How to Spot Child Abuse
Wendy Rubinyi, Instructional Design Specialist — Independent Contractor; Minnell L. Tralle, Extension Educator — Family Resiliency; and Heather M. Lee, Project Manager
Child abuse is any maltreatment of a person under the age of majority that results in physical or emotional harm. Child abuse can be physical, sexual, or emotional. Neglecting a child is also abuse. Note that each state sets its own age of majority. In Minnesota, the age of majority is 18.
Anyone can report suspected child abuse. Following are descriptions of various types of child abuse and neglect. Read them carefully, and if you see any signs of child abuse in your family (or anywhere), report it immediately. Whether actively inflicted or the result of neglect, child abuse can and does occur at all social and economic levels.
Physical abuse is any non-accidental bodily injury caused by punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, or otherwise harming a child. Be suspicious if explanations don't fit the injury or if a pattern of frequency is apparent. Many injuries in various stages of healing clearly indicate they did not all occur as a result of one accident.
Visible or tangible signs of physical abuse include:
- Bruises or welts
- Cigarette burns, or other kinds of burns
- Infected sores
- Broken bones
- Swollen areas
- Human bite marks
- Puncture marks
- Missing clumps of hair
- Difficulty walking or sitting
- Excessively heavy clothing worn to cover up bruises or other marks of abuse
Behavioral indicators of physical abuse include:
- Discomfort with "ordinary" physical contact
- Maturity beyond years
- Manipulative behavior to get attention
- Poor self-image
- Withdrawn or aggressive behavioral extremes
- Acting out to draw punishment
- Repeatedly running away from home
- Unwillingness to participate in everyday activities
Sexual abuse usually occurs between adults and children, but it also can occur between children or even between children and animals — either directly or indirectly under the influence of adults.
According to the American Humane Association, sexual offenses can be touching or non-touching. Both constitute sexual abuse.
Touching sexual offenses include:
- Fondling (erotically stroking or caressing) a child
- Making a child touch an adult's sexual organs
- Penetrating a child's vagina or anus, no matter how slight, with a penis or any object that doesn't have a valid medical purpose
Non-touching sexual offenses include:
- Engaging in indecent exposure or exhibitionism
- Exposing children to pornographic material
- Deliberately exposing a child to the act of sexual intercourse
- Masturbating in front of a child
Sexual abuse can be difficult to identify because physical signs of its occurrence are often lacking. However, you can spot clues to possible child sexual abuse.
Visible or tangible signs of sexual abuse include:
- Torn or stained underclothing
- Pain or itching in genital area
- Difficulty walking or sitting
- Bruises or bleeding in external genitalia
- Venereal disease
- Frequent urinary or yeast infections
Behavioral indicators of sexual abuse include:
- Withdrawal or chronic depression
- Inappropriate "seductiveness"
- Massive weight change
- Poor self-esteem
- Lack of emotional control
- Role reversal, including excessive concern about siblings
- Suicide attempts (especially teens)
- Lack of involvement with peers
Another complication of child sexual abuse is that many abusers are known to victims and coerce them into keeping the abuse secret. What's more, the "non-abusing" adults in a child's life, such as a parent or other caretaker, often refuse to acknowledge that child sexual abuse is occurring and so won't talk about it. However, responsible adults must overcome their reluctance and report sexual abuse in order to protect children. (Skip to Reporting Child Abuse.)
Emotional child abuse occurs when children are denied normal experiences of feeling loved and secure. Emotional abuse involves adults inappropriately exercising their power over children through behaviors such as bullying, yelling, threats, blame, or ridicule. All are designed to "put down" children. As a result, emotionally abused children suffer from low self-esteem and poor self-image. Victims of emotional abuse are best spotted through their behavior.
Visible or tangible signs of emotional abuse include:
- Speech disorders
- Empty facial expressions
- Poor physical development
Behavioral indicators of emotional abuse include:
- Behavioral problems, including passive-aggressive behavior
- Sleep disorders
- Unusual fearfulness
- Antisocial behavior
Neglect occurs when parents, guardians, or others responsible for the care of children fail to provide adequate food, clothing, and shelter, as well as necessary medical and dental care. Neglect also means failing to protect children from conditions or actions that endanger their physical or mental health.
Abandonment of a child by both parents and all responsible adults in their lives is obvious neglect. Other visible or tangible signs and indicators of neglect include:
- Persistent hunger
- Poor hygiene
- Unattended medical needs
- Ragged, dirty clothes
- Recurring lack of supervision by adults
Behavioral indicators of neglect include:
- Constant fatigue
- Early arrival and/or late departure from school or any place outside home
- Frequent absence from school
- Lack of facial expression or visible reaction to surroundings or events
- Assumption of adult responsibilities and concerns
- Delinquency (criminal acts)
Reporting Child Abuse
If you see any signs of child abuse, including neglect, in your family or community, report it immediately. If you believe a child is being hurt or neglected, call the county or tribal social service agency where that child lives, or call police. You may also check with your state's department of human services or a similar agency for other procedures to report child abuse. In Minnesota, more information on reporting child abuse can be found on the Minnesota Department of Human Services' website, Child Abuse.
Visit Child Welfare Information Gateway on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website for more information on detecting and reporting any form of child abuse.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau.
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2013). Preventing child abuse and neglect. Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau.
Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota/Minnesota Communities Caring for Children. (2014). Child maltreatment.
Safety Planning in Abusive Relationships — Experts recommend that victims of domestic abuse create a safety plan to prevent future harm to themselves or their children. Get tips for creating your own plan today.
Child Abuse and Neglect — HelpGuide.org — By learning about common signs of abuse and what you can do to intervene, you can make a huge difference in a child’s life.
Taking care of your children — Your children are going through their own family transition journey. Learn how to meet your children where they're at, strengthen your own parenting skills and parent child-relationships, and improve balance in your family's life.