When trying to identify child abuse or maltreatment, it is important to note that no one sign or symptom will automatically tell us that a child is being harmed. Abuse and maltreatment represent very complicated dynamics and often have many layers to it including, shame, guilt or fear. As well-informed adults who care for the wellbeing of all children, it is our responsibility to to pay attention to behaviors, signs or stories that do not make sense.
If you suspect a child is suffering from abuse or neglect, it’s important to speak out. Trust your instinct, even if you are not sure. By catching the problem as early as possible, both the child and the abuser can get the help they need.
What is Neglect/Maltreatment?
Neglect is a pattern of failing to provide for a child’s basic needs, which include adequate food, safe shelter, or supervision. Neglect is not always easy to spot; sometimes a caregiver might become physically or mentally unable to care for a child, such as in cases of serious illness or injury or other times, substance misuse may seriously impair judgment and the ability to keep a child safe. Some warning signs of neglect include:
- Clothes are ill-fitting, dirty or doesn’t provide protection from the weather.
- Poor personal hygiene, torn, dirty or ill-fitting clothes.
- A pattern of untreated illnesses or physical injuries
- Frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations
- Frequently late or missing from school
What is Abuse?
When a person intentionally causes harms to a child verbally, physically or sexually. Abusive behavior comes in many forms, but the common denominator is the negative emotional impact on the child.
Contrary to some people’s beliefs, words can hurt and emotional abuse can severely damage a child’s mental health or social development. Examples of emotional abuse include:
- Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating a child
- Calling names and making negative comparisons to others
- Telling a child they’re “no good,” “worthless,” “bad,” or “a mistake”
- Frequent yelling, threatening, or bullying
- Ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment, giving them the silent treatment
- Limiting physical contact with a child—no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection
- Exposing a child to violence against others, whether it is against the other parent, a sibling, or even a pet
This is the result of a deliberate attempt to hurt the child or excessive physical punishment. Many physically abusive caregivers insist that their actions are simply forms of discipline—ways to make children learn to behave. There is a big difference between using physical punishment to discipline and physical abuse. Some warning signs of physical abuse inlcude:
- Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts
- Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen
- Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt
- Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home
- Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days
Child sexual abuse is an especially complicated form of abuse because abusers use various forms of manipulation to trick children into not disclosing. It is also important to recognize that sexual abuse does not always involve body contact. Exposing a child to sexual situations or material is sexually abusive, whether or not touching is involved. Sexual abuse also includes sexual assault and commercial sex trafficking.
Nationally, 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Some warning signs of sexual abuse in children include:
- Trouble walking or sitting
- Unexplained bruising in the genitals or mouth
- Displays knowledge of sexual acts inappropriate for their age, or even seductive behavior
- Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason
- Symptoms or diagnosis of a sexually transmitted infection
Recognizing Grooming Behaviors in adults
Child sexual abuse often happens gradually through a process called grooming.
- Abusers often look for and befriend children who appear vulnerable or hungry for attention, children who are often unsupervised or seem isolated.
- They may communicate obsessively with the child via phone or the internet.
- They offer to transport, babysit or host the child for sleepovers and overnight trips to establish themselves as a vital part or the child’s life and gain trust with the caregivers.
- Abusers may give the child treats, gifts or privileges not allowed by their parents. This includes treating the child as if they are older or providing drugs and alcohol.
- They may test the child’s boundaries by using inappropriate language/jokes and allowing the child to be inappropriate in their presence.