Signs and Symptoms
of Child Abuse
Natalia J. Garland
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
INDICATORS OF NEGLECT
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
- 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
- Appears to be indifferent to the child.
- Seems apathetic or depressed.
- Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner.
- Is abusing alcohol or other drugs.
INDICATORS OF EMOTIONAL ABUSE
Consider the possibility of emotional abuse when the
- Shows extremes in behavior: such as overly compliant or
demanding, extremely passive or aggressive.
- Shows age-inappropriate adult behavior, such as parenting
- Sudden speech disorders.
- Continual self-depreciation ("I'm stupid, ugly,"
- Over-reacts to mistakes.
- Has extreme fear of any new situation.
- Responds inappropriately to pain ("I deserve
- Shows neurotic habits such as rocking, hair twisting,
- 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.
INDICATORS OF PHYSICAL ABUSE
Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the
- Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, black
eyes, or bald patches.
- Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence
- Offers improbable excuses for or refuses to explain
- 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
- Describes the child as "evil," or in some other very
- Uses harsh physical discipline with the child.
- Has a history of abuse as a child.
INDICATORS OF SEXUAL ABUSE
Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the
- Has difficulty walking or sitting.
- Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in
- Reports nightmares or bed wetting.
- Experiences a sudden change in appetite, loss of appetite or
- 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
- Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult
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
- Is secretive and isolated.
- Is jealous or controlling with family members.
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