10 Symptoms of Child Abuse and Neglect

Portrait of sad child

Child abuse is never acceptable. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly uncommon either. It’s estimated that at least 1 in 7 children in the United States has experienced some form of child abuse or neglect in the past year alone.

As an adult, you can do your part to help stop and prevent child abuse by being more alert and empathetic to potential issues—whether it’s might evaluating your own child’s behavior after spending time away from home or becoming aware of a dangerous situation that involves a child you know.

Children will often exhibit symptoms that indicate when something is wrong. Knowing how to identify these symptoms is the first step towards ensuring the safety of the child and taking legal action to defend a victim of child abuse.

1. Running away from home

Although popular culture has normalized the idea of children running away from home, the reality is that most children value the security and provision that loving parents and safe homes offer.

For this reason, running away is typically a last resort. When a child knows of no other escape than to run away from home, it’s possible that he or she has been a victim of child abuse.

2. Not wanting or needing to be home

Similarly, children who experience abuse at home may be reluctant to spend time at home. They will cling to other children and parents, often preferring any environment other than their typical home environment.

Children who are neglected are often left unsupervised as well. They won’t check in with their parents or suggest that they need to be home at a certain time. 

3. Changes in mental health

One study showed that of a group of 21-year-olds who had experienced some form of abuse or neglect during childhood, 80% of them developed psychological disorders.

These kinds of disorders, such as depression or anxiety, can manifest in various ways. Children may be reluctant to get out of bed, have trouble sleeping, become increasingly fearful, or become irritable.

4. Delayed development or social withdrawal

A child’s sudden inability to develop, whether it’s academically or socially, is often the result of a traumatic event.

Children who have been abused or neglected will often have very little desire, motivation, or ability to perform in the classroom. Similarly, abuse victims may withdraw from social circles, and those with typically outgoing personalities may become unusually unsocial.

5. Lack of food, clothing, or proper hygiene

Neglect, occurring in 74.9% of cases, is the most common form of child maltreatment. There are a handful of ways to identify a child who may be a victim of neglect at home.

You may find that the child is frequently sent to school without lunch, appears increasingly malnourished, tends to wear the same clothing repeatedly, or exhibits consistently poor hygiene.

6. Lack of passion for hobbies and activities

Most children cling to at least one or two hobbies from which they draw a certain level of enjoyment and fulfillment.

When a child suddenly loses his or her passion for not only one activity but multiple activities, it is often a warning sign that circumstances have changed at home.

7. Premature understanding of sex

All children develop an understanding of sex over time. However, this typically occurs during puberty or as the subject is taught at school.

If a child exhibits a premature understanding of sex or a disturbing fascination with the subject, it might point to the potential of sexual abuse.

8. Inappropriate contact

Children who have endured sexual abuse will often attempt to mimic what they have experienced with other children.

While the initial reaction may be to step in and discipline the child who is exhibiting this kind of sexual behavior, consider whether or not the child’s behavior may point to an underlying issue.

9. Inexplicable injuries

Every injury has a story. If you notice a particular injury on a child, ask about how it occurred.

If there is no explanation, if the explanation doesn’t make sense, or if the explanation seems highly improbably, the child may be hiding the real reason for the injury—perhaps in fear of the person who inflicted it.

10. Self-harm or suicide attempts

Perhaps the most horrifying symptom of child abuse is self-harm or attempted suicide. There may be physical signs of self-harm—such as cuts, scars, or bloodstains on clothing; or there may be verbal indications—such as discussions of suicidal thoughts or accounts of suicide attempts.

If you observe this kind of behavior in a child, it’s critical that you protect the livelihood of the child by getting them immediate help.

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