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Signs and Symptoms
of Child Abuse

Natalia J. Garland

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Every adult should be aware of the signs and symptoms of child abuse. Whether you are a parent, teacher, or next-door neighbor, your knowledge and intervention might rescue a child from further abuse and help to apprehend a perpetrator. It is estimated that between 30 to 45 percent of children will be sexually abused before age 18. Most perpetrators are family members or relatives. The checklists below were compiled directly from two sources (see the Bibliography Notes), and are offered to empower adults to protect kids.


Consider the possibility of neglect when the child:

  • Is frequently absent from school.
  • Begs for or steals food or money.
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or eyeglasses.
  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor.
  • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather.
  • Is constantly tired.
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs.
  • Engages in compulsive scavenging.
  • States that there is no one at home to provide care.
  • Has no peer relationships.

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.


Consider the possibility of emotional abuse when the child:

  • Shows extremes in behavior: such as overly compliant or demanding, extremely passive or aggressive.
  • Shows age-inappropriate adult behavior, such as parenting other children.
  • Sudden speech disorders.
  • Continual self-depreciation ("I'm stupid, ugly," etc.).
  • Over-reacts to mistakes.
  • Has extreme fear of any new situation.
  • Responds inappropriately to pain ("I deserve this").
  • Shows neurotic habits such as rocking, hair twisting, self-mutilation.
  • Shows delays in physical or emotional development.
  • Has attempted suicide.
  • Reports a lack of attachment to the parent.

Consider the possibility of emotional abuse 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.


Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the child:

  • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, black eyes, or bald patches.
  • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school.
  • Offers improbable excuses for or refuses to explain injuries.
  • Becomes aggressive toward others.
  • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home.
  • Shrinks at the approach of adults.
  • Fears physical contact.
  • Fears medical help or examination.
  • Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver.
  • Admits being punished, but the punishment is excessive.

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

  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child's 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.


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 bed wetting.
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite, loss of appetite or compulsive eating.
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior.
  • Is overly affectionate in a sexual way.
  • Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14.
  • Shows extreme reactions such as self-mutilation, suicide attempts, running away, anorexia.
  • Regresses to younger behavior patterns such as thumb sucking or bringing out discarded cuddly toys.
  • Becomes isolated or withdrawn.
  • Suddenly begins drawing sexually explicit pictures.
  • Tries to be 'ultra-good' or perfect; over-reacts to criticism.
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver.

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.

Generally, the behavioral symptoms of abuse point to sudden changes in or extremes of behavior. Remember, one indicator alone does not necessarily mean a child is being abused. Usually, the indicators happen repeatedly, in patterns, or in combination. If you suspect that a child is being abused, you should contact the appropriate protective agencies in your area and the police department. (Written 08/15/07: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2007 Natalia J. Garland