Unfortunately it is not always possible for an onlooker such as a teacher or friend to be completely sure that a given concern is justified before reporting. The fact is, children get hurt. They run and play and push boundaries. This can result in frequent injuries. However, if you know what to look for, certain physical or emotional signs can be representative of the child experiencing abuse or neglect. Learning to recognize when it’s time to be concerned can allow adults to become that child’s advocate by reporting possible cases of abuse to authorities or social services.
It can be hard to spot physical signs of abuse. Abusive caregivers typically cause harm on areas of the body that are not regularly visible. This can include the back, torso, or upper arms and legs. In some cases even areas like genitalia and soles of the feet. Additionally children who experience physical abuse have a tendency to try to hide any marks caused by abuse by wearing pants,sweaters, etc more frequently.
Any injuries that have a pattern should cause concern as well. For instance, a bruise that has a defined oval shape or several marks in a straight line. If a child has a burn mark that looks like it was caused by a household object such as an iron or prolonged contact with a hair straightener this may also be signs that harm was caused intentionally. Repeated injury in the same area can also be a sign. It’s highly unlikely that little Suzy bangs her shin on the coffee table every single weekend.
As if the physical consequences of abuse were not heartbreaking enough, a child’s behavior can be drastically affected by abuse. This can manifest itself in different ways depending on the age of the child, and sometimes also the type of abuse.
It’s normal for children to experience a wide range of emotions; even to throw temper tantrums on occasion. Any child who seems to constantly be exhibiting one extreme end of the emotional spectrum may be acting that way in response to experiencing abuse. An infant or toddler who seems unusually still or listless. A child who seems over exuberant and acts out for attention. A teenager who seems to always feel confrontational and angry towards authority figures; all these are example of the possible behavioral signs of abuse.
With cases of sexual abuse there can come a unique set of signs due to the nature of this type of abuse. Behavioral aspects can include a young child who is far more interested in sex or sexual subjects than is typical for someone their age, or a child or teen who exhibits early or extremely promiscuous sexual behavior. Also, seeming overly reluctant to be touched even in a casual manner can be a result of sexual abuse. Physical signs can be recurrent genital infections, throat pain or infection, as well as marked pain when sitting or standing from a seated position.
This list is not exhaustive or definitive. Just as some of the things mentioned here may not necessarily be caused by abuse, a child who is being abused may show none of these signs. However, if you are concerned for the well-being of a child: please, speak out. Be the adult in the child’s life who took the initiative to report concerns of abuse and start the process that can remove them from harm.