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Signs And Symptoms Of Child Abuse You Mustn't Ignore

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Symptoms Of Child Abuse

Child Protective Services investigates or responds to 3.4 million cases of child abuse and neglect by parents and caregivers. While not all of them require further action, the reality is that abuse is more common than you think. As a responsible adult, look for signals like overly precocious or submissive behavior in a child, absences from school, or even the wearing of unseasonal clothing as marks of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse and neglect.

If you feel child abuse is something you’ll never witness in your lifetime, think again. A whopping 683,000 kids are estimated to be victims of child abuse in the United States, according to data from 2015.1 And that’s just the reported numbers. Countless others may be suffering silently while those around them may not even know what they are witnessing.

As a responsible adult, it is within your power to help a child out of this toxic environment and get them and their parents/caregivers the help or counseling they need. So how do you spot the warning signs of child abuse?

What Is Child Abuse?

Abuse is harm to a child, whether intentional or not, by a parent or caregiver or anyone looking after the child. This can take many forms, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and even neglect.2 Remember, children may suffer from more than one kind of abuse or maltreatment – known as polyvictimization. For instance, a child who is neglected may also face emotional abuse or physical abuse.

Signs Of Physical Abuse In Children

The Children’s Bureau explains that physical abuse refers to physical injury to a child by the parent or caregiver. Physical abuse can take the form of punches, biting, hitting, burning, kicking, choking, or harming a child in any form. It could result in something as small as a scratch or as major as a broken bone or burns. A light spanking as physical disciplining, if it does not cause bodily injury and is “reasonable,” doesn’t fall under the definition of abuse.3 Here are some warning signs of physical abuse in children:

  • Reports being injured by the parent/caregiver
  • Bites, bruises, burns, black eyes, or broken burns that the child cannot properly explain away
  • Absences from school followed by physical signs of injury
  • Fear of parents/going home
  • Fear of adults in general
  • Tends to physically abuse pets/animals
  • Does not dress right for the weather (possibly to cover up marks/injury)
  • Poor hygiene
  • Parent/caregiver is not able to properly explain injuries of the child
  • Parent/caregiver speaks negatively of the child
  • Parent/caregiver uses very harsh physical discipline on the child
  • Parent/caregiver has been abused as a child themselves
  • Parent/caregiver abuses pets/animals

Signs Of Child Sexual Abuse

If a child is sexually abused, the signs may not always be as obvious as you’d think. It is important to learn to recognize these symptoms4:

  • Reports being abused sexually
  • Trouble with walking/sitting
  • Nightmares/bedwetting
  • Fear of going to bed/sleep at night
  • Sexual knowledge beyond their age, including bizarre/unusual detail
  • Acting out of sexual behavior/being preoccupied with their own body
  • Depression
  • Withdrawal from life in general
  • Lack of confidence
  • No sense of self-worth
  • Pain/itchiness in the genital region
  • Bleeding/bruises in the genital region
  • Undergarments that are stained/torn/bloody
  • Constant recurrence of yeast infections/urinary infections
  • Venereal disease
  • Parents have poor sexual relationship
  • Child is left unsupervised often
  • Adults at home change constantly
  • Parent/caregiver is jealous of child’s equation with other people
  • Overly possessive parent/caregiver

Signs Of Emotional Or Psychological Child Abuse

It is easy to dismiss emotional abuse because it doesn’t pose any immediate physical danger to the life of the child. However, it can be just as dangerous. Left unchecked, it can leave the child with serious mental issues and health problems, and even drive them to suicide. Here are some red flags of emotional/psychological child abuse5:

  • Extremely passive/overly submissive; or extremely aggressive/very demanding
  • Overly childish behavior like head banging and rocking frequently; or adult-like behavior, say parenting other kids
  • Delayed emotional and/or physical development
  • No attachment to parent
  • Suicide attempts
  • Parent/caregiver rejects child openly
  • Parent/caregiver doesn’t seem concerned about the child
  • Parent/caregiver doesn’t accept help with a child’s problems
  • Parent/caregiver always berates, makes fun of, or blames the child

