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How Might a Child's Behavior Show Signs of Abuse?

Michael Pollick
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Parents, teachers, and other adults who work with children are often trained to detect physical signs of abuse, including unexplained bruises, poor hygiene, self-mutilation, and the like. Any change in a child's behavior should also be considered a possible sign of abuse, however. Incidents of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse do not always leave physical scars, but the child can still exhibit emotional scarring through his or her behavior around other children and adults. Abused children may suddenly become very introverted or start bullying other kids. Many exhibit behaviors that are inappropriate or too mature for their age, and they may become either overly affectionate or not want to be touched.

One possible behavioral sign of abuse is a sudden shift between an extroverted and an introverted personality. The effects of abuse can work in either direction, however, and it's not always a shift toward social withdrawal or introversion. Some victims of child abuse may become more extroverted and outgoing, even to the point of excess.

If a child suddenly becomes either a school bully or a perpetual victim, this may be a warning sign. Abused children often react to their trauma either by lashing out or by collapsing internally. Both the bully and the victim may be reacting to an abusive situation.

Another behavioral sign is age-inappropriate activity. Some victims of child abuse may regress to a safer time in their lives as a defense mechanism. These children may throw tantrums, use security blankets or display other early childhood behaviors.

Other children, especially victims of physical or sexual abuse, may display signs of maturity beyond their years. They may use sexual or obscene language, or act out sexual behaviors. Physical abuse victims may coerce other children to perform dangerous stunts or to re-enact violent scenes from video games or movies.

Many adults may see a child's increased display of affection as normal, but it may also be a sign of abuse. Abused children often seek out the comfort of an adult who they know won't hurt them. Some victims, especially those who have been sexually abused, can become very clingy or even inappropriately affectionate towards adults. Female victims of sexual abuse have often been groomed to be seductive by their abuser. Children should be taught boundaries when it comes to physical contact with adults, and overly affectionate behavior should be seen as a possible warning sign.

Other children may display the exact opposite behavior. Victims of sexual, physical and emotional abuse often avoid any physical contact with adults or other children. If a child flinches whenever a certain adult enters the room, this could suggest a problem. A child may also start to cry whenever an abusive babysitter arrives at the home.

Even an adult's physical resemblance to a child's abuser may be enough to trigger a reaction. If a child seems to fear men with beards, for example, this may indicate abuse by a bearded relative or neighbor. Some abused children may react negatively to a teacher's commanding voice or refuse to enter a storage closet or other small room.

Reporting possible child abuse can be a difficult decision to make, since the physical and behavioral signs may also be the result of normal childhood experiences. It is difficult to accuse an adult of a crime based on circumstantial evidence. Thousands of children become victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse every year in the United States alone, however, which means that adults have a responsibility to report any potential abuse to law enforcement agencies or social welfare organizations.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon1004871 — On May 06, 2021

My niece may be in a abusive situation. She's flinching whenever someone raises a hand and she's wetting the bed after stopping and she's 14. She cries herself to sleep whenever she's spending the night at my house and she has scars and welts on her body and has been showing signs of depression. Should I be concerned?

By anon994703 — On Mar 01, 2016

I am an abuse survivor and I have to constantly manage the scars to this day. It gets easier, but after hitting 30, you begin to wonder if you would ever be fit to raise a child. The sad and selfish thing that abusers do not consider is the impact they have on their victim both long and short term. I would rather live with the sadness, because it has allowed me to develop my life in so many ways. I do it to spite abusers. Ultimately, children are better off not being abused, duh.

To would be abusers, think for one second the damage you are doing to another human being. To caregivers or parents, part of your job is to be vigilant. It is better to be safe than sorry. Confront those you have legitimate suspicions of directly. Do it in a way where you appear emotionally detached. Abusers prey on negative energy and the gratification comes from the power and influence they believe to have over the lives of others.

Don't be embarrassed about the behavior the victim exhibits when reporting the crime to the authorities. Removing the stigma also removes psychological burden from the victim. The most destructive emotion is guilt and this could hinder a case against an abuser. Juries are rarely easily swayed by testimonial evidence, but you should do what you can to get the situation dealt with. Even if the abuser is not incarcerated, if the victim gives their evidence knowing that they will not be judged for it, it will make an even bigger difference to their recovery process.

Children are the future. Please don't destroy it.

By anon942715 — On Mar 29, 2014

My three year old granddaughter was visiting at the hospital playing with a blown up doctor's glove. She said it looked like the monster who comes into her bedroom at her moms house." Monster with a banana near his eye". She was saying what the monster said to her when the nurse came in and my granddaughter left. The next day, her mother made a false allegation of domestic violence against my son so we cannot get more information. He is now court ordered to stay away because of DV charge. My ex daughter in law then re-friends me on facebook to send me photos of her at daycare. The photos are camera shots up her dress. She was wearing leggings with no skin exposed, so its not illegal? Her maternal grandmother owns the daycare and took one of the photos.

Prior to this, she was touching men's pants zippers. She hit my son in the zipper hard at a store. I was concerned at this point. The mother is supposed to notify my son of her relationships so he can run background checks. My daughter in law lies and gives false information. I witnessed the mother emotionally abuse her other child before my granddaughter was born. She is a female stalker. She stalked her ex while married to my son then stalked my son after she left him.

I am very scared for my granddaughter. I know my granddaughter is abused. I just can't prove it. The mother has serious control issues. She has withheld food from the children. Last fall I had my granddaughter till 5 pm. She refused to eat anything. She kept saying "mommy said I'm not hungry".

By anon932645 — On Feb 13, 2014

My adult male friend often makes comments about very young kids being in love with him, if they pay him any attention. What could this mean? It makes me worried and concerned.

I don't know who to ask about this and what it might be a sign of. I have known this person my whole life and never expected to hear a comment like this. Is he just self absorbed? Should I be worried?

By Esearcher — On Jan 17, 2014

I was doing a job for a young single mom, and I was standing and her 4 year old daughter started touching around my crotch area. Her mom scolded her and then she went sat on the couch and spread her legs (she had no pants on). Is this normal behavior for a 4 year old or should I be concerned?

By anon925250 — On Jan 10, 2014

I’m worried for my little sister, age 3. I’m 16. I’ve noticed a lot of strange and violent behavior lately. The first thing is she would touch herself to sleep. She has been doing it since she could walk. My mother and her pediatrician said it was just a way to calm her anxiety. I could believe it’s true because she’s always fussy, I guess, but the way she does it is really weird and not appropriate for a really young age, but like I said, she’s been doing it since she was at least 1 year old.

We have trained house dogs and I’ve seen her playing with them and it’s nice for my little sister to have a pet to play with, but she hits and pulls hair and kicks my little dogs. At the time I was thinking to myself, yes, it’s bad, but hopefully we can teach her that it’s wrong to hit them. The dogs try their best not to bite but now that they know my sister hits them a lot so they do bite her now or run away.

Very recently, one of my dogs had babies. Three weeks later, my mom saw my sister playing with the newborns and because she knows they can’t run away she hits them or throws them. We try our best to keep her away, but she always goes back to hurt the puppies. She threw one so hard the other day. It just occurred to me and I hope it can’t be but can she be a potential killer? I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about famous killers’ childhoods, and it all started with pets or animals.

I know I’m 16 and all but I need some advice. I’ve said this to my mom but she is just denying all of it. Please contact me. I’m open minded and concerned for my little sister.

By amypollick — On Aug 06, 2013

@anon344113: If you haven't already, make sure the grandmother is never alone with your daughter, and tell her you find her "sexy" comments inappropriate. Do not allow the grandmother to babysit, no matter how much she wants to. Then, you'll know she's safe.

Your daughter's pediatrician might be able to spot physical signs of abuse, but at that age, it's a crap shoot, unfortunately, unless you've seen strange or unexplained bruising, etc.

My advice would be to make sure your daughter is never alone with grandma.

As for her boy cousins, depending on their ages, them wanting to be there when you're bathing your daughter is not unusual. I mean, if they're say, under five or six or so. And even then, children are often just fascinated by babies, in general. I know I was. It's like being around a kitten or a puppy for a kid. These are small humans and they are interesting. I wouldn't worry too much about them, unless they start showing other overtly sexual behavior. Then, you might want to worry about whether they are being abused also. Good luck.

By anon344113 — On Aug 06, 2013

My daughter is eight months old, and I think she is being sexually abused by my boyfriend's grandma. She always makes these weird comments and I'm thinking she's only a baby! Or if she's in a cute outfit she'll call her sexy. Is that normal? It's not to me.

When my boyfriend and his sister were younger (the grandparents had custody) children's services got called because someone suspected the grandmother of sexually abusing them.

My boyfriend's aunt (she and his uncle have three boys) has asked me about stuff like this before. When I give my daughter a bath, all three boys always want to come in and splish and splash with her, even though I have explained to them numerous times that she is a girl and they are boys, so therefore, bath time is separate, and they do not, under any circumstances need, to be in the bathroom while my daughter is bathing. The youngest boy will even put his feet in the water.

I'm just wondering what are some signs and symptoms of an eight month old baby girl being sexually abused? Can anyone help, please?

By anon329580 — On Apr 10, 2013

My step son has limited visitation with his mom because her boyfriend is unfit. I have the proof and he lost custody of two kids already.

I believe my son is being emotionally abused -- not physically, just emotionally -- and believe there is domestic violence in the house.

I have been with my son and his father since my son was 18 months old and he is a mellow kid. However, we have had to put him in counseling for his emotional issues. He is having trouble in school. He recently began to lie a lot and the counselor says he is an emotional wreck and he has a lot of anxiety and he shouldn't. He is only five years old. How worried should I be when he goes to his moms'? I'm starting to think it may be better for him if he didn't go to his mom's house at all as it is causing issues.

Should I be worried about any other abuse? He still pees the bed at night, but not during the day since he started counseling and he won't talk to anyone about his mom or how his visit was at her house. He expresses love for his mother, but expresses hate for the boyfriend and like I stated, I am his step-mom and he tells me how much he hates the boyfriend and doesn't want to be anywhere near him and doesn't want him to live with his mom. Could this be from the emotional abuse or should I be worried about other abuse?

By anon316303 — On Jan 28, 2013

@anon304063: Go to your local health department and tell them you desperately need to talk to someone. Ask a friend or family member to take care of your son while you get help. Seek parenting classes to learn other ways to deal with your son. STOP hitting him when you are angry. You cannot control force when you have already lost your temper.

When you are getting mad, put your son in a safe room and you go to another one until you can calm down. Ask for help from people who can really help you, not just anonymously on-line. Call social services and ask for help. If you are afraid to lose your child don't be. With what you have confessed to doing, you are losing him, and yourself, already.

By anon314588 — On Jan 18, 2013

I drove by my son's school and saw him running around, playing with all the kids and decided to stop and watch him play. He is in kindergarten.

Anyhow, I witnessed two other little girls hiding behind a tree, which was a blind spot for the teachers. I saw a little girl sitting on the ground with her back leaned up against the tree. The other little girl began touching her like caressing her arm. At this point, I wasn't sure that this was happening, so I continued to keep my eyes on them. I continued to watch and saw the little girl start to rub her inner thigh up and down and eventually touching her private areas. I couldn't believe my eyes and was very disturbed. They continued for a bit until another little girl ran by, disturbing them.

The aggressor, as I would explain it, shooed her away and as soon as she left, started up again and grabbed the other girl's face and they began kissing. I immediately got out of my car to go tell the teacher on duty. I told the teacher and the teacher said she knew what I was going to say before I said it, and it turned out they had a prior incident with this girl. I am afraid this is a sign of molestation. Could it be? I'm very concerned.

By anon308132 — On Dec 09, 2012

I don't really know were to start, but when I was about four or five, I was left alone with my aunt's boyfriend and he got angry and started strangling me. The police were called and the jerk got away with it, even though I had marks a round my neck.

A few years later and my grandad and I got into an argument and he started to strangle me on the bed so I had to move out of his house. Now I have a huge amount of hate against men and every time a man talks to me or if I look at a man, I just want to hurt them as much as possible.

Can anyone suggest any help for me because it's started to affect me at college. Any feedback would be nice.

By anon308127 — On Dec 09, 2012

For the teacher who scolded the child, I would make a visit to the school immediately. You will have more problems soon if this isn't handled correctly. Spend a day in the classroom and watch what is happening. Can he be switched to another classroom? Are other children having problems? I would say there is a problem at the school.

You should be alarmed. You are your child's advocate. When mothers come to my office and I hear a story such as this, the first thing I say is make yourself known at that school. Your child needs to be seen by a counselor. He may divulge more information. I have found that to be the case with the children I see, and the parents are always surprised at the information they were not aware of.

Your child has anxiety and fears school and/or the teacher. If your child cried, he obviously did have something to cry about, she handled that situation incorrectly. The guidance counselor did as well from what I am reading.

I would suggest for starters, a new teacher, and explain the situation that he had a bad experience. They will have to handle him a bit tenderly for a period of time due to this experience. There are laws that will protect him and a counselor can explain this to you. I will call the schools myself and advocate for the parents if they need me to. Always, always, act immediately for your children: calmly, rationally, and believe in them.

By anon304063 — On Nov 18, 2012

I'm scared. I've hit my son so hard so many times I can't even recall. I need help. Please help me.

By anon302428 — On Nov 09, 2012

I have a 17 month old daughter and a 3 month old daughter too. Now when I was little, I suffered from physical, emotional and verbal abuse. I was adopted and this abuse was by my adopted mum.

Now ever since I had my eldest daughter, I don't trust my adopted parents anywhere near my children. I'm scared she might hurt my children physically wise. Now I'm having to allow my adopted parents to have supervised contact by my husband and I at the nursery so they can see my children. This was all agreed to in court since my adopted parents applied for a contact order, just because I didn't allow them to see my children.

It went well on the first day they met. Now they only see my children one time a month for two hours. The second time they saw my children wasn't that good. Before nursery, my eldest daughter didn't have any scratches on her at all and she was a happy baby. During the contact, my eldest daughter was clingy towards me and my husband and she seemed frightened of my adopted mum and dad. Sometimes, my adopted mum stopped my daughter from clinging to me by dragging her by the hand to her instead. My daughter didn't like it and started to cry. My daughter eventually got used to them and started to play.

Now there was one time when my husband didn't observe my adopted mum and she was by herself with my daughter for at least five or 10 minutes. At the end of the contact, my daughter didn't want her coat on. My adopted mum and dad both grabbed my daughter's arms roughly and forced her arms in the coat. My daughter started to cry and ran towards me and my husband to pick her up instead. We also noticed that she had a scratch on her face that looked like an adult scratched her. My adopted mum told us all at the end that my daughter scratched herself, which we found suspicious as it looked a bit too long for a child to do. She only has little fingers and can do only small scratches on herself.

The next day, our eldest daughter wouldn't stop crying when she was sleeping. When she was asleep, she would just wake up crying and screaming as if she were scared of something. She's not normally like this. The weirdest thing is, this has all started happening ever since my adopted parents got involved in their lives and I'm a little worried.

What if this happens in their next contact? What do I do? I already have social services involved with us since my adopted parents are accusing my husband of using domestic violence on me when he isn't.

I really want to know what anyone thinks. Could this be abuse? I just want to protect my children because I don't want them suffering like I did when I was their age. Please advise me.

By anon292564 — On Sep 20, 2012

I babysit for my three-month-old twin nieces twice a week. They go to a babysitter the other three days. I recently noticed that they flinch whenever I raise my hand. Is this normal?

By jenj — On Jul 29, 2012

My husband and I separated about a year and a half ago. And I have a live in boyfriend. My 3 year old absolutely loves her daddy. I know she loves me too. He gets her every other weekend and sometimes more. We have agreements between ourselves about visitation. For the past several months, though our little girl has thrown a fit not to come home when it is time for her to. I mean she screams bloody murder. It has gotten to the point that when it is time for me to get her, she and her daddy are crying because she does not want to come back home.

I don't know what to do. I hate seeing her act like that. It breaks my heart to see them both in tears when it is time for her to leave. What kind of damage is this doing to her? What kind of trouble will she have later in life because of this? Someone please tell me something.

By anon279300 — On Jul 12, 2012

Child welfare? Are you kidding? We reported our niece and her husband to these people multiple times and they've done nothing. The children suffer sexual abuse, neglect, hunger, filth and are subjected to their parents and friends abusing drugs and the Texas department of child welfare will not act.

By anon275646 — On Jun 19, 2012

To make a really long story short, I divorced my wife because I discovered that she hit (most likely slapped across the face) my then four year old daughter for not getting off the toilet fast enough one morning. (There were other issues in the marriage, including some borderline personality disorder symptoms my wife was exhibiting.)

I would have liked to get full custody of the kids, but I ended up with 50 percent: week-on, week-off. Anyway, the kids are 6 and 7 now and we've had this custody arrangement for two years. A couple of times, the kids reported to me that their mom was hitting them, mostly spanking, but at least one or two times hitting them in the face. I confronted her the first time and she all but denied it. The second time was a few months ago. They reported that she slapped my daughter in the face and then told them not to tell me about it. So, I sent her an e-mail saying that if it happened again I would call the police without further warning. She didn't respond to the e-mail.

So now this morning, my daughter was starting to have a meltdown because things were not going her way, and I raised my voice a little and started telling her to calm down. I was standing near her and I moved my hand (what I would have considered to be a calming motion), and she flinched from it. Then she continued to act out and kicked me in the leg. I moved a little bit defensively (while still trying to calm her), and she flinched again from my hand. I have absolutely never lashed out physically at my kids or used any corporal punishment (we do practice karate, and we practice fighting with some light contact, but the context of that is respectful and never disciplinary).

I asked her why she was flinching and whether someone has been hitting her, and she says she hasn't been hit again. But her younger brother says that he has been slapped in the face recently. She won't back up his story though, and is adamant that she doesn't recall the incident he's referring to.

