Warning Signs & Risk Factors
The earlier child abuse is caught, the better the chance of recovery and appropriate treatment for the child. Child abuse is not always obvious. By learning some of the common warning signs of child abuse and neglect, you can catch the problem as early as possible and get both the child and the abuser the help that they need.
Of course, just because you see a warning sign doesn’t automatically mean a child is being abused. It’s important to dig deeper, looking for a pattern of abusive behavior and warning signs, if you notice something off.
Warning signs of emotional abuse in children
Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong
Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive)
Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver
Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums)
Warning signs of physical abuse in children
Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts
Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen
Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt
Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home
Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days
Warning signs of neglect in children
Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather
Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor)
Untreated illnesses and physical injuries
Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments
Is frequently late or missing from school
Warning signs of sexual abuse in children
Trouble walking or sitting
Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior
Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason
Doesn’t want to 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
Child abuse and reactive attachment disorder
Severe abuse early in life can lead to reactive attachment disorder. Children with this disorder are so disrupted that they have extreme difficulty establishing normal relationships and attaining normal developmental milestones. They need special treatment and support.
Risk Factors for Child Abuse and Neglect
While child abuse and neglect occurs in all types of families—even in those that look happy from the outside—children are at a much greater risk in certain situations.
Domestic violence. Witnessing domestic violence is terrifying to children and emotionally abusive. Even if the mother does her best to protect her 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.
Alcohol and drug abuse. Living with an alcoholic or addict is very difficult for children and can easily lead to abuse and neglect. Parents who are drunk or high are unable to care for their children, make good parenting decisions, and control often-dangerous impulses. Substance abuse also commonly leads to physical abuse.
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.
Lack of parenting skills. Some caregivers never learned the skills necessary for good parenting. 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.
Stress and lack of support. Parenting can be a very time-intensive, difficult job, especially if you’re raising children without support from family, friends, or the community or 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. It’s important to get the support you need, so you are emotionally and physically able to support your child.