Recognizing Signs of Potential Child Abuse and Neglect

Wayne Stocks —  In Abuse and Neglect October 3, 2011 — 7 Comments

Welcome to part 5 of our 9 part series on child abuse and neglect. Today, we will be looking at signs to look for indicating potential abuse or neglect. Please see the end of today’s article for a complete listing of articles included in this series.

RECOGNIZING SIGNS OF POTENTIAL ABUSE AND NEGLECT

child-abuseAs those who work with children, and those interested in ministering to at risk kids, it is important that we understand the warning signs of potential abuse and neglect. This section includes some general guidance as well as specific things to look for in both children and their parents for the different types of abuse and neglect. I have gathered this information from the various sources listed at the end of this article. Accordingly, I have not endeavored to cite a source on each individual sign. The single best source I have found, and the starting point for many of the items in these lists, is the publication Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect: Signs and Symptoms from The Child Welfare Information Gateway of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The signs listed in this section may be indicators of abuse and neglect. The existence of one sign or even the prolonged existence of one sign does not necessarily prove the existence of abuse of neglect and may be related to other factors. While we must be on the lookout for potential signs of abuse and neglect, we must also proceed with caution in concluding that abuse or neglect is present based only on these signs. We will talk more later in this article about what to do when you suspect abuse, but it is important to remember that false accusations of abuse or neglect can harm not only the accused by the child you are trying to protect in the first place. In the end, the best way to assess a situation is to have a personal relationship with the child that you have developed beforehand that will allow you to discern what is going on. Of course, this is not always possible.

Each section includes potential signs of abuse to look for in the children and to look for in parents. The section of general signs also includes things to look for specifically related to the relationship between the child and the parent.

General Signs and Information

We will look at signs to look for when it comes to specific types of abuse and neglect later, but the following represent general signs that a child might be suffering maltreatment.

Things to look for in children:

  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
  • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
  • Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Lacks adult supervision
  • Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
  • Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home

Things to look for in parents:

  • Shows little concern for the child
  • Denies the existence of—or blames the child for—the child’s problems in school or at home
  • Asks teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
  • Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome
  • Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve
  • Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs

Things to look for in the relationship between the child and parent:

  • Rarely touch or look at each other
  • Consider their relationship entirely negative
  • State that they do not like each other

Physical Abuse

Things to look for in children:

  • Burns
  • Bites
  • Bruises
  • Welts
  • Lacerations or Cuts
  • Broken bones
  • Black eyes
  • Hair loss
  • Fading bruises or other marks
  • Seems frightened of parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home
  • Shrinks at the approach of adults
  • Seems always watchful or on alert for something bad to happen
  • Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Injuries appear to have a pattern (as from a foreign object)
  • Uncommon location for injuries (e.g., underarms, neck, back, stomach, thighs)
  • Shies away from touch
  • Flinches at sudden movement
  • Appears afraid to go home
  • Wears inappropriate clothing (e.g., a coat on a warm day) to cover up bruises
  • Recurring injuries with inconsistent, implausible or guarded explanations
  • Hesitation regarding showing certain body parts
  • Acts out aggression on others
  • Fear
  • Withdrawal
  • Depression
  • Has fantasies, artwork or threats of violence
  • Regression
  • Nightmares
  • Insomnia

Things to look for in parents:

  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child’s injury
  • Describes the child as “evil,” or in some other very negative way
  • Uses harsh physical discipline with the child
  • Has a history of abuse as a child

Emotional Abuse

Things to look for in children:

  • Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression
  • Is inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example)
  • Is inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example)
  • Excessively withdrawn, fearful or anxious about doing something wrong
  • Is delayed in physical or emotional development
  • Has attempted suicide
  • Reports a lack of attachment to the parent
  • Doesn’t seem to be attached to caregiver
  • Dramatic changes in behavior
  • Unusual fears for the child’s age
  • Inability to react with emotion
  • Inability to develop emotional bonds with others
  • Hides eyes
  • Lowered gaze
  • Biting lips or tongue
  • Forcing a smile
  • Fidgeting
  • Annoyance
  • Defensiveness
  • Exaggeration
  • Confusion or denial
  • Feeling of nakedness, defeat, alienation or lack of worth
  • Regression
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Angry acts
  • Withdrawal
  • Insecurity
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Depression
  • Difficulty in relationships
  • Eating disorders
  • Sleep disorders/nightmares
  • Speech disorders
  • Developmental delays
  • Nervous disorders or somatic symptoms

Things to look for in parents:

  • Constantly blames, belittles, or berates the child
  • Is unconcerned about the child and refuses to consider offers of help for the child’s problems
  • Overtly rejects the child

