Learn the Signs
Learning the signs and knowing how to respond helps you advocate for children when they need it most
By recognizing the signs, you can help a child access safety and support.
Children who have been abused may display a wide variety of emotional, behavioral, or physical signs and symptoms. And, sometimes they may not display any symptoms at all.
What is most important is that if you notice changes in a child that you let them know you are concerned, want to help, and that they can come to you for anything and you will not be upset.
The signs below do not necessarily mean abuse is happening, but can serve as a guide to understanding an abused child’s behavior.
- Acting withdrawn or detached
- Acting out at home, school, or in social settings
- Excessive or unusual clinginess
- Sudden mood swings
- Changes in eating patterns
- Running away from home
- Knowledge of sexual activity more extensive than what it should be for their stage of development
- Alludes to secret knowledge
- Fear of being alone
- Fear of going to bed
- Fear of going to a certain place or visit a certain person/people
- Bruises, cuts, bleeding, welts, burn marks
- Trouble sitting, standing, or stiff/forced movements
- Stained, torn, bloody clothes and/or undergarments
- Trouble eating or drinking
- Bedwetting and/or thumb-sucking at an age beyond developmental appropriateness
- Presence of a sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy
- Frequent headaches or other pain
- Money, expensive items, or clothing without financial means or reason
In addition to signs a child may exhibit, it is also important to pay attention to how people around a child are behaving. While most people are being genuinely nice or helpful, be mindful when someone seems to always want to babysit, spend time with a child, or take a child places alone or without the parents/primary caretaker.
Know How to Respond
If you suspect a child is being hurt, it’s important to know what to do:
- Talk to the child and let them know that you’re interested in how they’re doing.
- You can say things like: “I’m concerned about you. You seem (worried, sad, anxious, afraid, etc.)”. Or, “I noticed you (missed a few days of school, seem tired, have been behaving differently). Is everything is ok?”
- Use language that fits the child’s age that they will understand.
- Be patient and try not to insert words when they are talking.
- Let the child tell you what they choose to tell when they are ready and able.
- Listen carefully to what the child is saying.
- Let the child use their own words.
- Reassure the child that they have not done anything wrong.
- Let the child know that it was brave to tell, that you care about them, and that you are going to get help.
- Remain calm. This may feel challenging, but remember that the child has identified you as a person that they can trust. If the child senses you are upset, they may think they have done something wrong.
- Make sure the child is in a safe place and contact Child Protective Services or the police. If the child is in immediate danger, call 911.
- Don’t try to conduct an investigation or gather all the facts. Leave the details to the professionals.
- Don’t ask leading or suggestive questions. Instead of “Did someone do that to you?" ask “How did you get hurt?”
- Don’t ask “W” questions such as who, where, when or why.
- Don’t promise the child that you won’t tell anyone else. Let the child know that their safety is important and that you have a responsibility to tell other adults to make sure that they are safe.
- If the child is worried about others knowing, ask “What are you worried will happen?” Be reassuring but, again, do not make promises about the future.
- If the suspect is named, do not try to contact them, or let them know what was shared with you.
- If you know the suspect, do not make any judgments or comments about that person. It may be someone that the child loves (and possibly someone that you care about, as well).
If you suspect abuse, call:
Department of Children & Families
Boston Police Department
Chelsea Police Department
Revere Police Department
Winthrop Police Department
IN AN EMERGENCY, CALL 911