Recognition of Abuse That May Be Occurring to Children

Identifying Sexually Abused Children Based on Age-Related Symptoms

Please note that the following are symptoms but can’t be used in the absence of other evidence to verify that sexual abuse is occurring. These symptoms should alert a caregiver to investigate the cause of the symptoms.

Children up to the age of 3 may exhibit:

  • Unexplained fears
  • Sadness or excessive crying
  • Feeding problems
  • Bowel problems
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Lack of interest in play
  • Hyperactivity

Children ages 2 to 9 may exhibit:

  • Eating disturbances
  • Unexplained withdrawal from family or friends
  • Excessive fondling his/or her genitals
  • Feelings of shame or guilt
  • Acting out sexually against others
  • Regression to earlier behaviors (bedwetting, fear of being alone, stranger anxiety)
  • Fear of certain people, places, or activities
  • Fear of being revictimized

Symptoms of sexual abuse in older children and teens include:

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Nightmares or sleep problems
  • Promiscuity (could include early pregnancy)
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse and other addictions
  • Fantasizing or attempting suicide
  • Anger over loss of control
  • Trying to grow up too fast
  • Running away from home
  • Mental and/or emotional withdrawal

Every child-caregiver should become familiar with common signs that signal the presence of child abuse or neglect. Unfortunately, most child abuse occurs in the home, therefore, caregivers outside the home share the responsibility for watching out for the children who have been entrusted to them at church, school, in the neighborhood, and even among friends.

Don’t be afraid to speak out if you suspect a child is suffering abuse. If no abuse is occurring, it will be evident upon investigation. If abuse is occurring and you don’t intervene it may be too late by the time someone else is willing to take care of the suffering child.

Remember, children have an incredible ability to “compartmentalize” areas of their life, so the same child who is laughing and playing with your children may be experiencing abuse as well. If the following signs are present, don’t wait. Report possible child abuse before it is too late.

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 parent’s 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

Signs that abuse may be occurring:

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 adult 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 adult 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
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the parent or other adult 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 Maltreatment

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 adult 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
  • Chronically compares the child negatively to a sibling or other child
  • Transfers adult responsibilities to the child
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Linda Settles-Zeboskey