Clues to recognizing child abuse

Abuse or neglect rarely occurs in clear, simple, and specific terms. Abuse or neglect usually results from complex combinations of a range of human and situational factors.

The Adult

Adults who abuse or neglect children usually will share several of the following general characteristics:


A shoulder to cry on and a friend to lean on are things most of us need. Adults who abuse or neglect children often do not have this support. They are isolated physically and emotionally from family, friends, neighbors, and organized groups. They may discourage social contact, and rarely will participate in school or community activities.

Poor Self-Concept

Many of these adults perceive themselves as bad, worthless, or unlovable. Children of parents with a poor self-concept often are regarded by their parents as deserving of abuse or neglect, because they see their children as reflections of themselves. They view abuse and neglect as behavior that is expected of them.


This characteristic may be reflected in many ways:

impulsive behavior;
using the child to meet the adult’s own emotional or physical needs;
a constant craving for change and excitement.

Lack of Parenting Knowledge

Many times, abuse or neglect results because the adult does not understand the child’s developmental needs. Society expects people to know the rights and wrongs of parenthood. But parenthood is a complex and difficult job. Abusive parents often are strict disciplinarians who are frustrated from unmet expectations. These parents tend to place unrealistic demands upon their children, and view their child’s inability to perform as willful, deliberate disobedience.

Substance Abuse

It has not been clearly established whether substance abuse is a causative or a resulting factor. However, studies consistently have shown a correlation between the misuse of drugs or alcohol and the occurrence of abuse and neglect.

Lack of Interpersonal Skills

The abusive or neglectful adult often has not learned to interact with people. How to form relationships, socialize, and work together are skills we learn in childhood.

Unmet Emotional Needs

Often, the abusive or neglectful parent has not had met the basic emotional needs which we all share — warmth, support and love. Unable to provide the child with these feelings which let us grow and mature, they will, instead, seek fulfillment from the child.

The adult may express these characteristics through different attitudes or actions. Certain adult behaviors and attitudes can be correlated with the occurrence of specific types of abuse or neglect.

The Child

Although some forms of abuse and neglect are more difficult to detect than others, there always are signs or clues which, singly or together, suggest that a child might be in need of help. Two types of clues are usually given by an abused or neglected child — physical indicators and behavioral indicators.

Physical Indicators

These clues are the easiest to detect and diagnose. Aspects of the child’s appearance and the presence of bodily injury are physical indicators.

Behavioral Indicators

Often, children will send messages through their behavior which suggest the occurrence of abuse or neglect. These clues may be in the form of “acting out” behaviors or behaviors which reflect the child’s attempt to cope with or hide the abuse or neglect. Behavioral indicators are more difficult to detect and interpret than physical indicators. It is not your responsibility to use these indicators to determine if a child is being abused or neglected. The child’s safety and the serious ramifications of alleged child abuse and neglect make it critical that the determination be made by an experienced and trained professional. You can help by asking for the assistance the child may need. Immediately report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to your local public children services agency.

Remember that child abuse and neglect involves people. Every incident is individual in its causes and effects. There is no blueprint for identifying an abused or neglected child. While any of these clues may occur without cause for alarm, you should be especially alert to frequent repetition or the presence of multiple indicators.

Minh Tu