Know the Signs of Child Abuse to Keep Children Safe

Published: November 13, 2019

The signs of child abuse won’t always be 100% clear. The important thing is to be sure the child is 100% safe. Find out what to look for, and what you should do.

Let’s say you’re a neighbor, or a friend, who’s been concerned about the well-being of a child you know. In the past, you often saw him playing around his neighborhood with the other kids. But lately, he seems unusually quiet and withdrawn. Whenever you ask him why he’s not out playing, he says he’s not feeling well. He often complains that his stomach hurts. You feel like something must be wrong—that you might even be seeing signs of child abuse. How do you know if you’re right or wrong? What should you do?

All the behaviors described above are signs that child abuse may be occurring. But unless you witness abuse occurring or see obvious signs, it’s hard to feel certain. Is it abuse?

Here’s the question you should be asking: Am I 100% certain this child is safe? If the answer is no, you need to report what you’re seeing.

Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, as well as neglect, are all serious threats to the health, safety, and well-being of a child. And no child who is dealing with one or more of these forms of abuse is going to get through it without help 

Signs of Child Abuse

The signs of child abuse are seldom obvious. Think instead about clusters of signs or patterns of behavior. Some of the clearest signs that a child may be abused are:

• Low self-esteem

• Isolation

• Avoiding recess, after-school activities, and sports

• Marks, bruises (especially handprints or grabs on the arm), or other injuries that aren’t otherwise explained

• A return to wetting the bed (often a sign of sexual abuse)

• Explanations of injuries or behavior that don’t add up, or that occur too frequently

• Acting as if coached by abuser

Signs of Child Neglect

Child neglect is a form of child abuse where parents or caregivers fail to provide a child’s basic needs: food, clothing, shelter, and adequate health care, wellness, and safety. Common signs that a child may be neglected are:

• Parents/caregivers abusing substances, such as drugs or alcohol

• Parents/caregivers leaving child inappropriately unattended

• Child frequently appearing unbathed

• Child looking or acting malnourished

How to Get Help for a Child

If you’re not 100% sure the child is safe, contact Child Protective Services (CPS) to report suspected abuse or neglect. In Indiana, call the Indiana Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline at 800-800-5556. It’s anonymous and staffed 24-7-365. (Or look up child protective services for your area.)

If it feels difficult to make that call—for whatever reason—try removing whatever negatives you may imagine from the scenario. The primary concern of CPS is the same as yours: the safety of the child. They’ll investigate, find out what’s going on, and get the child and the family the help they need.

Other Ways to Help

It can be challenging to get kids (or anyone, for that matter) to open up about abuse they’ve experienced. But talking about these experiences, or expressing feelings about them in other ways, is one of the best ways to start healing.

Most young children feel more comfortable playing a game or doing art than talking to a grown up. These are excellent ways to help them explore their feelings. You might start a game of pretend with dolls or stuffed animals, or take turns drawing pictures that show what different feelings look like: happy and sad, excited and scared.

Reading a book together is also a very effective way to explore these feelings. One picture book we use at Families First to help start conversations about abuse (or about other traumatic experiences) is A Terrible Thing Happened by Margaret M. Holmes.

It’s the story of Sherman, who at the beginning of the book sees “the most terrible thing.” Sherman tries to forget about the terrible thing he saw. He tries to do the normal things he’s always done, but the terrible thing keeps bothering him. He gets help from a counselor who plays games with him and draws pictures and finally helps him talk about difficult things and let his feelings out. Books like this can be a great way to get kids thinking and talking about their own feelings when they’re scared or traumatized.

With help, children and their families can heal from abuse and learn to deal with their feelings and experiences in healthy ways. Families First has helped generations of children and adults to get safe and recover from the aftermath of abuse. Contact us to find out how you can support our work to build stronger families, more resilient individuals, and more optimistic futures.