Know the Signs

There are many signs that can indicate ongoing or recent child abuse and neglect. The most recognizable are physical signs, such as cuts and bruises in different stages of healing, rashes, redness in the genital area or a child’s appearance overall.

However, there are other signs of abuse like changes in behavior, fatigue or changes in eating patterns that may not be as apparent, which can contribute to abuse going undetected.

Child abuse and neglect are never the child’s fault. Many abusive adults rely on a child’s innocence to convince children to be silent, or lie about abuse that is going on. Children who have survived abuse may experience feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment associated with maltreatment or neglect, and may even believe the abuse is their fault. Experiencing these feelings is wounding and can make a child feel confused or alone. However, in many cases it is possible to mitigate—or even prevent—these negative outcomes by recognizing and knowing the common signs and reactions to child abuse. Recognizing the indicators and beginning an open and supportive conversation with a child is an important first step in identifying a problem and beginning the healing process.

The signs listed below are not definitive statements of abuse, but rather suggest that if a child is exhibiting these signs, close monitoring should be enacted to ensure the child is protected.

Signs of child abuse

Children who have experienced child abuse and may demonstrate any of the following signs.


  • Failure to thrive socially or academically
  • Speech disorders
  • Delayed physical development
  • Attachment issues, such as discomfort with physical contact or difficulty connecting with others
  • Lags in physical, emotional or intellectual development
  • Learning disorders


  • Behavior extremes, such as appearing overly compliant and passive or very demanding and aggressive.
  • Withdrawn and/or overly sensitive behaviors
  • Increased fear or avoidance of a specific person and/or situation
  • Difficulty expressing thoughts and feelings
  • Substance use
  • Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
  • Anxiety and/or excessive worrying


  • Bruises, welts or swelling
  • Sprains or fractures
  • Burns
  • Lacerations or abrasions
  • Frequent physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Bedwetting


  • Difficulty in walking or sitting
  • Torn, stained or bloody clothing
  • Pain or itching in the genital area; bruises or bleeding in the external genital area
  • Sexually transmitted infections or diseases
  • Pregnancy
  • Knowledge of or interest in sexual behaviors that are not age appropriate


  • Low self-esteem
  • Uncharacteristic obedience or perfectionism
  • Strong feelings of shame or guilt
  • Programmed statements or behaviors

Click here to continue to learn about the signs of neglect.

Next section: Effects of child abuse and neglect

Previous section: Who does child abuse and neglect affect?


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