Warning Signs

The first step toward helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse or neglect. Our list of signs of child abuse and neglect is predominantly drawn from What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing Signs and Symptoms, a factsheet published by the Child Welfare Information Gateway in July 2013. Because the list in this factsheet was composed with children who attend school in mind, we have made a few of our own changes. While the main sections are drawn that factsheet almost verbatim with only minor changes, the educational neglect section is composed entirely by us.

It is important to remember that the presence of any individual sign does not necessarily mean that there is abuse or neglect present. However, when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination they suggest the need for a closer look. See also What Are Abuse and Neglect?, If You Suspect Abuse, and How to Report Abuse or Neglect.

General Signs of Abuse or Neglect
Signs of Physical Abuse
Signs of Neglect
Signs of Emotional Abuse
Signs of Sexual Abuse
Signs of Educational Neglect

General Signs of Abuse or Neglect

The following signs may signal the presence of child abuse or neglect.

The Child:

    • Shows sudden changes in behavior academic 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    • Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn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 activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
    • Is reluctant to be around a particular person
    • Discloses maltreatment

The Parent:

    • Denies the existence of—or blames the child for—the child’s problems in extracurricular activities or at home
    • Asks 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

The Parent and Child:

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

The above list may not be all the signs of abuse or neglect. It is important to pay attention to other behaviors that may seem unusual or concerning.

Back to top.

Signs of Physical Abuse

Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the child:

    • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes
    • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from scheduled activities
    • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home
    • Shrinks at the approach of adults
    • Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver
    • Abuses animals or pets

Consider the possibility of physical abuse when the parent or other adult 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

Back to top.

Signs of Neglect

Consider the possibility of neglect when the child:

    • Is academically behind in numerous subject areas
    • 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

Consider the possibility of neglect when the parent or other adult 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

Back to top.

Signs of Sexual Abuse

Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the child:

    • Has difficulty walking or sitting
    • Becomes increasingly concerned about keeping their body covered and 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
    • Attaches very quickly to strangers or new adults in their environment

Consider the possibility of sexual abuse when the parent or other adult 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

Back to top.

Signs of Emotional Abuse

Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when 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

Consider the possibility of emotional maltreatment when the parent or other adult 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

Back to top.

Signs of Educational Neglect

Consider the possibility of educational neglect when the child:

    • Has not learned to read or do basic math by age 10
    • Is significantly behind grade level in a majority of subject areas
    • Is not making educational progress in core subjects like reading, math, or science
    • Is given a heavy load of chores and little time for academic work
    • Is expected to provide significant academic instruction to younger siblings

Consider the possibility of educational neglect when the parent or other adult caregiver:

    • Has neither a curriculum nor an educational philosophy
    • Does not take time to engage in educational activities with a child
    • Does not provide a child with books or other educational supplies
    • Seems unconcerned with a child’s educational success
    • Does not give a child regular one-on-one attention

For more, see Recognizing Educational Neglect and Reporting Educational Neglect.

Back to top.


For more on abuse and neglect, see:

Comments are closed