From emotional outbursts to lack of appetite: How to spot signs of child abuse

Megan Mann
Here’s how to spot the signs of child abuse. (Image: Getty Images)
Here’s how to spot the signs of child abuse. (Image: Getty Images)

We live in a relatively open society. Opinions are frequently shared on public platforms; politics has become one of the most hotly discussed topics; and major events ticker-tape through our devices as quickly as they happen. Unfortunately, there are important topics that are still taboo, such as women’s reproductive health, domestic abuse, and most importantly, child abuse.

Psychology Today defines child abuse as “physical, emotional, verbal, or sexual abuse. It can also result from neglect. Abuse can result in serious injury to the child and possibly even death.” Abuse is widespread and is found across all ethnic, cultural and economic groups around the world. American kids are certainly not immune. According to a study from Washington University in St. Louis, one in three kids will be investigated as victims of child abuse or neglect by the time they turn 18.

Physical abuse includes, but is not limited to, beating, broken bones, burns and cuts. Verbal abuse includes threats, emotional and psychological trauma, while sexual abuse often involves children being taken advantage of without their consent, forced to perform sexual acts against their will. Neglect, however, is often just as harmful. A child may go days without eating or being able to bathe. They may not be given adequate clothing or safe shelter. Their medical needs may go untreated or they may be left alone for days at a time with only themselves to rely on.

Even harder than knowing this is happening to children around the world is seeing the signs that a child is being abused. For many, it can be difficult not only to see the warning signs but also gain the trust of an abused child enough for them to open up about what’s going on at home. Worse still is knowing the right thing to do with the information. What should you be looking for? How do you know when it’s time to tell? Who do you tell? What do you report? What happens next?

Let’s answer all of these questions below.

Signs of child abuse or neglect

Not only does the abuse impact the life of a child, it can also severely impact the life of the abuser. Since some parents or guardians refuse to believe that what they’re doing is wrong, the children might be led to believe that what’s going on is OK. They might also be willing to hide the abuse because they both love and wish to protect their abusers. This makes it difficult to see the warning signs if they’re not completely obvious, such as marks on the face or visible skin, unwashed clothing, or constant complaints about hunger or pain.

However, there are subtle signs that anyone can notice in an abused child. Jordana Boton, a licensed social worker for the Department of Child Services in Lake County, Ind., states that a withdrawal from their usual friends or activities, a sudden or gradual decline in behavior and schoolwork, a change in their emotional state, such as outbursts over small things or wincing in pain when doing something simple, can all indicate abuse or neglect.

Stanford Medicine also states that a change in appetite that could lead to rapid weight loss or gain, regressive behavior for their age, flinching when someone raises their voice or makes a sudden movement, a fear of adults, sudden sexualized behavior and becoming suddenly aggressive could also be signs of abuse.

What to do when you discover abuse

While some of these factors could be seen as the normal changes in a child as they grow up, they should not be taken lightly, and inquiries must be made about the child’s life. If children are young, they may be open to telling a trusted adult, such as a teacher or caretaker, that something is amiss when prompted. If not, you must inquire with the parents about whether or not something is going on.

It’s important to note that some children believe that what they are experiencing is simply how they were raised and see nothing expressly wrong with the situation. If a child chooses to tell you what is happening, whether out of openness or fear, it’s important to assure the child that open communication is OK and offer a safe space to talk to you. Keep your tone light and make sure that the child sees it as a regular conversation. Overreacting can cause the child to pull back.

If you see signs of abuse or neglect while inside a store or any other location but do not know the child, see if it’s possible to get the license plate number of the car they leave in or find security personnel who can help you discreetly report the suspected abuse or neglect.

Whether you know the child or not, immediately take whatever information you can relay to your local Department of Child Services and file a report. It can be as simple as a license plate number and as detailed as a child’s date of birth, address and home phone number. Whatever you have is helpful in tracking down the abusers. DCS also ensures that you will remain anonymous.

If you’re not sure which number is best to call, use the ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline. According to the website, “the hotline is staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with professional crisis counselors who — through interpreters — provide assistance in over 170 languages. The hotline offers crisis intervention, information and referrals to thousands of emergency resources. All calls are confidential.”

If you see a child being abused or neglected or a child trusts you with his or her issues, it’s important to report the incident as soon as possible. No child should have to face abuse or neglect.

ChildHelp National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453

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