Child abuse: Types, signs and how to help
Learn about the different types of child abuse, signs to look for in an abused or neglected child and what you can do to help.
Do you want to change a child’s life for the better? Know the signs of abuse and neglect, so you can take action if needed.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 1 in 7 children were impacted by abuse or neglect within the last year. And this number is probably much higher, as child abuse often goes unreported.
So, what can we do to change this?
While child abuse can be hard to spot at times, it’s important to know the signs to look for and to trust your instincts. Most often, a child’s abuser is someone they love, someone they’re scared of or both, so they don’t always speak up. Being aware and advocating for a child by reporting abuse may not only help them get the care and support they need, but may even save their life.
Here’s what you need to know:
What is child abuse?
Child abuse involves the mistreatment or neglect of a child under age 18, most often caused by an adult who is either a parent, family member or someone who has a role of responsibility in the child’s life.
Types of child abuse
There are several different types of child abuse. The most common are:
Physical abuse is the intentional use of physical force to harm, or cause injury to, a child. Physical abuse may include, but isn’t limited to, hitting, shaking, kicking, burning, poisoning or withholding sleep, food or medication.
Mental, or psychological, abuse is more verbal in nature and can have a long-lasting impact on a child. It involves purposefully (and persistently) harming a child by taking actions or saying things that interfere with a child’s emotional stability, development or sense of safety.
Sexual abuse involves pressuring or forcing a child to engage in sexual activities. This can include fondling, penetration, non-penetrative sexual contact and rape. It can also include exposing oneself to the child for sexual gratification or involving or exposing the child to pornographic images.
Neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to meet a child’s basic physical or emotional needs, resulting in danger to the child’s life, health or well- being. These needs include adequate housing, food, clothing, emotional support, access to medical care and education.
Some parents or caregivers who neglect their child often face difficulties of their own, such as untreated mental illness, stress, substance or alcohol abuse, lack of support or knowledge of proper child care.
Signs of abuse in children
Signs of child abuse aren’t always easy to see. Some things, like bumps, bruises and acting out, are often a normal part of growing up. Knowing the signs to look for can help you spot potential abuse or neglect. In general, an abused child may display the following:
- Not wanting to go to a specific place
- Displaying dramatic changes in behavior
- Withdrawing or being unusually passive or compliant
- Avoiding being around a specific person
Other signs may include:
Signs a child might be physically abused
- Bruises, welts, broken bones, burns or other injuries that can’t be explained
- Marks that have a pattern, like from a hand, belt or other objects
- Being afraid to go home
- Avoiding being touched or physical contact with others
- Wearing inappropriate clothing for the weather, for example, wearing long sleeves on a warm day to cover bruising
- Withdrawing from friends and activities
Signs a child might be emotionally abused
- Constantly worrying about doing something wrong
- Speech problems or delays in learning and development; doing poorly in school
- Symptoms of depression, anxiety or low self-esteem
- Lack of attachment to parent or caregiver
- Showing extreme behavior, such as being overly compliant, passive or aggressive
- Headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause
Signs a child might be sexually abused
- Bruising, pain or bleeding around the genitals
- Talking about being touched by an adult
- Running away from home
- Avoiding a certain person
- Sexual knowledge or behavior that’s inappropriate for the child’s age
- Having a sexually transmitted infection
- Having nightmares or wetting the bed after successful potty training
Signs a child might be neglected
- Dirty skin, hair and clothes
- Having medical or dental care needs that are unmet
- Missing school frequently
- Poor weight gain or growth
- Being left at home alone for long periods of time
- Wearing the same clothes all the time or lacking appropriate attire for the weather, like a winter coat
- Lacking lunch at school or not having money for lunch
How you can help
If you suspect child abuse or neglect, you may feel hesitant to report it without knowing for sure or having the whole picture. However, the threshold for reporting is suspicion. Speaking up and reporting potential abuse can help the child get the protection and care he or she may need. It also can help the abuser get the help they need, too.
What if I think my child has been abused?
If you’re suspecting abuse of your own child, it’s important to remove them from the situation or person. If your child has been physically or sexually abused, contact your local Child Protective Services office or police department to file a report and receive guidance. They will help you with the next steps to make sure your child is safe and healthy.
Your child may also be referred to a local Child Advocacy Center where they’ll receive child-friendly specialized care, including mental health services to help them express their feelings and heal from the effects of abuse.
Am I a mandated reporter?
Mandated reporters are those who are required by law to report suspected child abuse. Mandated reporters include school employees, employees of healthcare facilities or providers licensed by the Department of Health, foster parents and more. Learn more about mandated reporting in PA.
How to report child abuse
If you suspect child abuse for any child, report it. Often, you can report anonymously. You can report suspected abuse by calling:
- Childline. This toll-free hotline (1-800-932-0313) is available 24/7 to report suspected child abuse.
- Your local Child Protective Services office
- Your local police department
When in doubt, go with your gut and report suspected abuse. Together, we can help keep children safe and out of harm’s way.
Learn more about ChildLine
Learn more about child welfare services in PA
Find your local Children and Youth office