We all know that child abuse exists; almost every day the newspaper or the news report yet another tragic case and we are overwhelmed with feelings of despair, sadness and anger. We think that the crime could have been prevented “if only… “, and we are thankful to the fact that our child is safe, loved and nurtured. Although the hard reality is that child abuse indeed, can happen in our own street, in the house next door or even in our own family.

The basics.

Most children are, in fact, abused by adults they know and trust, be it the primary caregiver, a family member, or others very close to the family. When abuse is perpetrated by a primary caregiver, the child’s most fundamental needs for physical and emotional safety fail to be met. Without this basis the world becomes a scary place with nobody to be trusted. If you cannot trust the person responsible for your care, who can you trust? In trying to make sense of the situation the child feels unsafe, uncared for and profoundly alone.

Child abuse is a wide-spread phenomenon that crosses all racial, economic, social and cultural lines. Many children live every day with the terror of being sexually abused, fearful to be emotionally terrorized and/or physically battered.

What happens in abuse?

Child abuse comes in many forms –sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect and emotional maltreatment-. These types very seldom occur alone. For example, a sexually abused child is often also neglected and a physically abused child is often also emotionally maltreated. Any child at any age –both girls and boys- may experience any of the types of abuse.

Because child abuse leaves deep, long lasting emotional scars it is important to learn to recognize the possible signs and indicators that a child is suffering, or is at risk of abuse. Also, it is important to remember that very seldom a child makes a false allegation about being abused.

What are the warning signs of abuse?

  • An abused child may become depressed, withdraw, be fearful, anxious, and extremely vigilant or be afraid of certain adults or places.
  • He or she can have problems regulating emotions. Because they lacked the conditions to express emotions safely, as result emotions get suppressed to come out in unexpected ways.
  • The child may either become violent or have suicidal thoughts.
  • At school the child can have concentration problems; his or her performance may dramatically drop. They can be frequently late or missing from school.
  • The child hygiene is consistently bad or poor and injuries or illness are untreated.
  • The child can also have eating disorders, sleep disorders and physical complaints (e.g. stomach aches and headaches).
  • The child’s clothes may be ill-fitting or inappropriate for the weather (e.g. long sleeved-shirts in the summer to cover up bruises or marks).
  • The child has frequent injuries, which appear to have a pattern such as marks from hand or belt.
  • Specifically in case of sexual abuse the child displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts which is inappropriate for the age or even seductive behavior.
  • He or she may have trouble walking or sitting, refuse to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
  • Remarkably, when the abuser is a parent or primary caregiver, the child shows lack of attachment, or seems even afraid to go home.
  • The adult can be extremely harsh, ignore the child’s emotional needs, give the child the silent treatment as punishment, have limited physical contact and continuously shaming, humiliating, yelling and bullying the child.

Any of these symptoms is not specific of one type of abuse. Also, none of the symptoms is proof that abuse has occurred. They are warning signs that something bad may be going on with the child and further investigation is needed.

The earlier the intervention the greater the chance that the child and the abuser receive all the help and support needed. Remember, abuse is not always intentional. In many cases in fact abusers have been victims of abuse themselves or are struggling with mental health issues. They are in need of help too. Receiving appropriate and timely help may help to break the vicious circle.