Warning signs of child abuse and neglect

Learn about the warning signs of child abuse and neglect.

Table of Contents

Signs of physical abuse

  • Bruising, welts or burns that cannot be sufficiently explained, particularly bruises on the face, lips and mouth of infants or on several surface planes at the same time

  • Unusual bruising patterns that reflect the shape of the instrument used to cause injury (e.g., belt, wire hanger, hairbrush, hand, human bite marks)

  • Clusters of bruises, welts or burns, indicating repeated contact with a hand or instrument

  • Injuries on the body where children usually do not get hurt (e.g., the torso, back, buttocks, thighs, neck)

  • Burns that are insufficiently explained, e.g., cigarette burns 

    • Immersion burns including marks indicating dunking in a hot liquid, including “stocking” and “glove” burns on feet and hands, or “doughnut” shaped burns on buttocks and genitalia

    • Rope or restraint burns on the arms, hands, neck or legs

    • Dry burns caused by forced contact with a hot surface (e.g., a clothes iron, hair curler, heater or stove)

  • Lacerations and abrasions of the lip, eye, or to any part of a child’s face

  • Tears in the tissue of the gums, possibly as a result of force-feeding

  • Laceration or abrasion to external genitalia

  • Absence of hair or hemorrhaging beneath the scalp due to vigorous hair pulling

  • Withdrawn, fearful or extreme behavior

Signs of possible neglect

Child or youth

  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
  • Is frequently absent from school or child care
  • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to parent or caregiver’s attention
  • Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Begs or steals food or money
  • Lacks adult supervision
  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor
  • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather

Parent or caregiver

  • Denies the existence of, or blames the child for, problems in school
  • Shows little concern for the child
  • Is abusing alcohol or drugs
  • Seems apathetic or depressed

Signs of possible sexual abuse

Perceptible Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Difficulty walking or sitting
  • Pain or itching in the genital area
  • Torn, stained or bloody underclothing
  • Bruises or bleeding in external genitalia
  • Frequent complaints of stomachaches or headaches
  • Venereal disease
  • Frequent urinary or yeast infections
  • Pregnancy

Behavioral Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Withdrawal or chronic depression
  • Inappropriate sex play or premature understanding of sex
  • Feeling threatened by physical contact, closeness
  • Promiscuity
  • Running away from home
  • Child is “parentified” or overly concerned for siblings
  • Poor self-esteem, lack of confidence
  • Peer problems, lack of involvement with friends
  • Extreme weight change
  • Suicide attempts or threats; especially with adolescents
  • Hysteria, lack of emotional control
  • Sudden school difficulties
  • Unprovoked cruelty to animals

Signs of possible sexual exploitation or human trafficking

  • Instability in life functioning: Youth lacks access to basic needs, including stable shelter, and is unable to engage in activities expected of her/his age
  • Relationships: Youth’s relationships are concerning, placing him/her at risk or in danger
  • Finances and belongings: Youth has money or material goods that are incongruent with her/his life circumstances
  • Use of technology: Youth’s use of internet, cell phone or social media involves social or sexual behavior that is atypical for his/her age
  • Physical health: Youth has significant health problems related to sexual activity and lack of access to basic needs
  • Risky behaviors: Youth engages in dangerous or risky behaviors, e.g., spending time with abusive partners or in locations where exploitation is known to occur, running away or staying away overnight, using substances)
  • Trauma exposure/signs: Youth has been exposed to traumatic circumstances and/or exhibits signs and emotional symptoms of trauma exposure
  • Coercion and grooming: Youth exhibits behaviors or otherwise indicates he/she is being controlled or coerced by another person
  • Exploitation: Youth has been exposed to sexual exploitation or victimization



Child-at-Risk-Hotline 800-792-5200

Call to report child abuse and neglect.

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