Recognizing Abuse


The earlier, the better is the prevailing thought relating to the chance of recovery and appropriate treatment for the child. Child abuse is not always obvious. By educating yourself to some of the common warning signs of child abuse and neglect, you can identify the problem early and get both the child and the abuser the help that they need.

Remember, just because you see a warning sign doesn’t automatically mean a child is being abused. It’s important to dig deeper, looking for patterns of abusive behavior and warning signs.

Warning signs of emotional abuse in children

  • Extremely withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong.
  • Exhibits extremes in behavior (very compliant or very demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive).
  • Not visibly appearing to be attached to the parent or caregiver.
  • Acts either overly adult (taking care of other children) or overly infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums).

Warning signs of physical abuse in children

  • Numerous injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.
  • Watchful and “on alert,” as if expecting something bad to happen.
  • Injuries show signs of a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.
  • Not comfortable with touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
  • Commonly wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days.

Warning signs of neglect in children

  • Clothes do not fit, are unclean, or inappropriate for the weather.
  • Bad hygiene (unwashed and matted hair, noticeable body odor).
  • Frequent and untreated illnesses and physical injuries.
  • Often left unsupervised or alone. Is allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments.
  • Commonly late or missing from school.

Warning signs of sexual abuse in children

  • Redness, rashes, swelling of the genital area, urinary tract infections, difficulty walking or sitting.
  • Nightmares and bed wetting in children who have previously outgrown.
  • Has knowledge or interest in sexual acts unusual and improper to his or her age, or even seductive behavior.
  • Deliberately avoids a specific person, without an obvious reason.
  • Use of drugs and alcohol at a premature age.
  • Will not change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
  • An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14.
  • Runs away from home
  • Emotional behavior signs may include withdrawal, depression, anger and rebellion.

      Risk factors for child abuse and neglect

Child abuse and neglect occurs in all types of families—even in those that appear happy. These children are at a much greater risk in certain situations.

  • Domestic violence. Children can be emotionally abused and terrified when witnessing domestic violence. Even if the parent does their best to protect their children and keeps them from being physically abused, the situation is still extremely damaging. If you or a loved one is in an abusive relationship, getting out is the best thing for protecting the children.

  • Stress and lack of support. Parenting is a very time-intensive and difficult job, especially if you’re raising children without support from family, friends, or the community. You can compound the situation if you’re dealing with relationship problems or financial difficulties. Caring for a child with a disability, special needs, or difficult behaviors is also a challenge. Get the support you need so you are emotionally and physically able to support your child.

  • Untreated mental illness. Parents who suffering from depression, an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness have trouble taking care of themselves, much less their children. A mentally ill or traumatized parent may be distant and withdrawn from his or her children, or quick to anger without understanding why. Treatment for the caregiver means better care for the children.

  • Alcohol and drug abuse. Anyone living with an alcoholic or addict is very difficult, especially for children. This can easily lead to abuse and neglect. Drunk and drugged parents are unable to care for their children, unable to make good parenting decisions, and control often-dangerous impulses. This type of abuse also commonly leads to physical abuse.

  • Lack of parenting skills. Some caregivers were never taught good parenting skills. Teen parents, for example, might have unrealistic expectations about how much care babies and small children need. Or parents who were themselves victims of child abuse may only know how to raise their children the way they were raised. In such cases, parenting classes, therapy, and caregiver support groups are great resources for learning better parenting skills.

Recognizing abusive behavior in yourself.  If you need professional help...

Those who feel angry and frustrated do have an option. In the U.S., call 1-800-4-A-CHILD to find support and resources in your community that can help you break the cycle of abuse.  Are you in some of these descriptions, painful as it may be? Feeling angry and frustrated and don’t know where to turn? We know raising children is one of life’s greatest challenges and can trigger anger and frustration in the most even tempered. If you grew up in a household where screaming and shouting or violence was the norm, you may not know any other way to raise your kids.

Acknowledging that you have a problem is the biggest step to getting help. Many abusers were raised in an abusive situation, and breaking that cycle can be extremely difficult. Most people see their world as normal. It may have been normal in your family to be slapped or pushed for little to no reason, or that mother was too drunk to cook dinner. It may have been normal for your parents to call you stupid, clumsy, or worthless. Or it may have been normal to watch your mother get beaten up by your father.

