When a child tells you they have been abused...

Published: April 10, 2020

Author: Tosha Orr; Survivor Advocate-Support Groups

Child abuse can occur in many forms. It can be physical, sexual, emotional abuse and neglect. It also includes living in a household where there is domestic abuse since the effects of seeing abuse perpetrated against the child’s primary caregiver are extremely damaging. Most child abuse is perpetrated by family members and family friends, not strangers.

Whether we realize it or not, most of us have known someone in our lifetime who has been affected by child abuse. Child abuse occurs in families and to children among every type of race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and education level. By its very nature, child abuse is kept quiet and hidden. Signs can often be missed, ignored or minimized. Perpetrators are very good at convincing people that they are kind, caring individuals. However, there are red flags we can all be aware of and take notice of in our interactions with children and families.

Signs and symptoms of trauma in children and adolescents:

• Separation anxiety or clinginess with the primary caregiver

• Regression in previously mastered stages of development (baby talk/bedwetting/toilet accidents)

• Re-creating the traumatic event (in play, drawings, etc.)

• Increased physical complaints (headaches, stomachaches)

• Sudden mood swings (rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal)

• Nightmares or sleep problems

• Changes in eating habits (refuses to eat, drastic loss or increase of appetite)

• Hyperarousal (being easily startled or on edge all the time)

• Increased risk-taking behavior in adolescents


• Exhibits adult-like sexual behavior

• Leaves “clues” around that will provoke a discussion of sexual issues

• Reluctant to remove clothing or suddenly shy or ashamed of their body

• Re-experiencing the event (disturbing memories during the day)

• Avoidance (suddenly avoiding certain people, situations or things)

• Emotional numbing (appearing to be “checked out” or not mentally present)

• Changes in academic performance

• Increased self-harm behaviors in adolescents (purging, cutting)

There are also red flags or signs within the interactions between perpetrators and children of which we can be aware of. 

Pay close attention if an adult:

• Does not respect boundaries or take “no” for an  answer

• Engages in uninvited or unwanted touching of the child

• Tries to be a child’s friend rather than filling an adult  role in the child’s life

• Talks with children about their personal problems or  relationships

• Spends a lot of time with your child or another child you know 

• Does not seem to have age-appropriate relationships

• Spends time alone with children outside of their role in  the child’s life or makes up excuses to be alone with the  child

• Expresses an unusual interest in a child’s sexual development, such as commenting on sexual characteristics or sexualizing normal behaviors

• Gives a child gifts without occasion or reason

If you suspect a child is being abused or if a child discloses abuse to you, it’s important to find a private place to talk. Sit next to the child or drop to eye level. Remain calm. If you show alarm than the child may retract to what was said, or stop sharing any further details with you. It’s important that you believe the child and express that to the child. Tell the child that the abuse was not their fault and that they are not in trouble. Let the child use their own words and ask open-ended questions like, “what happened next?” Avoid questions that begin with W (who, where or why) and do not ask leading questions. Repeat what the child says with a question inflection to make sure you are hearing the child correctly. Do not promise the child that the information will be kept confidential and do not make broad promises about the future. Then DO report it to the local Department of Child Services and/or local law enforcement.

You will need some information to make the report:

• Child’s name and age

• Address where the child can be located

• Contact information for the child’s parents/guardians

• Type of suspected abuse

• Reason for making the report including specific signs of maltreatment and whether it is part of an ongoing pattern

• Other children in the home

• Name of the alleged perpetrator

• Whether the child is in immediate danger or not

• Name, phone number and address of the person reporting

• When the child reported the abuse 

If the child doesn’t readily provide this information do not continue to question or investigate. Doing so may interfere with the investigation later. Provide what you can. State law requires that you have a reasonable suspicion that abuse is occurring. You do not need to have proof to make a report.

It takes a huge amount of courage and trust for a child to disclose abuse. It is vital that we believe and support these most vulnerable among us. Child abuse has devastating and long-lasting negative effects. Some of these long-term effects are:

Some of these long-term effects are:

• Depression and other mood disorders

• Anxiety

• Alcohol and drug abuse

• Risky sexual behaviors

• Violent behaviors

• Eating disorders

• Chronic physical illnesses

• Thoughts or attempts of suicide

Despite these and many other negative effects, there is hope and healing. Children are very resilient. If the abuse can be stopped early and the child receives the support and professional assistance that is needed, these effects can be greatly reduced or prevented.

For more information or assistance contact:

Families First


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