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Signs of an Abused Child

Updated on July 24, 2013

Is She Being Abused?

If you’re concerned that a child in your care is being abused or neglected, there are several signs to watch out for. An abused child will often stick out from the rest, acting differently and even alienating themselves from their peers. They may be bullied by other children because of their sudden change in behavior. Reporting suspected child abuse can save a child’s life. Learn the signs.

Signs of an Abused or Neglected Child

1. Doesn’t Want to Go Home

An abused child will often come to school, camp, etc. early and stay as late as possible. Abused children will find any excuse to avoid going home. A drastic change in behavior when the parent arrives is another strong sign of child abuse. If little Allison or Timmy is smiling, laughing, and having fun in your care and suddenly becomes quiet, withdrawn or tearful when the parent shows up, they may be being abused.

2. Startles Easily/Shies from Touch

The abused child will often startle easily, jumping or pulling away at an unexpected touch. Some caregivers and teachers misinterpret this behavior as a sign of disrespect or “being dramatic”. Take this behavior seriously as it usually comes from a child who is used to being hit, verbally abused or both.

3. Seems Watchful and Vigilant

Abused children don’t have the same innocent, care-free approach to life as their peers. They are very watchful and vigilant; paying strict attention to their surroundings and the movements of others. They are doing what’s in their limited power to make sure they don’t come to any more harm.

4. Has Learning and Concentration Problems

Children who are being abused at home will often have difficulty concentrating at school due to stress, physical pain, unmet needs, and lack of sufficient sleep.

5. Has Unexplained Emotional Outbursts

Sudden behavioral changes are another strong indicator that a child is being mistreated at home. A usually-happy child may suddenly break down into tears or take a swing at someone over the slightest provocation. They may be unable to express their pain, fear, and confusion at home and let it out at school where they feel safer.

6. Shows Unusual Bruising/Cuts, Etc.

All children get cuts, bruises, and scrapes. That’s just part of childhood. However, the abused child will often try to cover them up, making excuses for their presence and not doing a very good job of it. If bruises are shaped like objects or if you notice burn marks, bite marks or nail marks, you may be in the presence of an abused child.

7. Often Lies and Makes Up Stories

The abused child is taught very early on to never tell about the abuse they’re going through. They are often threatened with more physical harm or being “taken away” by authorities if they speak up. Abused children are often evasive, making up stories rather than telling the truth about their home life.

8. Seems Very Passive and Withdrawn

Children who are abused at home often become passive, compliant, and withdrawn. They may speak in such a low voice they’re difficult to understand or they may seem almost unable to say “no” to anything for fear of consequences. Abused children often don’t raise their hands in class or volunteer for much. They prefer to blend into the background and go unnoticed.

9. Regression in Behavior

Another common sign of child abuse is a regression in behavior. Psychologically, the child longs to return to a time when he or she felt safe. Thumb-sucking, bed-wedding, and fear of the dark, monsters or strangers are all common regressive behaviors.

10. Frequent Absences from School

Children who are abused are often absent from school due to lack of sleep or physical signs of abuse that can’t easily be hidden. Also, the abused child may get colds and flu more often due to stress, which lowers the immune system.

11. Unkempt Physical Appearance

The neglected child will often come to school, camp or daycare with an unkempt physical appearance. The clothes might not be right for the weather, skin and fingernails may be obviously dirty, and there might be severe body or breath odor.

12. Physical Signs of Hunger or Dehydration

Neglected children might not get enough to eat or drink at home and may show obvious signs of malnourishment or dehydration.

13. Begging or Stealing

Begging for or stealing food or other necessities may be a sign that the child you know isn’t getting enough of what he or she needs at home.

14. Drug/Alcohol Abuse

Preteens and teens who are abused may take to early drug and alcohol use to cope with the physical and emotional pain. Oftentimes, the abused child will become involved with the wrong crowd or run with a gang to experience the sense of belonging they aren’t getting at home.

15. Carrying a Weapon

Carrying a weapon such as a knife or gun may be an indication of child abuse. Children who are abused feel unsafe even when they are away from home. They are always waiting for something or somebody to strike.

Have you ever experienced child abuse?

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If you suspect a child is being abused, contact the ChildHelp National Hotline. You can call anytime, 24 hours a day, and remain completely anonymous. You can also contact your local DCF to get in touch with a caseworker.

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    • denise.w.anderson profile image

      Denise W Anderson 

      4 years ago from Bismarck, North Dakota

      While working as a School Psychologist, I had the opportunity to observe children with the behaviors and issues described here. There were several times where, as a mandated reporter, I had to turn in a parent due to something that a child reported to me during the assessment process. One day, I saw a boy hide under a chair and cry when his parent entered the room. He also cowered with every word spoken from her. It was obvious that he was afraid of what would happen. In school he had behavior issues, along with problems wetting and soiling his clothing. It is tragic what happens in some homes.

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