As adults we have the responsibility to take a hard look at what is normal and what is abusive. Read the above sections on the types of abuse and warning signs. Do any of those ring a bell for you now? Or from when you were a child? The following is a list of warning signs that you may be crossing the line into abuse:

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line?

  • Other people have expressed concern. It may be easy to bristle at other people expressing concern. However, consider carefully what they have to say. Are the words coming from someone you normally respect and trust? Denial is not an uncommon reaction.

  • You can’t stop the anger. A swat on the backside may turn into multiple hits getting harder and harder. Shaking your child harder and harder until finally you throw him or her down. Are you screaming louder and louder and can’t stop yourself.

  • You feel emotionally disconnected from your child. Are you so overwhelmed that you don’t want anything to do with your child. Every day you ask to be left alone and for your child to be quiet.

  • Meeting the daily needs of your child seems impossible. Balancing dressing, feeding, and getting kids to school or other activities seems impossible. If you continually can’t manage to do it, it’s a sign that something might be wrong.


     Breaking the cycle of child abuse 

Many of those who have been abused in their upbringing find having their own children triggers strong memories and feelings that they may have repressed. This may happen when a child is born, or at later ages when you remember specific abuse to you. You may be shocked and overwhelmed by your anger,
and feel like you can’t control it. But you can learn new ways to manage your emotions and break your old patterns.

Never forget that YOU are the most important person in your child’s world. It’s worth the effort to make a change, and you don’t have to go it alone. Help and support are available.

Tips for changing your reactions

  • Learn what is age appropriate and what is not. Newborns are not going to sleep through the night without a peep, and toddlers are not going to be able to sit quietly for extended periods of time. Realistic expectations of what children can handle at certain ages helps you avoid frustration and anger at normal child behavior.

  • Develop new parenting skills. Parenting classes, books, and seminars are a way to get good information. You can also turn to other parents for tips and advice. Learning to control your emotions is critical and you need a game plan of what you are going to do instead. Start by learning appropriate discipline techniques and how to set clear boundaries for your children.

  • Take care of yourself. Not getting enough rest and support or you’re feeling overwhelmed can make you much more likely to succumb to anger. Sleep deprivation, common in parents of young children, adds to moodiness and irritability—exactly what you are trying to avoid.

  • Get professional help. If you can’t seem to stop yourself no matter how hard you try, it’s time to get help, be it therapy, parenting classes, or other interventions. Your children will thank you for it. Breaking the cycle of abuse can be very difficult if the patterns are strongly entrenched. Learn how you can get your emotions under control. The first step to getting your emotions under control is realizing that they are there. If you were abused as a child, you may have an especially difficult time getting in touch with your range of emotions. You may have had to deny or repress them as a child, and now they spill out without your control.

Helping an abused or neglected child

Do you suspect that a child has been abused? Have you approach him or her? Has a child come to you? Feeling a little overwhelmed and confused in this situation is not uncommon. Child abuse is not an easy subject to accept and even harder to talk about.

You can make a tremendous difference in the life of an abused child. Take the steps to stop the abuse early. When talking with an abused child, the best thing you can provide is calm reassurance and unconditional support. Let your actions speak for you if you’re having trouble finding the words. Remember that talking about the abuse may be very difficult for the child. It’s your job to reassure the child and provide whatever help you can.

     Tips for talking to an abused child

  • Safety comes first. Is your safety or the safety of the child being threatened if you try to intervene? You may need to leave it to the professionals. Providing more support later after the initial professional intervention may be the answer.

  • Remain calm and avoid denial. A common reaction to news as unpleasant and shocking as child abuse is denial. However, if you display denial to a child, or show shock or disgust at what they are saying, the child may be afraid to continue and will shut down. As hard as it may be, remain as calm and reassuring as you can.

  • Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong. Coming forward about abuse for a child is a huge step. Reassure him or her that you take what is said seriously, and that it is not the child’s fault.

  • Don’t interrogate. Allow the child to explain to you in his or her own words what happened, but don’t interrogate the child or ask leading questions. This may confuse and fluster the child and make it harder for them to continue their story.

  • Make a report.