Police Advice: Spot Signs Of Abuse To Protect Children

By Sgt Nathalie Ranger

Abusive behaviour comes in many forms, but the common denominator is the emotional effect on the child. Whether the abuse is a slap, a harsh comment, silence, or not knowing if there will be dinner on the table, the end result is a child that feels unsafe, uncared for and alone.

Many abused or neglected children are too young to articulate what has happened to them, or to understand right from wrong. Even teenagers may not understand that it is illegal to be sexual with adults. When the abuser is a loved one, the dynamic may cause a great deal of psychological conflict for the victim and lead them to hide the abuse.

Keep in mind 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 of child abuse

Certain general symptoms that may suggest 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 socialise with others. Some children show signs of regression, losing skills they had before.

Lack of physical development: 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 the child is not being well cared for.

Unusual interaction with a parent: The parent is uninterested in the child, and/or vice versa. There can also be a situation where the child is very nervous and afraid around the parent, trying very hard not to upset or annoy.

Unusual behaviour in social settings: 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 abuse such as violence or sexual activity. Older children may act out in unusual ways such as having sex, fighting, using drugs, or running away.

Suddenly not performing well in school: Children affected by child abuse often have the tendency to take a negative turn with their performance in school. This is largely due to the harsh psychological effects of the abuse. The child becomes very uninterested and unmotivated to do well.

Physical Abuse Symptoms

Children often get injured, but physical injuries may point to abuse when:

  • It is hard to see how the injury could have been caused by a legitimate accident.

  • 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 reasonable explanation.

  • There are signs that the child has been hurt before.

  • The child doesn’t receive medical care for his or her injury.

Emotional Abuse Symptoms

Emotional abuse occurs when things are done or said to hurt a child emotionally; 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.

Sexual Abuse Symptoms

A child with symptoms of recent sexual abuse may:

  • Not want to go to the bathroom.

  • Show signs of discomfort or pain while sitting, urinating, or passing stools.

  • Have discharge from the vagina or penis.

  • Bleed through his or her pants.

Certain types of behaviour may also point to sexual abuse. These include:

  • Knowing more than he or she should about sex.

  • Running away from home.

  • Attempting suicide.

  • Being involved with drugs or prostitution.

Effects of domestic and family violence on children

Children living in a family or environment that is heavily burdened with violence, are living in a situation of fear, anxiety and unpredictability. They experience emotional and psychological trauma similar to children experiencing other forms of child abuse and neglect. In some situations, the child may be directly targeted and experience physical or sexual abuse, as well as neglect. In other situations, simply being a witness to violence within the home can have a long-term damaging effect on the child. Children are sponges; they learn by mimicking everything around them. We as adults need to be very careful of how we talk, what we do, and how we treat others, especially when in the presence of our children.

A child surrounded by family violence is at risk of:

  • Behavioural and emotional difficulties

  • Learning difficulties

  • Long-term developmental problems

  • Problems with aggression towards others (verbal and physical)

  • Very short of patience and hot tempered

v Restlessness, anxiety and depression.

Help to prevent child abuse

Anything you do to support kids and parents can help reduce the stress that often leads to abuse and neglect. By educating yourself and others, you can help your community prevent child abuse and neglect from happening. The behaviour of children may signal abuse or neglect long before any change in physical appearance. If you suspect abuse or neglect may be occurring, REPORT IT.

Be a nurturing parent: Children need to know that they are special, loved and capable of following their dreams. Learn about how children grow and mature, and have realistic expectations of what your child can and cannot do.

Help a friend, neighbour or relative: Being a parent is not easy. Someone you know may be struggling with his or her parenting responsibilities. Offer a helping hand, even if it means taking care of the children for a few hours so the parent(s) can rest or spend time together.

Help yourself: When the problems of everyday life pile up causing you to feel overwhelmed and out of control, don’t take it out on your kid, instead take a time out to relax and reset. Take a deep breath, turn on some music, and know who to call for help if you need it.

Allow kids to be kids: Life can be difficult for a single parent. There’s so much to do around the house and only you to do it. As a result, you lean heavily on your child for help around the house, neglecting him/her time to actually play and have fun as a child should. Be sure that your child’s life is balanced. While a child should learn how to do household chores while maintaining good grades in school, he/she should also be allowed to enjoy the stress-free life of a child.

Respect kids: Treat them the same way you want to be treated. Get involved: Advocate for services to families. Help to establish parenting groups in your community. Ask your community leaders, clergy, library and schools to develop services to meet the needs of healthy children and families.

Promote programmes in schools: teaching children, parents and teachers prevention strategies can help to keep children safe.

Monitor your child’s television and video viewing: Watching violent films and TV programmes harms young children. It scares them and teaches children that aggression is a good way to handle frustration and solve problems Please do not hesitate to report suspected abuse or neglect. Keeping children safe is the responsibility of every adult in the community. If you have reason to believe a child has been, or may be harmed, report it to the appropriate authorities.


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