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Child Abuse and Neglect - Symptoms

Symptoms can be physical, psychological, or both.

Keep in mind that older children may not talk about the problem, because they fear or want to protect the offender. Or they don't believe they will be taken seriously.

General symptoms

Certain general symptoms that may suggest that a child is experiencing some type of abuse or neglect include:

  • Slower-than-normal development. The child does not show the abilities and skills normally found in other children the same age, such as starting to talk or socialize with others. Some children regress, which means they slip backward, losing skills they had before.
  • Failure to thrive. This is a term that means the child isn't gaining weight or height the way he or she should. Although this can be caused by a medical problem, it can also be a sign that the child is not being well cared for.
  • Unusual interaction with a parent. The parent may not be interested in the child. Or the child may be constantly trying not to upset the parent. The child may actually be afraid of the parent.
  • Mental health problems, such as having low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide.
  • Suddenly getting lower grades in school.
  • Behaving in a way that isn't appropriate or that causes problems. In a young child, this could mean being unusually fussy, being afraid, or not being interested in activities. Children often act out what they have seen or experienced, such as violence or sexual activity. Older children may act out in unusual ways, such as having sex, fighting, using drugs, or running away.

Symptoms of physical abuse

Children often get injured. But physical injuries may point to abuse when:

  • It's hard to see how they could have been caused by an accident. Suspicious injuries include:
    • Injuries that have a pattern, such as a straight line or a circle.
    • Injuries to areas of the body that usually are protected, such as the inside of the legs and arms, the back, the genitals, and the buttocks.
  • The explanation for the injury changes. Or it's not a believable explanation.
  • There are signs that the child has been hurt before.
  • The child doesn't receive medical care for his or her injury.

Symptoms of emotional abuse

Emotional abuse means doing or saying things to hurt a child emotionally. For example, the adult may say things to make the child feel unwanted or worthless. A child who is emotionally abused may:

  • Not care much about what is going on around him or her.
  • Not react normally to pain, other people, or changes in his or her life.
  • Avoid a particular parent or caregiver.
  • Act more fearful, angry, or sad than would seem normal.
  • Not do well in school.
  • Hurt himself or herself on purpose.
  • Do things that are harmful, such as use drugs or have an eating disorder.
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