Sexual Abuse

Things to look for in children:

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting
  • Suddenly refuses to participate in physical activities
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
  • Becomes pregnant or contracts a venereal disease, particularly if under age 14
  • Runs away
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Makes a strong effort to avoid a specific person without an obvious reason
  • Compulsive masturbation and teaching others to masturbate
  • Excessive curiosity about sex or sexuality
  • Stained, torn or bloody underclothing
  • Frequent, unexplained, sore throats, yeast or urinary tract infections
  • Bed wetting
  • Soiling pants
  • Playing with feces
  • Complaints of pain or itching in genitalia
  • Excessive bathing
  • Withdrawn or aggressive
  • Sexual inference in artwork
  • Overly compulsive behavior
  • Fears and phobias
  • Sleep problems
  • Fire starting
  • Somatic symptoms (e.g., stomach aches, headaches, etc.)

Things to look for in parents:

  • Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex
  • Is secretive and isolated
  • Is jealous or controlling with family members

Neglect

For purposes of signs of neglect, we have not endeavored to break them down by type of neglect. Recognizing the particular type of neglect is not nearly as important as knowing the signs of neglect themselves.

Things to look for in children:

  • Is frequently absent from school
  • Begs or steals food or money
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor
  • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather
  • Is frequently unsupervised, left alone or allowed to play in unsafe conditions
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • States that there is no one at home to provide care
  • Poor hygiene including lice, scabies, severe or untreated diaper rash, bed sores
  • Squinting
  • Untreated injury or illness
  • Lack of immunizations
  • Indicators of prolonged exposure to the elements (sunburn, insect bites, etc.)
  • Height and weight significantly below age level

Things to look for in parents:

  • Appears to be indifferent to the child
  • Seems apathetic or depressed
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner
  • Is abusing alcohol or other drugs

A WORD OF WARNING ABOUT SIGNS OF ABUSE AND NEGLECT AS THEY RELATE TO CHILDREN OF DIVORCE

As I was putting this article together and listing the different potential signs of abuse, I noticed some stark similarities between that list and the various reactions you might see from children of divorce. Indeed, many of the “signs” are very similar. Items included in both listings would include the following (and perhaps others):

  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Lacks adult supervision
  • Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
  • Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
  • Acts out aggression on others
  • Fear
  • Withdrawal
  • Depression
  • Regression
  • Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression
  • Is inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example)
  • Reports a lack of attachment to the parent
  • Dramatic changes in behavior
  • Unusual fears for the child’s age
  • Inability to react with emotion
  • Inability to develop emotional bonds with others
  • Confusion or denial
  • Angry acts
  • Withdrawal
  • Insecurity
  • Difficulty in relationships

While children of divorce are at an increased risk of abuse, we also must be cognizant of the fact that some of the potential signs of abuse may instead be related to the divorce itself. We must be cautious about jumping to conclusions while at the same time be diligent in the protection of children. In short, some discernment is required in ascertaining whether a particular sign could be an indicator of abuse or neglect or is actually just a reaction to their parents’ divorce.

Here at Divorce Ministry 4 Kids, we feel that the issue of child abuse and neglect is serious enough to warrant dedicating an entire month to. We hope that you will read all of the articles so that you, and those in your children’s ministry, will be better prepared to deal with this issue which is all too prevalent and disproportionately affects children of divorce and children from single-parent homes. The series includes the following articles:

  1. Divorce, Single Parenting and the Increased Risk of Child Abuse and Neglect – An Introduction [09/19/2011]
  2. What is Child Abuse and Neglect? [09/21/2011]
  3. Introduction to the National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect [09/26/2011]
  4. Risks of Child Abuse and Neglect Based on Family Structure [09/28/2011]
  5. Recognizing Signs of Potential Child Abuse and Neglect [10/03/2011]
  6. What to Do If You Suspect Child Abuse or Neglect [10/05/2011]
  7. How to Talk to an Abused or Neglected Child [10/10/2011]
  8. Reporting Suspected Child Abuse or Neglect [10/12/2011]
  9. Sources of Additional Information on Child Abuse and Neglect [10/17/2011]
  10. Appendix A – Sample Policy for Reporting Suspected Abuse and Neglect [10/19/2011]

A pdf file will be posted at the end of the series including information from all nine articles in one comprehensive, not-so-brief, but easy to use format. For those of you who have expertise in this area, or have dealt with abuse and neglect situations in the past, we hope that you will join the conversation by adding your voice to the series through comments on the articles or on our Facebook Page.

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