Child Abuse: Recognizing the Signs

Every year, an estimated 700,000 children are abused in the United States; and every day, five children die because of child abuse. While these statistics are heartbreaking, you may be even more surprised to learn that when children report abuse to an adult in their life, only 58% of those adults take action. As adults, it’s our responsibility to help protect one of our most vulnerable populations. Read on to learn some ways to recognize possible signs of child abuse.

What Are Symptoms of Physical Abuse?

If a child is a victim of physical abuse, you may see bruising on their skin. If you notice a bruise or welt of any kind or in the pattern of an object (such as a hand or belt), this is a sign of physical abuse and must be reported. You can also assess the location of the child’s injury. For example, if they said they fell off a bike, are the marks left behind consistent with that injury? Physical abuse can involve a wide range of things starting with spanking gone bad and ending with serious physical injuries like broken bones, burns, or even death.

What are reasons physical abuse might not be reported?

One of the reasons people don’t report physical abuse is because spanking is still considered by many to be an acceptable form of discipline. Where is the line that lets you know what is discipline and what is too much? This can be hard for even Child Protective Services to define and does in fact vary from location to location.

There are, however, some general rules of thumb that can be helpful in determining that line. First, are there bruises? Spankings should never leave bruises. Second, are the injuries in areas that might easily lead to more serious injury? For example, a spanking on the stomach is more likely to cause internal injuries than a spanking of the same intensity on the buttocks. Third, was the parent/caretaker in control of their anger during the spanking? When an adult is out of control, the spankings are more likely to be out of control causing more injury as well as emotional distress for the child.

What Are Symptoms Of Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is best described as continuing emotional mistreatment of a child. If you see a child being cursed at or demeaned, that is emotional abuse. Shaming and intimidation are also ways of emotionally abusing a child. Typically  when we talk about emotional abuse, we look for a pattern of putting down the child, scaring them, or generally making them feel bad about themselves or insecure.

Obviously, emotional abuse can be difficult to diagnose.

There are no tell tale bruises or other physical evidence. Many times the signs involve behavior changes in the child, but even this can be difficult to define because it changes so much from one child to the next. For example, one child being emotionally abused might withdraw, socially isolate, and have difficulty in school. Another child experiencing the exact same circumstances might act out, get into fights, and have anger issues. And another might throw themselves into school and being the perfect student or athlete. So, the best way to know if a child is being emotionally abused is to develop a trusting relationship with the child and hear their story.

What Are Symptoms of Neglect?

If you notice an underweight child, or a child who eats out of trash cans or begs, hoards or steals food, this could be a sign of neglect. Bad hygiene is another sign of neglect: the child will have dirty clothes, or will not be given baths. Medical neglect is also possible. If you know that a child has a medical condition, but they’re not being taken for medical care, this is neglect and must be reported.

What should you know about neglect?

There are all kinds of of neglect and all kinds of reasons why kids get neglected. Just like emotional abuse, it can be hard to know if a child is being neglected just from looking in from the outside. But taking an interest in a child and developing a safe, caring relationship with them can help you to get the level of information needed to know whether or not to make a report to Child Protective Services.

What Are Signs of Sexual Abuse?

When in casual contact with children, you will likely not notice physical indicators of sexual abuse. You can look to emotional indicators, however, such as signs of stress in the child or in their family. If you see a child imitating sexual acts, this is a possible sign of sexual abuse that should be explored. Especially if a child has been reprimanded for sexual acting out behaviors and continues to engage in these behaviors, a report should be made so a professional can assess the situation.

Are there physical indicators of sexual abuse?

Other physical indicators include physical signs of trauma to the genital or anal area, bleeding, bruising, infection, STD’s and pregnancy. However, these physical indicators are actually pretty rare. In fact, most sexual abuse does not involve this level of physical trauma. Some sexual abuse, such as showing a child pornographic images, does not involve touch at all. It is important to remember that a child can be sexually abused in lots of ways–many of which do not involve penetration.

What To Do If You Suspect Abuse?

If you suspect a child of being a victim of abuse or neglect, make it your business. Call the Child Protective Services (CPS) in your state, or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, which can be reached 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). If you believe a child is in immediate danger, call 911.

If you or your child have been the victim of abuse and need support and guidance, a licensed mental health professional can help. Call our office today, and let’s schedule a time to talk.

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