Child Abuse

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: David Perlstein, MD, MBA, FAAP
    David Perlstein, MD, MBA, FAAP

    David Perlstein, MD, MBA, FAAP

    Dr. Perlstein received his Medical Degree from the University of Cincinnati and then completed his internship and residency in pediatrics at The New York Hospital, Cornell medical Center in New York City. After serving an additional year as Chief Pediatric Resident, he worked as a private practitioner and then was appointed Director of Ambulatory Pediatrics at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx.

What are symptoms and signs of child abuse?

Children who are victims of abuse often experience symptoms of stress in reaction to the abuse, in addition to symptoms that are specific to the kind of abuse they have suffered. The signs and symptoms of abuse often vary according to the age and developmental stage of the child. It is also important to understand that victims of child abuse are often abused in more than one way, so the child may demonstrate symptoms consistent with more than one kind of maltreatment. Examples of less specific signs and symptoms of child abuse include

  • a tendency to either avoid, overly please, or ingratiate themselves to the abuser;
  • poor school performance;
  • irritability/quickness to anger;
  • crying more often and/or easily;
  • anxiety or panic;
  • frequent complaints of physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches;
  • young kids may act younger than their age or than they had previously (regress);
  • spending more time alone, away from friends and family;
  • becoming more "clingy" and more dependent on certain relationships;
  • expressing thoughts about hurting him or herself or others;
  • more risk-taking behaviors and/or showing less concern for their own safety.

Examples of risk-taking behaviors in children include unsafe play, like climbing excessively high or running in the street. More potentially specific signs and symptoms of abuse may include the following:

  • Neglect: The child may lose weight or fail to gain weight appropriately for their age. Their energy level and ability to learn will likely decrease. They may become withdrawn and show physical signs of malnutrition, like dry skin or hair or develop thinning hair.
  • Physical abuse: A child who is the victim of physical abuse may have repeated physical injuries and emergency room or other doctor's visits with or without adequate explanation. They may claim to be accident prone or provide other stories about how they sustained injuries and may tend to wear excessive clothing to cover injuries or otherwise engage in secrecy in an attempt to protect the abuser from intervention by child welfare authorities and law enforcement.
  • Emotional abuse: Emotionally abused children may make negative statements about themselves or others that mimic the abuser, like calling his or herself names or otherwise exhibiting pessimism or low self-esteem.
  • Sexual abuse: The child who has been sexually abused may exhibit sexual knowledge or behaviors that are much older than is appropriate for their age. They may also exhibit inappropriately sexual behavior, resulting in their engaging in masturbating excessively or in front of others, as well as participating in inappropriate sexual play with children. Medically, children who are sexually abused may develop genital injuries or sexually transmitted diseases.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/21/2016

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