Many people are reluctant to report suspected child abuse. Despite what they think they notice, they may be afraid to falsely accuse a parent or caregiver or may fear being brought into another family’s situation. They may feel it is “none of their business” or feel that they might not know the full situation despite what they notice about the child. It’s important to understand that if you suspect a child is being abused, making a report is not the same as an accusation. Calling the abuse hotline is a request for your state’s child protection agency to investigate and assess if a family is in need of help. It’s also private. All calls to child abuse prevention hotlines from the general public are confidential.
Signs of child abuse can be subtle and vary depending on the situation. Abuse can be physical, sexual, neglectful, or emotional. However, it is not up to a caller to prove abuse exists, only to suggest that further investigation is warranted.
Below is a list of common traits exhibited by children and their parent/caregivers for the four major types of abuse.
1. Physical abuse—A child may have unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes. Physically abused children often miss school or have injuries without adequate explanations. The child may appear frightened of parents and not want to go home. In many cases, they are frightened by adults and older children and cower when approached. Older children may tell someone about the abuse, but often they do not. Children who are physically abused may be aggressive towards animals or pets.
A parent/caregiver may provide dubious explanations for the child’s injuries or no explanation at all. They may describe the child in a negative or derogatory way (i.e., call the child “evil”). The parent/caregiver may have a history of abuse as a child or a history of abusing animals or pets.
2. Neglect—A neglected child will miss school frequently and beg for food (or money). The child will often have body odor and be dirty and lack weather-appropriate clothing. The child may lack necessary medical, dental, or eye care. The child may say they do not have anyone at home to take care of them, and they may use alcohol or drugs.
A neglectful parent will appear indifferent to the child, perhaps depressed or behave in a strange manner. They may abuse alcohol or drugs.
3. Sexual abuse—Sexual abuse can be very difficult to recognize. If there is trauma, the child may be physically uncomfortable walking or sitting. They may be unusually fearful of changing their clothes or begin having nightmares. A sudden onset in bedwetting in a child who was previously dry at night is also a concern. Strange or sophisticated knowledge of adult sexual behavior is a red flag. Older victims of sexual abuse often run away or may report the abuse. Younger children may become too easily attached to strangers.
A parent/caregiver may be sexually abusing a child if they act overly protective or jealous. The child’s contact with others may be limited, especially with others of the opposite sex. The parent/caregiver may be highly secretive and act controlling with other family members as well. Of course, there may be absolutely no caregiver signs at all.
4. Emotional abuse—Emotional abuse is much harder to identify and is usually present with another form of abuse. Emotional abuse may be occurring if the parent/caregiver is constantly insulting, blaming, or criticizing the child. They may “reject” the child and refuse to accept help for the child’s issues. The child may display delayed development physically, emotionally, or intellectually.
Many people who work with children (such as teachers and medical professionals) are required by law to report suspected abuse. However, leaving abuse reporting to only those mandated by law leave a lot of children unprotected. In the United States, at least four children die each day due to abuse or neglect and many others live a life in grave danger. If you suspect abuse, contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453), your local police, or state child welfare agency. There are also state-by-state child abuse hotlines.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, March 2020
- Child abuse can be physical, emotional, sexual, or neglectful.
- The reporting of suspected child abuse is CONFIDENTIAL.
- If you suspect abuse, it is better to report it than to walk away—you may be saving a life.