Warning Signs for Child Abuse & Neglect

Child abuse can occur in more ways than just physical. The deepest scars are often left by emotional abuse and neglect, which are forms of child abuse that aren’t as easy to detect. Regardless of the type of child abuse and neglect, the resulting emotional damage can prevent them from having a normal childhood. Learning and identifying the warning signs of child abuse can make a huge difference in a child’s life. The earlier kids get help, the better chance they have at healing. Below, we’ve put together a list of some of the most common traits found in children who are abused physically, emotionally or through neglect.

Warning signs: detecting child abuse and neglect

Child abuse isn’t always obvious. By becoming familiar with the most common signs of physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect, you can catch the issues as early as possible to get the child the appropriate treatment they need. It’s important to keep in mind that just because a child displays one of these warning signs doesn’t necessarily mean that the child is being abused or neglected. However, if you notice a pattern of warning signs for child abuse, it’s likely that they are in need of help.

Warning signs for physical abuse:

  • Recurrent unexplained injuries such as bruises or cuts, often appearing in patterns
  • Alert behavior; child seems to always be expecting something bad to happen
  • Often wears clothing that covers up their skin, even in warm weather
  • Child seems afraid to go home
  • Child startles easily, shies away from touch or shows other skittish behavior

Warning signs of emotional abuse:

  • Constantly seems fearful or anxious about doing something wrong
  • Withdrawn from peers and adults
  • Behavior fluctuates between extremes (i.e. extremely cooperative or extremely demanding)
  • Acting either inappropriately beyond their age (like an adult; taking care of other children) or inappropriately younger than their age (like an infant; throwing tantrums)

Warning signs of neglect:

  • Dirty, ill-fitting clothes
  • Expresses hunger
  • Illnesses and injuries often go untreated
  • Child is often late or missing from school
  • Frequently left alone or unsupervised at home
  • Child consistently has bad hygiene (unbathed, dirty hair, body odor)
  • Allowed to play in dangerous environments, doesn’t have a curfew or bedtime
Helping an abused or neglected child

If you suspect that a child has been abused in any of the ways discussed above, there are several ways you can help. Although child abuse and neglect may be a particularly overwhelming subject to talk about, your help can make a huge difference in the life of an abused child. Whether you notice the warning signs for child abuse on your own or a child comes to you for help, it’s important to be calm, reassuring and supportive. As difficult as it may be for you to talk about, remember that it is also very difficult for the child.

Talking to an abused child:

  • Remain calm. If a child detects that you are shocked or disgusted about the situation, the child may be afraid to confide in you. Although it may be hard, it’s important to be as comforting as you can.
  • Let them know they are not to blame. The child needs to be reassured that they didn’t do anything wrong, and are not at fault for the abuse they have suffered.
  • Don’t interrogate. Be mindful not to ask too many questions or speak to the child in a harsh or demanding tone. Let them explain things in their own words, and respond conversationally rather than with a list of questions.
  • If you feel that your safety or the safety of the child may be at risk if you try to step in, it’s ok to leave it to professionals.

To report Child Abuse in Los Angeles, CA, please contact DCFS Child Protection Hotline 24 hour a day, 7 days a week.

Toll-free within California

(800) 540-4000

If calling from outside of California

(213) 639-4500

TDD [Hearing Impaired]

(800) 277-6699


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