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Recognize the signs of child abuse.

What is child abuse?

When a perpetrator intentionally harms a minor physically, psychologically, sexually, or by acts of neglect, the crime is known as child abuse.

Child abuse isn’t just about black eyes. While physical abuse is shocking due to the marks it leaves, not all signs of child abuse are as obvious. Ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, exposing them to sexual situations, or making them feel worthless or stupid are also forms of child abuse and neglect—and they can leave deep, lasting trauma on kids.

Abusive behavior comes in many forms, but the common denominator is the emotional effect on the child.

 

Emotional abuse

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
  • 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

Some warning signs of emotional abuse:

  • Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong
  • Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant, demanding, passive, aggressive)
  • Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver
  • Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums

 

Child neglect

This is a pattern of failing to provide for a child’s basic needs, which include adequate food, clothing, hygiene, or supervision. Child neglect is not always easy to spot. Sometimes, a parent might become physically or mentally unable to care for a child, such as in cases of serious illness or injury, or untreated depression or anxiety. Other times, alcohol or drug abuse may seriously impair judgment and the ability to keep a child safe.

Some warning signs of neglect:

  • Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather
  • Hygiene is consistently bad (un-bathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor)
  • Untreated illnesses and physical injuries
  • Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations
  • Is frequently late or missing from school

 

Physical abuse

This is the result of a deliberate attempt to hurt the child or excessive physical punishment. Many physically abusive parents 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.

With physical abuse, the following elements maybe present:

  • Unpredictability. The child never knows what is going to set the parent off. There are no clear boundaries or rules. The child is constantly walking on eggshells, never sure what behavior will trigger a physical assault.
  • Lashing out in anger. Abusive parents act out of anger and the desire to assert control, not the motivation to lovingly teach the child. The angrier the parent, the more intense the abuse.
  • Using fear to control behavior. Abusive parents may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to “keep their child in line.” However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals.

Some warning signs of physical abuse:

  • 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

 

Sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is an especially complicated form of abuse because of its layers of secrecy and shame. It’s important to recognize that sexual abuse doesn’t always involve body contact. Exposing a child to sexual situations or material is sexually abusive, whether or not touching is involved.
The shame of sexual abuse makes it very difficult for children to come forward. They may worry that others won’t believe them, will be angry with them, or that it will split their family apart. Because of these difficulties, false accusations of sexual abuse are not common, so if a child confides in you, take them seriously.

Some warning signs of sexual abuse in children:

  • 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
  • Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities
  • An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14
  • Runs away from home

 

Regardless of the type of abuse, the result is serious emotional harm. But there is help available. If you suspect a child is suffering from abuse or neglect, it’s important to speak out. By catching the problem as early as possible, both the child and the abuser can get the help they need.

Learn more about how to report suspected child abuse here.

Learn more about how to react if a child discloses abuse to you here.

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