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Parent’s Guide to Understanding Child Abuse

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

There are few things in life more devastating than discovering that your child has been abused. Whether the abuser is a person you know or someone you’ve never met, the sense of betrayal and fear that can come up can be overwhelming—both for your child and for you.

It can also be highly disconcerting to discover that a child in your care is being abused by their parents. In both cases, it can be difficult to know what to do. 

Child abuse is a critical and sensitive issue that can have long-lasting effects on a child’s life. As parents and caregivers, understanding, recognizing, and addressing child abuse is paramount to ensure the safety and well-being of your children. Below, we’ll provide some insight into the types, signs, and symptoms of child abuse, as well as how to spot child abuse. We’ll also tell you what to do about child abuse and provide some of the steps you can take to protect and support a child in your life. Remember: we’re here to help. If you don’t know what to do, reach out to us at Evolve and we’ll walk you through the appropriate steps. 

child abuse

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse refers to any behavior that harms a child physically, emotionally, sexually, or through neglect. This abuse can come from adults or even other children and often occurs in the context of a relationship of responsibility, trust, or power. Understanding the difference between discipline vs punishment is crucial, as discipline aims to teach and guide children, whereas punishment can often lead to abusive behaviors.

Types of Child Abuse

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse involves causing physical harm to a child, such as hitting, shaking, or burning. As a parent, it can be confusing to understand discipline without abuse, especially if you yourself were physically abused. Physical abuse can lead to severe physical and psychological consequences.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse includes actions that harm a child’s self-worth or emotional well-being. Examples include name-calling, shaming, rejection, and withholding love. Understanding different parenting styles can help prevent parent-child relational problems that could escalate into emotional abuse.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves any sexual activity with a child, whether physical contact is involved or not. This includes sexual assault, which can lead to PTSD and other severe consequences. PTSD from sexual assault can have long-lasting affects on a child’s life, so teaching children about personal safety and respecting their body autonomy is crucial in preventing sexual abuse.


Neglect occurs when a child’s basic needs, such as food, shelter, medical care, and emotional attention, are not met. It is one of the most common forms of child abuse and can have long-term effects on a child’s development.

Child Abuse: Signs and Symptoms

Child abuse symptoms and the consequences of sexual assault range from behavioral changes to physical signs, and everything in between. If you see any of the below signs of child abuse, reach out to us today for help. We’ll walk you through the process of making sure your child is safe and protected. 

Behavioral Changes

Behavioral signs of child abuse can vary depending on the child, the type of abuse, and individual circumstances. However, some common behavioral indicators that a child may be experiencing abuse include:

  1. Withdrawal from Friends or Usual Activities: Children who are being abused may withdraw from activities they previously enjoyed or lose interest in engaging with their friends.
  2. Changes in Behavior: This can include sudden aggression, fearfulness, hyperactivity, or a significant change in personality that wasn’t evident before.
  3. Regression to Earlier Behaviors: A child may start thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or show other behaviors typically seen in younger children.
  4. Fear of Going Home: The child may express apprehension or fear about going home or being around certain individuals.
  5. Changes in School Performance: A noticeable drop in grades, difficulty concentrating in school, or frequent absences might indicate something is wrong.
  6. Physical Symptoms Without a Clear Cause: Symptoms like headaches or stomachaches without any clear medical cause can sometimes be signs of stress from abuse.
  7. Self-Harm: Older children and teenagers might engage in self-harmful behaviors like cutting, burning, or other forms of self-injury.
  8. Eating Disorders: Changes in eating habits, such as loss of appetite or overeating, can sometimes be a response to emotional distress.
  9. Substance Abuse: Teenagers, in particular, might turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with the trauma of abuse.
  10. Sexualized Behavior or Knowledge Inappropriate for Age: This can be a sign of sexual abuse, especially if the child displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts that are inappropriate for their age.
  11. Running Away: Some children may try to escape their abusive environment by running away from home.
  12. Difficulty in Forming Attachments: The child may have trouble forming attachments or relationships with others, often stemming from trust issues.
  13. Anxiety and Depression: Symptoms of anxiety and depression, such as persistent sadness, hopelessness, or excessive worry, can be indicators of abuse.
  14. Avoidance of Physical Contact: The child might flinch away from physical contact or seem wary of physical closeness with adults.
  15. Communication Cues: Children might hint at abuse through their words, art, or play. Any talk of fear about certain people or places should be taken seriously.

