Detecting the Signs of Child Abuse

Child Abuse Month

Since this month is national Child Abuse Prevention Month, I thought it wouldn’t be abusive to share some information about this most important concerning problem that still exists in our communities.

Child abuse occurs when a parent or other adult causes serious physical, sexual or emotional harm to a child or neglects or abandons a child. More than 1 million children are abused every year in this country and these are only the reported incidents.  Sadly most children know their abusers and the abuse usually occurs in the home, thus making it tough for children to speak up.  It can also occur to infants by shaking them, resulting, in cases of brain damage or even death.

Who is at risk for abusing a child?

Unfortunately, there is no classic description and abusers come from all walks of life. They can even sadly be parents, other family members, family friends, teachers or coaches. Many abusers have a history of abuse themselves. While anyone with access to a child can mistreat a child, fortunately, the vast majority of people don’t.

What are the signs of child abuse?

Certainly, bruises that keep occurring or keep coming back can be a sign as can recurrent abdominal pain or headaches with no clear cause. Another sign includes a child who becomes withdrawn, fearful, sad or develops low self-esteem or starts to bully others in response to their being bullied by adults.

A child who has nightmares or trouble sleeping or becomes disruptive and acts out in class or drops their grades when they did not before, should raise concerns. While these signs might mean other things—you need to at least consider abuse as a possibility.

Who should I contact?

If you suspect a child you know is experiencing abuse, you need to take action to further protect that child.  Anyone can call the Vermont Department for Children and Families  ( 1-800-649-5285) or the New York Office of Children and Family Services (1-800-342-3720) 24 hours a day. and report your concerns—since doing so can be life-saving.

Next steps

If you are a child who is being physically or emotionally hurt or harmed in a way that frightens you, talk to someone you trust—whether that is a parent, relative, teacher, or family friend.

If you feel you may want to abuse your child or have, place the child with a friend or relative where they’re safe and speak to a trained professional accessible by calling _1-800 CHILDREN.  You can call this number if you feel threatened as well. The earlier abuse can be suspected and stopped, the less destructive it will be.

Hopefully, tips like these will not hurt at all when it comes to knowing more about your role in reporting suspected child abuse.


Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at

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