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By Tristan 

Recognizing the signs of child abuse


The following signs may signal the presence of child abuse or neglect.

The child:

  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance;
  • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents' attention;
  • Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes;
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen;
  • Lacks adult supervision;
  • Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn;
  • Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home.

The parent:

  • Shows little concern for the child;
  • Denies the existence of — or blames the child for — the child's problems in school or at home;
  • Asks teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves;
  • Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome;
  • Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve;
  • Looks primarily to the child for care, attention and satisfaction of emotional needs.

The parent and child:

  • Rarely touch or look at each other;
  • Consider their relationship entirely negative;
  • State that they do not like each other.

Types of Abuse

The following are some signs often associated with particular types of child abuse and neglect: physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse and emotional abuse. It is important to note, however, that these types of abuse are more typically found in combination than alone. A physically abused child, for example, is often emotionally abused as well, and a sexually abused child also may be neglected.

Signs of Physical Abuse

Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the child:

  • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones or black eyes;
  • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school;
  • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home;
  • Shrinks at the approach of adults;
  • Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver.

Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the parent or other caregiver:

  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing or no explanation for the child's injury;
  • Describes the child as "evil," or in some other very negative way;
  • Uses harsh physical discipline with the child ;
  • Has a history of abuse as a child.

Signs of Neglect

Consider the possibility of neglect when the child:

  • Is frequently absent from school;
  • Begs or steals food or money;
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses;
  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor;
  • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather;
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs;
  • States that there is no one at home to provide care.

Consider the possibility of neglect when the parent or other caregiver:

  • Appears to be indifferent to the child;
  • Seems apathetic or depressed;
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner;
  • Is abusing alcohol or other drugs.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the child:

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting;
  • Suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities;
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting;
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite;
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior;
  • Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14;
  • Runs away.

Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the parent or other caregiver:

  • Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child's contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex;
  • Is secretive and isolated;
  • Is jealous or controlling with family members.

Signs of emotional abuse

Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the child:

  • Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression;
  • Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example) ;
  • Is delayed in physical or emotional development;
  • Has attempted suicide;
  • Reports a lack of attachment to the parent.

Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the parent or other 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.

Source: Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.


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