It’s important to note that these signs on their own do not necessarily mean a child is being abused. However, if you notice a combination of these behaviors, especially if they represent a change from the child’s usual behavior, it’s important to consider the possibility of abuse and to take appropriate steps to ensure the child’s safety.

Teen openly communicating with parent

What to Do: Establishing Open Lines of Communication

If you believe a child in your life is being abused, it’s time to act.

First thing’s first: talk to them. Fostering open communication is essential in helping a child that’s abused feel safe to share their concerns. Building trust, teaching body autonomy, and encouraging healthy relationships, both online and offline, are crucial steps. Parents should strive to be approachable and understanding, creating an environment where their child feels valued and heard.

Educating Your Child about Personal Safety

Educating your child about personal safety is a vital step in preventing abuse. Here are some key strategies:

  1. Teach Body Autonomy: Explain to your child that their body belongs to them and they have the right to say “no” to unwanted touch, even from family members or friends. Reinforce that they should inform you if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable.
  2. Use Age-Appropriate Language: Tailor your conversations to your child’s age and understanding. For younger children, use simple and clear terms to explain safe and unsafe touch. As they grow older, the discussions can become more detailed, covering topics like consent and online safety.
  3. Establish Open Communication: Foster an environment where your child feels safe and comfortable talking about anything with you. Regularly check in with them about their day-to-day experiences and encourage them to share their feelings and concerns.
  4. Identify Trusted Adults: Help your child identify adults they can trust, such as a teacher, family member, or family friend. Teach them that these are people they can go to if they ever feel scared, uncomfortable, or in need of help.
  5. Discuss Online Safety: Educate your child about the risks of the internet. Teach them not to share personal information online, the importance of privacy settings, and to tell you if they encounter something online that makes them uncomfortable.
  6. Role Play Scenarios: Use role-playing to help your child practice saying “no” and to recognize and react to unsafe situations. This can include dealing with strangers, inappropriate requests from adults, or peer pressure.
  7. Teach Them to Trust Their Instincts: Encourage your child to trust their instincts. If something or someone makes them feel uneasy, they should know it’s okay to leave the situation and seek help.
  8. Explain the Difference Between Secrets and Surprises: Distinguish between good secrets (like surprise parties) and bad secrets (those that make them feel uneasy or that they are told to keep from parents). Stress that they should never keep secrets that make them uncomfortable.
  9. Educate About Public and Private Parts: Explain the concept of private parts (those covered by a swimsuit) and teach them that these areas are not for others to touch or look at, except for health reasons by a doctor with a parent present.
  10. Use Resources and Books: Utilize age-appropriate books and resources that are designed to teach children about personal safety in an engaging and non-threatening way.

Remember, the goal is to empower your child with knowledge and confidence, not to instill fear. Regular discussions and reinforcement of these concepts are key to ensuring your child’s understanding and ability to act on these lessons.

How to Help Your Child Who is Being Abused

If you suspect or know that your child is being abused, it’s important to take immediate action. Reach out to us at Evolve, and we can offer support and guidance in these situations. Our experts are trained to help families navigate these difficult circumstances, providing therapy and resources for both the child and family. If you’re concerned about your child, don’t hesitate to contact Evolve for compassionate and professional help. Your child’s safety and well-being are our top priority.

Remember, recognizing and addressing child abuse early can make a significant difference in your child’s life. Reach out to us today for the help and support your family deserves.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Child Abuse 

How can I recognize signs of abuse in children with special needs or disabilities?