Neglect Can Be As Bad

There’s a reason “neglect” pops up as often as abuse when it comes to child safety. Neglect can be just as damaging to a child. The lack of attention, care, and love could put the child at physical risk or cause long term psychological or emotional issues. It is also the most common form of maltreatment of children. As many as three-quarters of children who are abused/experience maltreatment suffer from neglect.6

Here are some general signs of neglect, as well as some specific to the various kinds of neglect7:

  • Ill-fitting or dirty/torn clothing
  • Poor personal hygiene/body odor
  • Hungry child who stores/seeks out food
  • Signs of malnutrition like distended belly and visible bones
  • Less than normal height, very low body weight
  • Sleepy, listless, and tired
  • Untreated dental/medical problems
  • Hasn’t been immunized
  • Is responsible for younger siblings
  • Skips school and doesn’t complete school work/home work
  • Changes school often
  • Parent/caregiver is indifferent toward the child
  • Parent/caregiver is negative toward the child
  • Mental health issues like depression or apathy in parent/caregiver
  • Alcohol or drug abuse by parent/caregiver
  • Parent/caregiver is in denial of issues
  • Parent/caregiver puts blame for problems on the child
  • Parent/caregiver is dependent on the child

Physical Neglect

If the adult in charge of a child doesn’t look after their physical wellness by giving them the food, water, shelter, and clothing they need, it can harm a child. Signs of such neglect include8:

  • Being deserted by parent/caregiver
  • Being left unsupervised
  • Being left with a caregiver who is not appropriate – a relative stranger, an older child etc.
  • Not enough healthy food/drink provided
  • Clothes appropriate to the weather not given
  • Exposure to unsanitary or unsafe situation and environments
  • Personal hygiene of child is not taken care of
  • Parent/caregiver leaves child in the care/custody of someone else for several days/weeks
  • Parent/caregiver refuses to take custody of children in their care

Emotional Neglect

The absence of love and affection from the adults in their life can stunt a child’s development and adversely affect their well-being. Watch for these signs9:

  • Need for affection and emotional support is ignored
  • Exposure to frequent and extreme violence
  • Exposure to domestic violence
  • Access to drugs and alcohol and permission to use these
  • Exposure to and involvement in crime
  • Isolation from friends/children their age
  • Isolation from loved ones

Medical Neglect

Withholding treatment or not giving children access to medical care that is important for their well-being is medical neglect. However, when it is withheld for religious or cultural beliefs, not all states will prosecute. A court order, however, could help protect the life of the child. For all other instances, not treating illness or injury qualifies as neglect – preventive care included. Here are some indicators of medical neglect10:

  • No medical treatment for child when needed, including in the case of serious injury/illness
  • Absence of preventative dental/medical care
  • Not following medical recommendations given by doctor/dentist

Educational Neglect

When a child isn’t given the education they should get, it qualifies as neglect too. This is a responsibility a caregiver or parent shares with the school.11 This includes:

  • Not putting a child in school/giving them access to education
  • Permitting child to miss a lot of school
  • Not giving a child special education services if required

Spotting Signs In Younger Children

Younger children aren’t always as vocal and may not be able to express what they are going through. Sadly, it is these younger children – like infants and toddlers – who bear a major brunt of maltreatment. Data on victimization at various age bands reveal that kids aged a year or under have the highest rate of maltreatment. About 24 children in every 1000 are victimized.12 Spotting signs of abuse in toddlers or infants takes a watchful eye and knowledge of symptoms of abuse – which you are now equipped with. Should you see an instance of possible abuse, talk it through with the child or call a child abuse helpline in your area.

References   [ + ]

1, 6, 12. National Statistics on Child Abuse. National Children’s Alliance.
2. Child abuse and neglect. National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
3. What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms. Children’s Bureau.
4. Recognizing Child Abuse. Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance.
5. Recognizing Child Abuse: What Parents Should Know. Prevent Child Abuse America.
7, 8, 9, 10, 11. The Issue of Child Abuse. Childhelp.