Child Abuse (Symptoms)

It's not always easy to recognize when a child has been abused. Children who are abused are often afraid to complain because they are fearful that they will be blamed or that no one will believe them or because the person who abused them is someone they love very much. Parents are often unable to recognize symptoms of abuse because they may not want to face the truth.

If you suspect a child has been sexually abused, the child should be examined as soon as possible by a trained health care professional; it can't be stressed enough that an abused child needs access to special support and treatment as soon as possible. A doctor's exam should not be delayed for any reason. Many signs of injury related to sexual abuse are temporary. Ideally, the exam should occur within 72 hours of the event or discovery. A complete physical exam must always be performed, so that the examiner can look for any signs of physical and sexual abuse. The two forms of abuse may coexist. The longer the abuse continues, the less likely the child will make full recovery.

Watch out for unexplained changes in your child's body or behavior. Conduct a formal examination only if you have reason to suspect your child has been abused. Otherwise, the child may become fearful. Be alert to any of the following changes:

Signs of Physical Abuse: Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained

Signs of Sexual Abuse: Fearful behavior (nightmares, depression, unusual fears, attempts to run away); abdominal pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, genital pain or bleeding, sexually transmitted disease; extreme sexual behavior that seems inappropriate for the child's age

Signs of Emotional Abuse: Sudden change in self-confidence; headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause; abnormal fears, increased nightmares or attempts to run away

Signs of Emotional Neglect: Failure to gain weight (especially in infants), desperately affectionate behavior, voracious appetite and stealing food

Child Abuse. Last reviewed 12/31/1969
  • American Psychiatric Association
  • National Library of Medicine
  • Administration for Children and Families
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Department of Health and Human Services
  • National Institutes of Health