Recognizing child abuse

Helping a child: Recognizing the signs of child abuse and neglect

There are a variety of ways the trauma of abuse is experienced. We recognize the trauma another person is experiencing by the physical indicators we can see and the behavioral indicators we can observe. The earlier child abuse is identified, the earlier help can be given to help children and families minimize the long-term effects. Early detection can also help avoid additional incidents of child abuse and decrease further trauma.

Without aware adults, some children might never receive help. Be an advocate for children by knowing the signs of abuse and reporting child abuse. Remember, you are reporting suspicion of child abuse. Even if you aren't sure, it's better to let authorities check it out. You might save a child's life!

When you have concerns for a child's well-being, the indicators listed below may help guide you in your thought process. Many of these "symptoms" or "signs" could be caused by things other than abuse or neglect. Generally, these indicators do indicate that a child's safety may be at risk and, at the very least, the situation should be assessed by a professional who is able to determine the causes of these symptoms and offer the help and assistance necessary to reduce the risk to a child.

Signs of physical abuse.

    Physical indicators:
  • Unexplained bruises and welts in various stages of healing on the face, throat, upper arms, buttocks, thighs, or lower back of an infant in unusual patterns or shapes which suggest the use of an instrument (belt buckle, electric cord). These may be seen after absences, weekends, or vacations.
  • Unexplained burns or cigarette burns especially found on palms, soles of feet, abdomen, or buttocks; immersion burns (from hot liquid) producing "stocking" or "glove" marks on hands and feet or "doughnut-shaped" burns on buttocks, in which the center of the buttock is not burned but the surrounding area is. 
  • Rope burns.
  • Infected burns indicating delay in treatment.
  • Injuries that are inconsistent with a child’s age and developmental level.

    Behavioral indicators:
  • Behavioral extremes (withdrawal, aggression, regression, depression).
  • Inappropriate or excessive fear of parent or caretaker.
  • Antisocial behavior such as substance abuse, truancy, running away, fear of going home.
  • Unbelievable or inconsistent explanation for injuries.
  • Lies unusually still while surveying surroundings (for infants).
  • Unusual shyness or wariness of physical contact.

Signs of sexual abuse

    Physical indicators:
  • Torn, stained or bloody underclothes.
  • Frequent, unexplained sore throats, yeast or urinary infections.
  • Somatic complaints, including pain and irritation of the genitals.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Bruises or bleeding from external genitalia, vagina, or anal region.
  • Pregnancy.
  • Difficulty in urinating.

    Behavioral indicators:
  • The victim's disclosure of sexual abuse.
  • Regressive behaviors (thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, fear of the dark).
  • Promiscuity or seductive behaviors.
  • Disturbed sleep patterns (recurrent nightmares).
  • Unusual and age-inappropriate interest in sexual matters.
  • Avoidance of undressing or wearing extra layers of clothes.
  • Sudden decline in school performance, truancy.
  • Difficulty in walking or sitting.

Signs of emotional abuse

    Physical indicators:
  • Eating disorders, including obesity or anorexia.
  • Speech disorders (stuttering, stammering).
  • Developmental delays in the acquisition of speech or motor skills.
  • Weight or height level substantially below norm.
  • Flat or bald spots on head (infants).
  • Nervous disorders (rashes, hives, facial tics, stomachaches).

    Behavioral indicators:
  • Habit disorders (biting, rocking, head-banging).
  • Cruel behavior, seeming to get pleasure from hurting children, adults, or animals, seeming to get pleasure from being mistreated.
  • Age-inappropriate behaviors (bed-wetting, wetting, soiling).
  • Behavioral extremes, such as overly compliant-demanding; withdrawn-aggressive; listless-excitable.

Signs of neglect

    Physical indicators:
  • Poor hygiene, including lice, scabies, severe or untreated diaper rash, bedsores, body odor.
  • Squinting.
  • Unsuitable clothing; missing key articles of clothing (underwear, socks, shoes); overdressed or underdressed for climate conditions.
  • Untreated injury or illness.
  • Lack of immunizations.
  • Indicators of prolonged exposure to elements (excessive sunburn, insect bites, colds).
  • Height and weight significantly below age level.
    Behavioral indicators:
  • Unusual school attendance.
  • Chronic absenteeism.
  • Chronic hunger, tiredness, or lethargy.
  • Begging for or collecting leftovers.
  • Assuming adult responsibilities.
  • Reporting no caretaker at home.

This information provided courtesy of Lorain County, Ohio Children Services. We provide this information as a service, and no listing of abuse or neglect indicators can include all signs. Please use your best judgment.