Recognize the Signs

The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. The presence of a single sign does not prove child abuse is occurring in a family, but a closer look at the situation may be warranted when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination.

Reporting Abuse/Neglect
Any concerned person can report suspected child abuse and neglect. Some people (typically certain types of professionals) are required by law to make a report of child maltreatment under specific circumstances-these are called mandatory reporters.

For more information, go to the Child Welfare Information Gateway's resource, Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect.

Physical Abuse
Physical Signs
  • Frequent injuries such as bruises, cuts, black eyes or burns, especially when the child cannot adequately explain their causes
  • Burns or bruises in an unusual pattern that may indicate the use of an instrument or human bite
  • Cigarette burns on any part of the body
  • Lack of reaction to pain
  • Injuries that appear after the child has not been seen for several days
  • Unexplained bruises (in various stages of healing), fractures, lacerations or abrasions
  • Evidence of delayed or inappropriate treatment for injuries
  • The child's injury is too severe to have been caused by the incident described
  • The injuries involve the backs of the hands, buttocks, genital area, abdomen, back, or sides of the body (particularly the face)
Emotional or Behavioral Signs
  • Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Frequent complaints of pain without obvious injury
  • Complains of soreness or moves uncomfortably
  • Aggressive, disruptive and destructive or self-destructive behavior
  • Overly passive or compliant, withdrawn, emotionless behavior
  • Fear of going home or seeing parents
  • Unseasonable clothes that may hide injuries to arms or legs
  • Chronic runaway (adolescents)
  • Child is wary of adult contact
  • The child is reportedly injured doing something that he or she is developmentally unable to do
  • The caretaker's story changes when challenged
  • Bizarre explanation of injuries
  • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents' attention
  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Caretaker describes child in a negative way; frequently is blamed
Sexual Abuse
Physical Signs
  • Torn, stained or bloody underclothing
  • Pain, swelling or itching in genital area
  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Bruises or bleeding in genital area
  • Venereal disease
  • Frequent urinary or yeast infections
  • Physical signs of sexually transmitted diseases
  • Pregnancy in a young girl
Emotional or Behavioral Signs
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver
  • Excessive seductiveness, inappropriate sex play or premature understanding of sex
  • Sexually suggestive, inappropriate or promiscuous behavior
  • Knowledge about sexual relations beyond what is appropriate for the child's age
  • Role reversal, overly concerned for siblings
  • Significant weight change or experiences a sudden change in appetite
  • Suicide attempts (especially adolescents)
  • Runs away (especially adolescents)
  • Threatened by physical contact, closeness
  • Extreme fear of being alone with adults especially if of a particular gender
  • Child suddenly refuses to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
  • Sexual victimization of other children
  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
  • 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
  • Reports nightmares or bed wetting