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Warning Signs of Child Abuse

Each year, around 3 million reports of suspected abuse are filed but many more cases never get reported (Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, 2020). Most often, the abuser is someone the child knows. This could be a parent, relative, neighbor, friend of the family, or a trusted adult like a teacher, mentor, or coach. Because it can be anyone, child abuse can happen wherever the children are (where they live, sleep, learn, or play). (Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, 2020).

Children who are abused may show physical and/or behavior signs. Many of these signs are present in children exposed to violence in their homes and communities, like domestic violence or gang violence. The following signs do not PROVE the child is being abused, but instead could be a signal that the child and his or her family may need help.

Children who have been abused or neglected may be nervous around adults or afraid of certain adults. If the child was abused by a teacher, they may be afraid of teachers who are not the perpetrator. However, if the abuse happens at home, the child may be reluctant to go home. Children can become passive and withdrawn or aggressive and disruptive; similarly, they could show sudden changes in behavior or school performance.

Physical Abuse

Prevent Child Abuse Illinois (2020) defines physical abuse as “an injury to a child that is not an accident, may include: hitting, punching, beating, burning, biting, kicking, cutting, shaking, or any action that physically harms a child.” Signs of this kind of abuse are easier to assess and confirm. Possible signs include unexplained burns, bruises, or black eyes, and injuries that do not match the explanation. An additional sign of physical abuse is the apparent fear of a parent or caretaker.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is “any sexual activity with a child, including exhibitionism, photographs or videos, pornography, prostitution, fondling, or rape.” (Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, 2020). One sign of sexual abuse is sexual knowledge or behavior beyond what is normal for the child’s age. Another explanation for this could be domestic violence between parents or adults in the home. Difficulty walking or sitting, or other indications of injury to the genital area is another possible sign of sexual abuse as well. Lastly, running away from home is a sign of any kind of abuse; there may be other explanations but if multiple signs are present, there is most likely abuse of some sort going on.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse -- “maltreatment of a child that may involve criticizing, insulting, yelling, swearing, manipulating, rejecting, or withholding love.” (Prevent Child Abuse Illinois, 2020). Emotional abuse IS abuse. Although it is often overlooked, there are signs that can be life-long damaging to the child. This includes delays in physical or emotional development or acting overly mature or immature for the child’s age. Other signs of emotional abuse include extreme changes in behavior, attempted suicide, or lack of emotional attachment to the parent.

Abuse in Deaf Children

The statistics are eye-opening -- 50% of deaf girls have been sexually abused as compared to 25% of hearing girls and 54% of Deaf boys have been as compared to 10% of hearing boys (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2004).

Deaf children are at a higher risk because of a variety of reasons:

  • difficulty in teaching deaf children about safety

  • assumptions by perpetrators that deaf children are less able to disclose information about abuse

  • deaf children who have limited communication may have learned to do what others want without asking why

  • deaf people use touch to communicate — for example, to get someone's attention. A deaf child may think someone's touch is okay even if it is not

The effect of trauma on Deaf children is increased due to various things such as:

  • possible difficulties in social understanding

  • misattribution of the causes and effects of their own and others’ behaviors

  • a poor vocabulary of emotional language

  • a higher incidence of sensory, behavioral, emotional, or cognitive difficulties

  • a shortage of trained professionals who sign and are knowledgeable about deafness to help them in processing traumatic incidents


Neglect is defined by Prevent Child Abuse Illinois (2020) as “failure to provide for a child’s basic physical, emotional, medical or educational needs.” Possible signs of neglect (especially for younger children) include frequently missing school, begging for or stealing food or money, lacking needed medical or dental care, being frequently dirty, or saying there is no one at home to take care of him or her.

Abusive Adults

The possibility of abuse can be presented through the adult as well. These signs don’t prove that an adult is abusive, but they could be a signal that the adult may need help. Consider the possibility of abuse if a parent or caretaker:

  • seems unconcerned about the child’s welfare

  • denies problems at school or at home

  • blames the child for causing problems

  • sees the child as worthless or as a burden

  • avoids discussing the child’s injuries or gives conflicting explanations for them

  • seems isolated from other parents, relatives, or social supports

  • uses harsh physical discipline or asks other caretakers to use it

  • depends on the child for emotional support

  • seems secretive or tries to isolate the child from other children and adults

  • frequently blames, belittles, or insults the child

Child abuse is everyone’s business and everyone’s responsibility to report.

If you suspect a child under the age of 18 is being abused or neglected, please call The Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-362-2178. Be ready to provide identifying information and the child’s whereabouts; you may remain anonymous. More information can be found at, on our social media pages, and on our website,


National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2004). Facts of Trauma and Deaf Children.

Niemann, Greenstein, & David. (2014, December). Why are deaf children at risk for sexual abuse? - Hesperian Health Guides. Hesperian Health Guides. _Who_Are_Deaf:Why_are_deaf_children_at_risk_for_sexual_abuse%3F

Prevent Child Abuse Illinois. (2020, April). Child Abuse Prevention Month April 2020 Community Packet. 925c96d186.pdf

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