Health Break | Published April 14, 2014 | Written by Kristina Taylor-Porter, MA, executive director, Children's Advocacy Center of Centre County, Mount Nittany Health

Understanding the signs of child abuse, and how to talk with your children

April is Child Abuse Awareness and Prevention Month, and with national statistics of one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday, the likelihood of knowing a child or adult who has been victimized is high.

As adults, it's our obligation to recognize the potential signs of abuse and take an active role in preventing, responding and reporting our suspicion of abuse. Oftentimes, there are no physical signs of abuse; however, the most recognizable signs are changes in the child.

Some signs of abuse may include but are not limited to:

  • Unexplained injuries, which may include cuts, burns, and/or bruises in a pattern or shape
  • The child may appear anxious, depressed, aggressive or withdrawn
  • The child may regress to earlier behaviors that may be exhibited by thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, etc.
  • Some children may express fear of going to the place in which the abuse may be occurring such as home, school, church, etc.
  • The child's sleep patterns may change and the child may report frequent nightmares. Often, adults notice a more fatigued or tired child
  • The child's performance and attendance at school may be affected
  • The child may exhibit poor personal care or hygiene
  • Some children may display inappropriate sexual behaviors

Sometimes, children are very reluctant to disclose their abuse for many reasons, and as adults, we may struggle with ways to talk with our children about abuse. But it’s important to start when they are young.

Talk with children about their bodies and feelings early on. Empower the child to claim ownership of their body and feelings. Teach children that people should treat their body and feelings with respect, which means no one has the right to hurt them or make them or their body feel uncomfortable in anyway. Likewise, children are to respect other peoples' bodies and feelings.

Then, adults must be prepared. Be prepared to listen to our instincts when a child presents their changing behaviors. Be prepared to listen when children are ready to talk.

Open the lines of communication and eliminate distractions when talking with children. Create a safe space for your child to talk to you about anything. Remember, children are learning to navigate this world, and as adults it's our job to be a positive sounding board and mentor to encourage safety, growth and understanding.

Listen without judgment when a child brings the little problems to you, so they know you will do the same if they have bigger problems. When a child brings their problems to you, thank them for telling you and talk with them about how you can work together to solve it.

If during your time with a child, you become aware or suspicious of child abuse, it's vital to report immediately, so trained professionals can begin to ensure the child's safety and investigate. Reports can be made to children and youth services, local law enforcement and/or to ChildLine at 1.800.932.0313.