Child Abuse & Neglect: How to Spot the Signs

    In a perfect world, there would be no such thing as child abuse. Children would be born into a home where they are valued and protected. They’d be encouraged to play, allowed to make mistakes, and live free from the fear of being hurt by an adult.


    Sadly, the reality for children is very different. Child abuse and neglect is a worldwide problem. It does not discriminate. It affects persons of all races, cultures, religions, and economic and social position.


    We often think of abuse as being isolated to poor communities where poverty, violence, and unemployment threaten family safety. But truth be told, abuse and neglect occur in educated and affluent families too. It’s just more likely to be reported if the family is poor. Abuse and neglect in educated and affluent families is more likely to be excused or kept secret.


    A 2015 study of Child Protective Services (CPS) agencies in the United States estimated 683,000 children were victims of some form of abuse or neglect.


    How You Can Help


    Child abuse often goes unreported. When confronted with signs of abuse, people often dismiss or excuse away their concern because the truth is unthinkable. This is especially true if the child or abusive parent is someone we know and love. We struggle to make sense of the behavior and it’s common to have doubts. Doubts and uncertainty often come up as away to protect ourselves from the discomfort of acknowledging the possibility.


    It can be easy to overlook the signs of neglect and abuse. However, doing so means a child will continue to suffer. Children may drop hints or sometimes they’ll find the courage to share their truth with a trusted adult. But if that adult fails to listen or seek help, the child can become hopeless and may not disclose to another adult.


    Knowing the signs of abuse and neglect will help you to feel confident when deciding to take actions. As members of communities, we’re all responsible for protecting our youth. The first line of protection, is picking up on cues and signs that something is wrong.


    Signs of Abuse


    The signs and indicators of abuse can be physical like an injury or behavioral like a child who shows symptoms of depression or fear. This list is not exhaustive. One or several signs may apply to a child who has been victimized or neglected. The more warning signs you’re able to identify, the greater likelihood an act of abuse has occurred.




    Definition: A parent or caregiver fails to provide the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter; or fails to provide a safe living environment, adequate health care, education, and supervision.

    • Poor hygiene, often appears dirty
    • Soiled, tattered, or insufficient clothing
    • Appears malnourished or is always hungry
    • Poor dental hygiene, poor health, often sick
    • Left unsupervised for long periods of time
    • Frequent absences from school
    • Physically under-developed
    • Scared of being alone, fear of abandonment
    • Seems depressed, anxious, withdrawn, overly compliant



    Physical Abuse


    Definition: Physical injury inflicted by other than accidental means upon a child by a parent or caretaker.


    • Has unexplained injuries (bruises, cuts, bites, burns)
    • Has many injuries in different stages of healing
    • Has injuries to ears, face, ribs, back, feet
    • Returns from long school absence with fading bruises
    • Seems frightened of parent or caretaker
    • Arrives at school early, leaves late
    • Problems in school (truancy, absences)
    • Is aggressive, bullies’ peers
    • Seems depressed, anxious, withdrawn, fearful


    Sexual Abuse


    Definition: The act of engaging a child or adolescent in sexual activities they do not comprehend or are unable to give consent. This includes oral sex, sodomy, genital fondling, masturbation, and exposure to sexually explicit material such as pornography.


    • Difficulty walking or sitting
    • Genital irritation, discharge, or pain
    • Bruising, bleeding, blood-stained clothes
    • Frequent urinary tract infections, STD
    • Evidence of penetration without explanation
    • Pregnancy
    • Sleep disturbance, digestive disturbance, nightmares, headaches
    • Bed-wetting, accidental defecation in underwear
    • Socially withdrawn, distrust of other
    • Attaches quickly to strangers
    • Argumentative, moody, secretive, depressed


    Emotional Abuse


    Definition: Any act of a parent or caretaker intended to inflict unjustifiable emotional distress or mental suffering upon a child. Examples include verbal abuse, threats, humiliation, confinement, isolation, acts that terrorize a child.


    • May present with symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder
    • May have attachment issues or socialization problems
    • Regressive or delayed development
    • Struggles with self-worth, trust
    • Academic difficulties and development problems
    • Exhibits phobias or fear of rejection
    • Aggressive, non-compliant, withdrawn, or avoidance behavior
    • Engages in delinquent behavior, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts


    If you would like more information on how to talk with kids about abuse or how to file a child abuse report, download my self-guide, If You Suspect Abuse: A Guide for Concerned Friends, Family, and Protective Parents.




    U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration

    on Children, Youth and Families, Children’s Bureau. (2017). Child Maltreatment 2015. Available from


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