How to Recognize and Report Child Abuse

How to Recognize and Report Child Abuse

By the end of the day today, at least five children will die from abuse.

This is the current tragic state of child abuse in our country. Over 3.6 million referrals of child abuse are reported each year, and our youngest boys and girls are the ones most likely to suffer. Something needs to be done to end these tragedies.

Day after day, that average number contributes to 1,820 children who will die of abuse and neglect across the United States. Over 60 percent of those children who will die are under the age of three.

In the past year, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect, and this is likely an underestimate.

This is the current tragic state of child abuse in our country. Over 4.4 million referrals of child abuse are reported each year, and our youngest boys and girls are the ones most likely to suffer. Something needs to be done to end these tragedies.

You may not be a parent or work with children, but chances are that you are a part of a child’s caregiving system. Our own Mercy Model of Care defines caregivers as any adult who provides paid or unpaid support and assistance to a child’s physical, psychological, or developmental needs. If you spend time with a niece, nephew, or a child of a family friend, you are a part of that child’s caregiver system, and it is your responsibility to ensure they are protected from maltreatment. Only with your help can we put a stop to child abuse.

Children will die from abuse by the end of the day
Children reported abused in one year

Now that you understand the terrible impact of child maltreatment, you may probably feel ready to go out and prevent abuse from affecting the lives of innocent children. Before you do, however, it is important you have a clear understanding of the best methods of how to recognize and prevent child maltreatment. It’s not always easy to spot signs for all forms of abuse, and having a working knowledge of the subject matter will ensure you are able to recognize and respond to signs before it’s too late.

The failure to provide for a child’s basic physical emotional, or educational needs or to protect a child from harm or potential harm.

Below you will find a comprehensive overview of of the information you need to know in order to effectively identify and prevent child maltreatment. You will find answers to important questions such as “What is the definition of child maltreatment?” “Where can you go to get help for a child with abuse?” “What are signs of child emotional abuse in adults?” By the time you finish this article, not only will you be able to explain how to recognize signs of abuse and neglect, but you will be able to help others to join the mission in ending the trauma and suffering of hundreds of thousands of boys and girls across the country.

Child Maltreatment

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refers to abuse as child maltreatment, which is “any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver…that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.” Put simply, you should not wait to see signs of abuse before notifying proper authorities–if you notice signs that a child’s safety or well-being could or is in danger, go to the authorities immediately.

Beyond this general definition, the CDC further explains two types of maltreatment:

Acts of Commission (Child Abuse)

These are “words or overt actions that cause harm, potential harm, or threat of harm.” While acts of commission are defined as being deliberate and intentional, harm to a child might not always be the desired motive or consequence. The intention of the act only applies to caregiver actions (those who are responsible for a child’s care), rather than the result, or consequence of those actions. For instance, a caregiver might purposefully hit a child as punishment, but may not intend to break the child’s arm.

There are three types of acts of commission as defined by the Children’s Bureau

  1. Physical abuse: Any beating, kicking, biting, stabbing, choking, burning, punching or otherwise harming a child to cause physical injury, such as cuts, bruises, broken bones, and even death
  2. Sexual abuse: These include any fondling of a child’s genitals, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, penetration, incest, and exploitation through production of pornographic materials.
  3. Psychological abuse: Also referred to as emotional abuse, this includes any behavior pattern that impairs a child’s sense of self worth or emotional development. This type of behavior can include, but is not limited to, constant criticism or threats.

Acts of Omission (Child Neglect)

These acts are “the failure to provide for a child’s basic physical emotional, or educational needs or to protect a child from harm or potential harm.” Similar to acts of commission, a caregiver may not always intend to cause harm or injury to the child.

Acts of omission can be broken down into the following:

  • Physical neglect of a child, or failure to provide necessary food or shelter.
  • Emotional neglect, or inattention, to a child’s emotional needs, withholding love, support, or guidance.
  • Medical and dental neglect, which is the failure to provide a child with adequate medical or mental health treatment*
  • Educational neglect of a child, which is the failure to provide a means of education, educate a child, or accommodate a child’s special education needs
  • Inadequate supervision, or the failure to properly protect a child from inflicting self-harm, permitting a child to abuse alcohol or other drugs, or abandonment of a child by failing to   maintain contact with the child
  • Exposure to violent environments, which is related to a lack of supervision, is the act of placing a child in a setting where he or she may be at a high risk of physical, psychological, or   sexual harm

Signs and Symptoms of Child Abuse

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau identify general signs of child maltreatment observable in a child, as well as key signs recognizable in an adult. Many of those below are especially useful signs of child abuse for educators to recognize in a school setting.

sad child abuse boy


  • 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
  • Is reluctant to be around a particular person
  • Discloses maltreatment
  • 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 the parent’s emotional needs
  • Shows little concern for the child
  • Rarely touch or look at each other
  • Consider their relationship entirely negative
  • State that they do not like each other

Signs of Physical Abuse

A child may be suffering from physical maltreatment if:

The Child

  • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes
  • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
  • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home

The Caregiver

  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child’s injury, or provides an explanation that is not consistent with the 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
  • Has a history of abusing animals or pets

Signs of Neglect

The Child

  • 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
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • States that there is no one at home to provide care

The Caregiver

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

It is necessary to also pay attention to other unusual or concerning behavioral signs when interacting with a child.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

Consider the possibility of sexual abuse if:

The Child

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting
  • Suddenly refuses to change for gym or 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
  • Attaches very quickly to strangers or new adults in their environment

The Caregiver

  • 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

Signs of Psychological or Emotional Maltreatment

youth violence

Psychological abuse, which is “usually present when other types of maltreatment are identified,” may be occurring if:

The Child:

  • Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression
  • Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example)
  • Is delayed in physical or emotional development
  • Has attempted suicide
  • Reports a lack of attachment to the parent

The Caregiver:

  • 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

The above may not cover all warning signs of child maltreatment, and as you may notice, some identifying signs of abuse and neglect overlap. It is necessary to also pay attention to other unusual or concerning behavioral signs when interacting with a child. Only through close observation will you be able pick out less obvious signs of child abuse and neglect.

Preventing Child Abuse

Once you are able to tell signs of child maltreatment and you suspect a child may be suffering, take action. Don’t wait–doing so could could mean the difference between life and death.

If you suspect a child is experiencing some form of maltreatment, call or text Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at (800) 422-4453, available 24/7.

Lastly, and just as importantly, spread awareness about signs of child abuse and what to do. The more people learn how to recognize the signs of child abuse, the better chance we have of saving the lives of tens of thousands of children.

Photo Credits:Martin Walls; Patrik Nygren; Anthony Kelly

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