To recognize signs of abuse in children with special needs or disabilities, look for unexplained injuries, changes in behavior or regression in developmental milestones, and be attentive to non-verbal indicators of distress, as these children may communicate differently.

What role do schools play in preventing and addressing child abuse?

Schools play a vital role in preventing and addressing child abuse by educating students about safe and unsafe touch, monitoring for behavioral changes indicative of abuse, and reporting any suspicions to the appropriate authorities.

Are there support groups for parents who suspect their child may be a victim of abuse?

Yes, there are support groups for parents who suspect their child may be a victim of abuse, which provide emotional support, guidance, and resources to help navigate the situation and protect the child.

What steps can parents take to create a safe environment for their child online?

Parents can create a safe online environment for their child by closely monitoring their internet usage, utilizing parental controls, and educating them about the importance of internet safety, privacy, and the risks of sharing personal information.

How can extended family members contribute to child abuse prevention?

Extended family members can contribute to child abuse prevention by staying vigilant for potential signs of abuse, offering support to the child and parents, and intervening or reporting if they suspect abuse is occurring.

Are there differences in recognizing signs of abuse between boys and girls?

There can be differences in recognizing signs of abuse between boys and girls; boys might exhibit more outward aggression, while girls may become more withdrawn, though these indicators can vary widely among individuals.

What are the potential long-term effects of child abuse on mental health?

The potential long-term effects of child abuse on mental health include the development of disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and issues with trust and forming healthy relationships in adulthood.

How can parents address the topic of abuse prevention without causing fear in their children?

Parents can address the topic of abuse prevention without causing fear by focusing on empowerment and safety, teaching about boundaries and consent in a reassuring, age-appropriate way, and encouraging open communication.

What is the role of pediatricians in identifying and reporting child abuse

Pediatricians play a crucial role in identifying and reporting child abuse, as they are often the first professionals to notice physical or behavioral signs of abuse during routine check-ups and are legally required to report their suspicions.

How can parents promote resilience in children who have experienced abuse?

Parents can promote resilience in children who have experienced abuse by providing a stable, supportive, and loving environment, seeking professional counseling, and reinforcing the child’s strengths and coping skills.

Are there signs that a child is being manipulated by an abuser?

Signs that a child is being manipulated by an abuser include sudden changes in behavior, secrecy, fearfulness around certain individuals, repeating the abuser’s language, and displaying behaviors that are uncharacteristic for their age.

How can parents navigate the challenges of co-parenting when abuse is suspected?

In co-parenting situations where abuse is suspected, parents should prioritize the child’s safety, seek legal counsel, maintain documented evidence, and involve child protection services or law enforcement if necessary.

Are there specific risk factors that increase the likelihood of child abuse?

Specific risk factors that increase the likelihood of child abuse include family stress or dysfunction, parental substance abuse, history of abuse in the family, social isolation, and economic hardship.

How can I differentiate between normal child behavior and potential signs of abuse?

To differentiate between normal child behavior and potential signs of abuse, look for sudden, unexplained changes in behavior, extreme reactions, regression in development, or physical signs of harm that cannot be adequately explained.

Are there cultural differences in how child abuse is perceived and addressed?

There are cultural differences in how child abuse is perceived and addressed, with varying views on discipline and acceptable behavior, but it’s essential to prioritize the child’s safety and well-being while respecting cultural contexts.

What age-appropriate conversations can I have about personal safety?

For age-appropriate conversations about personal safety, discuss understanding and respecting personal boundaries, the importance of saying ‘no,’ and identifying safe adults to approach in case of discomfort or danger, tailored to the child’s age and understanding.

What steps should I take if I suspect child abuse?

If you suspect child abuse, report it immediately to child protective services or the police, document any signs or evidence supporting your suspicion, and seek professional advice on how to best protect and support the child.

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