare Information Gateway


Recognizing Signs of Abuse and Neglect

In addition to working to prevent a child from experiencing abuse or neglect, it is important to recognize high-risk situations and the signs and symptoms of maltreatment. If you do suspect a child is being harmed, reporting your suspicions may protect him or her and get help for the family. Any concerned person can report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Reporting your concerns is not making an accusation; rather, it is a request for an investigation and assessment to determine if help is needed.

Some people (typically certain types of professionals, such as teachers or physicians) are required by State law to make a report of child maltreatment under specific circumstances—these are called mandatory reporters. Some States require all adults to report suspicions of child abuse or neglect. Child Welfare Information Gateway’s publication Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect discusses the laws that designate groups of professionals as mandatory reporters: https://www.childwelfare.gov/systemwide/laws_policies/statutes/manda.cfm

For information about where and how to file a report, contact your local child protective services agency or police department.

Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (800.4.A.CHILD) and its website offer crisis intervention, information, resources, and referrals to support services and provide assistance in 170 languages: http://www.childhelp.org/pages/hotline-home

For information on what happens when suspected abuse or neglect is reported, read Information Gateway’s How the Child Welfare System Works: https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/factsheets/cpswork.pdf

Some children may directly disclose that they have experienced abuse or neglect. The factsheet How to Handle Child Abuse Disclosures, produced by the “Childhelp Speak Up Be Safe” child abuse prevention campaign, offers tips. The factsheet defines direct and indirect disclosure, as well as tips for supporting the child: http://www.speakupbesafe.org/parents/disclosures-for-parents.pdf

The following signs may signal the presence of child abuse or neglect.


The Child:

  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
  • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
  • Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Lacks adult supervision
  • Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
  • Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
  • Is reluctant to be around a particular person
  • Discloses maltreatment


The Parent:

  • Denies the existence of—or blames the child for—the child’s problems in school or at home
  • Asks teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
  • Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome
  • Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve
  • Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of the parent’s emotional needs
  • Shows little concern for the child


The Parent and Child:

  • Rarely touch or look at each other
  • Consider their relationship entirely negative
  • State that they do not like each other

The above list may not be all the signs of abuse or neglect. It is important to pay attention to other behaviors that may seem unusual or concerning. In addition to these signs and symptoms, Child Welfare Information Gateway provides information on the risk factors and perpetrators of child abuse and neglect fatalities: https://www.childwelfare.gov/can/risk_perpetrators.cfm


Signs of Physical Abuse

Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the child:

  • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes
  • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
  • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home
  • Shrinks at the approach of adults
  • Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Abuses animals or pets

Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver:

  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child’s injury, or provides an explanation that is not consistent with the injury
  • Describes the child as “evil” or in some other very negative way
  • Uses harsh physical discipline with the child
  • Has a history of abuse as a child
  • Has a history of abusing animals or pets


Signs of Neglect

Consider the possibility of neglect when the child:

  • Is frequently absent from school
  • Begs or steals food or money
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor
  • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • States that there is no one at home to provide care

Consider the possibility of neglect when the parent or other adult caregiver:

  • Appears to be indifferent to the child
  • Seems apathetic or depressed
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner
  • Is abusing alcohol or other drugs


Signs of Sexual Abuse

Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the child:

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting
  • Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to
  • participate in physical activities
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
  • Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14
  • Runs away
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Attaches very quickly to strangers or new adults in their environment

Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the parent or other adult caregiver:

  • Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex
  • Is secretive and isolated
  • Is jealous or controlling with family members


Signs on Emotional Maltreatment

Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the child:

  • Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression
  • Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example)
  • Is delayed in physical or emotional development
  • Has attempted suicide
  • Reports a lack of attachment to the parent

Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the parent or other adult caregiver:

  • Constantly blames, belittles, or berates the child
  • Is unconcerned about the child and refuses to consider offers of help for the child’s problems
  • Overtly rejects the child


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Acknowledgment

This updated factsheet is based on a previous publication that was adapted, with permission, from Recognizing Child Abuse: What Parents Should Know. Prevent Child Abuse America. ©2003.

Reference

Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). What is child abuse and neglect? Recognizing the signs and symptoms. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau.