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.