Abuse can take several forms, including physical, emotional, sexual, and neglect. Signs of abusive behavior in parents may not always be obvious.
“Child abuse” refers to an act or a failure to act that puts a person under age 18 years in immediate harm or results in sexual exploitation, death, or severe physical or emotional harm.
Though the language of the laws is often geared toward parents or caregivers, other adults can also abuse or neglect children.
Certain behaviors or signs may indicate a child is experiencing abuse from a parent or caregiver. However, signs may be subtle.
This article reviews the signs of abusive behavior.
Trigger warning: This feature mentions experiences of trauma and sexual abuse. Please read at your own discretion.
Physical injuries can be a sign of physical abuse. These can include:
Bruises may appear on any area of the body, but they often occur around the genitals, buttocks, face, or back. Bruises can be in the shape of a hand, piece of jewelry, or object, such as a paddle or switch. These marks can occur when using violence as punishment.
Burns may be from scalding, cigarettes, or branding objects. Branding objects can be anything heated to extreme temperatures and held to the skin.
Often, what separates an accidental burn from an abusive burn is signs of the child pulling away. When a person purposefully burns a child, such as for “discipline,” they hold the child to prevent them from pulling away.
Physical injuries may also occur alongside changes in behavior. Some other signs that physical abuse is the underlying cause of an injury in a child include:
- unwilling to discuss where the bruise came from
- reluctance to go home or seems frightened of caregivers or parents
- shies away from adults
- injuries have no explanation
- appears depressed, scared, anxious, or withdrawn
- acts aggressively toward other people or pets or animals
- changes in eating or sleeping habits
A child may also tell another adult about abuse either at home or other locations.
Parents or caregivers may also display signs of being physically abusive. These signs can include:
- displays or discusses harsh physical discipline methods
- cannot explain an injury in a child
- describes the child as burdensome, worthless, or bad
- displays little or no concern about an injury in a child
Emotional abuse involves depriving a child of positive interactions, such as not praising them when they do something well and telling them they are unloved.
Emotional abuse tends to involve negative interactions. These can include overly harsh discipline, screaming at the child, and placing unreasonable demands on the child.
It may be a stand-alone form of abuse or could be part of other abuse types, such as sexual or physical.
Emotional abuse can happen at any age, but it may be worse for infants, toddlers, and young children. This is because some psychological disorders may begin to develop in children who experience emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse can lead to behaviors such as:
- acting out or showing behavioral issues at school
- acting fearful
- withdrawing themselves from other people and activities
- having symptoms of depression
- wetting the bed or soiling their pants
- developing speech, eating, or sleep disorders
- saying their parents or others tell them they are not good, bad, a burden, or other negative term
- becoming clingy
- paying close attention to details
- not interacting or communicating with others
It can also lead to developmental and educational delays that can negatively impact a child’s life, such as:
Parents or caregivers may also show signs of being emotionally abusive. These can include:
- using the child for their own purposes, such as in marital conflicts or to help them boost their ego
- placing demands or expectations on the child that go beyond developmentally appropriate levels
- referring to the child as a burden
- referring to the child as “it”
Hurtful or critical comments
Hurtful or critical comments about the child from a caregiver or parent may indicate emotional abuse. This may sound like:
- belittling remarks to the child
- constant criticism
- threatening the child
Humiliation is a form of emotional abuse that belittles or makes the child feel inadequate. Humiliation could take several forms, such as:
- putting them into positions where they will not feel comfortable due to embarrassment
- sharing fabricated, exaggerated, or embarrassing stories about the child to get others to laugh
- constantly discussing the child’s failures or issues in front of others
Manipulation occurs when a parent or caregiver uses threats, bribes, or other tactics to get a child to do what they want. It may be a way for the parent or caregiver to control the child.
For example, a parent may use religion to control their children’s behavior. They may make repeated threats that God does or does not like certain things in an attempt to get the child to act exactly as the parent wants.
Inappropriate sexual behavior or exposure (i.e., showing genitals or other private areas) may indicate sexual abuse. Other signs of sexual abuse can include:
- social withdrawal, such as not wanting to go to school
- appears to understand a lot about sex or tries to engage in sexual behaviors with peers or other adults
- self-harming behaviors
- pregnancy at an early age
- changes in eating behaviors
- discusses nightmares
- trouble walking or sitting
- bruising or bleeding appears in the genital area
Withholding basic necessities is a form of neglect. Neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver does not provide a child with basic needs, such as food, clean clothes, shelter, or bathing.
A child who experiences neglect may show signs such as:
- appears dirty or having an odor
- steals or begs for food or money from others
- often absent from school
- does not have appropriate clothes for the weather
- substance or alcohol use
- does not receive medical care, such as vision or dental care
Help for child abuse is available throughout the United States.
A teen, child, or concerned adult can report suspected abuse to their local child protective agency. A person can also contact Childhelp, a national organization that helps investigate and provide resources to abuse survivors.
An individual can call or text Childhelp at 800-422-4453, or visit their interactive map for local hotlines here.
A person who suspects physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or neglect can report their suspicions to trusted authorities, which can include:
- police officers
- state or county child welfare workers
- contacting the Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 800-422-4453
Reporting child abuse is not the same as accusing someone of committing child abuse. State or local agencies investigate claims made on the child’s behalf and determine whether child abuse is occurring in the home or elsewhere.
Abusive behavior in parents or other adults toward children can be difficult to identify. Children can show different signs and symptoms of abuse or neglect that may indicate abuse is occurring at home.
A person can help by reporting suspected abuse to local or state authorities. These authorities can investigate the child’s circumstances and intervene if needed.