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How To: Recognize The Warning Signs of Child Abuse

How To: Recognize The Warning Signs of Child Abuse

Kit Richert, Ph.D.

Statistics show that in the last year approximately 1 in 10 children have experienced some form of maltreatment.* Teachers and school staff are have a unique ability to monitor children’s health and well-being on a daily basis. Sudden changes in mood, behavior, or health may only be apparent to those closest to the child. Many abused or neglected children are too young to articulate what has happened to them, or to understand right from wrong. Even teenagers may not understand that it is illegal to be sexual with adults or beaten by a parent. When the abuser is a loved one, the dynamic may cause a great deal of psychological conflict for the victim and lead them to hide the abuse. Many signs of abuse are therefore subtle, and will take a trained eye to catch. Here is what to lookout for among your students.

Physical Abuse

h4. Common physical indicators or signs of physical abuse are:

• Suspicious wounds, such as surface injuries, the imprint of an instrument, burns, wrapping or bondage injuries, and unusual bruising patterns that appear on areas of the skin that are less likely to be bruised accidentally.

• Multiple wounds in different stages of healing.

• Bruises in clustered patterns.

• Injuries appear after weekends or absences.

• Suspicious fractures (especially to the nose or face).

• Overall appears to be in poor health.

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Common behavioral indicators of physical abuse are:

• The child isn’t able to tell you how they got injured, or their story is not believable in relation to the injury.

• The child may be either aggressive or withdrawn.

• The child is jumpy, on edge, or fearful.

• The child is uncomfortable undressing in front of peers

• The child seems overly eager to please adults or wary of adults.

• Child seems very afraid to go home or frightened of their parents.

• The child seems very afraid of getting in trouble.

Sexual Abuse

h4. Common physical indicators of sexual abuse are:

• Pain, itching, bleeding, swelling, or bruising in the genital or anal area.

• Blood in the child’s underwear.

• Frequent bladder infections

• STDs

• Pregnancy in pre-teen girls.

• The child complains about headaches and sickness.

Common behavioral indicators of sexual abuse are:

• Sudden change in the child’s normal behavior; starts acting different.

• Depression or suicidality; running away.

• Regression to more childlike behavior

• Changes in relationships to adults, such as becoming more clingy or more avoidant.

• Lower school engagement and lower achievement.

• Exhibits sexually provocative behavior or becomes promiscuous.

• The child has or talks about friends that are unusually older.

• The child talks about having sex or being touched.

• The child is extremely avoidant of undressing or physical contact at school.


h4. Common Physical Indicators Neglect • Gaunt, underweight, bloated stomach, pale, flaky skin.

• Unattended health concerns or medical problems, such as skin infections or coughs.

• Poor hygiene, body odor, or unkempt appearance.

• Inappropriate clothes based on the weather (e.g., doesn’t own a jacket in a snowy climate).

• Lack of supervision or abandonment.

Common Behavioral Indicators of Neglect

• Frequent hunger at school.

• Fatigue; falls asleep in class or seems listless.

• Clinginess.

• Depression.

• Begs and steals (food or property).

• Comes to school early and leaves late.

• Says there is no one home to take care of them.

Read more about when and how to make a child abuse report

  • Finkelhor. D., et al. (2005). The victimization of children and youth: A national comprehensive survey. Child Maltreatment 10:5-25.

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