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Indicators of Abuse

Children exhibit signs of abuse and neglect in a many different ways. Often they exhibit number of behavioural and physical indicators. Children may exhibit some of the indicators listed below, but this is not necessarily conclusive evidence of abuse.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is any harm to a child caused by the action, or lack of action, of the child’s caregiver. Injuries may or may not include physical evidence such as bruising, welts, cuts, fractures, burns or internal injuries. Physical abuse can occur as an isolated incident or continue over a period of time.

Signs of physical abuse include:

  • Various injuries over a period of time
  • Injuries inconsistent with the child’s age
  • Multiple injuries in various stages of healing
  • Child cannot recall how injuries occurred
  • Offers an inconsistent explanation
  • Wary of adults
  • May flinch if touched unexpectedly
  • Extremely aggressive
  • Extremely withdrawn
  • Indiscriminately seeks affection

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse includes acts that result in the lack of a nurturing environment for a child. It occurs when the caregiver treats the child in such a negative way that the child’s concept of “self” is seriously impaired. Emotional abuse can be the most difficult to identify and prove.

Emotionally abusive behaviour by the caregiver can include:

  • constant yelling
  • demeaning remarks
  • rejecting, ignoring or isolating the child
  • terrorizing the child

Signs of emotional abuse can include:

  • Severe depression
  • Extreme withdrawal
  • Extreme aggression
  • Extreme attention seeking
  • Extreme inhibition
  • Bed wetting that is non-medical in origin
  • Frequent psychosomatic complaints (headaches, nausea, abdominal pains)
  • Failure to thrive


Neglect often results from the lack of knowledge about appropriate care for children or an inability to plan appropriately for the child’s needs. Neglect can occur because of caregiver’s diminished capacity to care for a child.

Neglect includes a caregiver failing to provide:

  • adequate food and shelter
  • safety
  • medical or psychological treatment
  • supervision
  • adequate sleep
  • clothing

Signs of neglect include:

  • Poor hygiene
  • Unattended physical problems or medical needs
  • Lack of supervision
  • Frequent absence from school
  • Engaged in delinquent acts or alcohol/drug abuse
  • Frequently arriving at school without a lunch
  • Consistently inappropriate clothing for the weather
  • Consistently dirty clothes

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse is any sexual exploitation of a child by an older person. The Criminal Code of Canada identifies a number of types of sexual abuse, including:

  • Invitation to sexual touching
  • Sexual exploitation
  • Procuring sexual activity from a child
  • Caregiver permitting sexual activity
  • Exposing genitals to a child
  • Incest
  • Exposing to or engaging in pornography

Signs of sexual abuse include:

  • Age-inappropriate play with toys, self or others
  • Unusual or excessive itching in the genital or anal area
  • Injuries to the genital or anal areas, e.g. bruising, swelling or infection
  • Displaying explicit sexual acts
  • Torn, stained or bloody underwear
  • Age-inappropriate sexually explicit drawing or descriptions
  • Bizarre, sophisticated or unusual sexual knowledge
  • Prostitution
  • Seductive behaviour