So my suspicion is my wife is still hitting them, and she's doing a good job of convincing them not to tell me about it. The problem is, I don't know what to do about it. Any thoughts or recommendations?

By anon270392 — On May 22, 2012

@anon131603, Post 6: Your child is definitely experiencing some kind of abuse. Regression, aggressiveness, and screaming with cuts/bruises and wetting beds after already being potty trained for many years are severe signs of child neglect and maltreatment. Please see your health advisor immediately. If you don't, your child could be in danger. If you don't think that your child's physician is helping you, make a fuss and get another one who will. If not, call social services and demand a investigation.

People, you are your child's advocate!

I am the mother of two boys 1 year old, 6 years old, so I am in the same boat, trying to talk to my child, teaching them about bad touches and name body parts also how to beware of how some select few adults groom children before the actual abuse. Please teach your child how to tell the truth always. Sometimes children make up stories.

Always stay calm when a child discloses information and get them counseling right away, because if you over react in front of a child, it may make them not want to discuss it further.

By anon270388 — On May 22, 2012

@Toby58, Post 1: Any regression in childhood behavior such as going from potty trained to peeing on the floor and intentionally avoiding the bathroom is a sign of trauma. Be aware that trauma can be caused by many different events in a child's life such as losing a loved one or pet, moving, changing schools, or abuse.

Young children will often tell you in drawings. Ask her to draw what has happened and also write down everything she/he says. Teach your child about their body parts and to always tell if someone is touching your child. Teach about no touch. I hope this helps.

By anon261376 — On Apr 15, 2012

My son, at the age of six months old, started the humping motion whenever I would come home from work. His mom was a stay at home mom. My son is now almost seven and we have been divorced since he was the age of three. Since then, he goes every other weekend and for a month in the summer.

Last summer, after being with his mom for one month, he started rubbing my nipples softly. I since then had reported this to social services. The investigator reported that they felt my son had been sexually abused by a woman. I have since put my son in counseling, hoping that some information would come out but it has not as of yet. He has been seeing a counselor for the last 10 months. He is still currently seeing his mom every other weekend.

Any advice or recommendations? Or any other symptoms I should be aware of? Thanks for your help.

By anon145877 — On Jan 25, 2011

For anon131603. I am an abuse survivor myself and have a degree in psychology. Given the father's abusive history toward you and your son's behaviors, physical symptoms, emotional response etc there is a very strong chance that he is being abused by his father.

Ask your child to talk with you, take him to a child therapist, get rid of this court order asap to protect your child's health and safety. Do this immediately, do not hesitate. Wishing you blessing through all this ordeal and praying for your family.

By anon131603 — On Dec 03, 2010

I have a four year old son. I am not with his father because he used to beat me and the last time was when I was holding my son who was two months at the time.

Now he has to go to his dad's house every other weekend and every Wednesday. He cries every time he has to go. and I can't just keep him home because it's court ordered.

Every time he comes home he comes home with cuts and bruises and is very scared to tell me why! He has very horrible night mares. He is now peeing in his bed witch he has not done since he was potty trained wakes up screaming and if not crying! Please tell me if this means anything!

By anon131409 — On Dec 02, 2010

For anon31138: you may consider that the young child is traumatized by the move and having to make all new friends and having a new teacher who may not be as nurturing as should be for that age of child. I would explore the need to change classes, but I would be cautious of the the real root of the problem.

By anon50032 — On Oct 25, 2009

for anon31138 i believe that you should be alarmed. maybe you should change his school or class.

By anon31138 — On Apr 30, 2009

We recently moved to a different state. My son is in second grade and attends an elementary school in the new state. The first day or two were fine for him. After that he began to explain how mean the teacher was to the children and him. He also started not wanting to go to school and would get so worked up with a stomach ache in the mornings he would throw up. He would cry and beg me not to take him to school. I spoke with the guidance counselor and since then my son has come home with a bad behavior sheet. He stated the teacher scolded him in front of the class and when he began to cry she stated he had nothing to cry about. She stated you don't see anyone else crying and you're starting to act like one of the other students. Does this sound like a case of emotional and mental abuse and should I be alarmed?

By toby58 — On Oct 21, 2008

I recently learned of a situation involving an eight year old neighborhood child who crawls under his bed during the night and urinates on the floor. The child also shows very aggressive tendencies towards females. The child is home schooled.

I'm concerned that this might be an abuse situation. Has anyone heard of this type of behavioral pattern before?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to The Health Board, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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