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Recognizing the Warning Signs of Child Abuse and Neglect

Child abuse and neglect can have a devastating impact on children and families. Sometimes the signs are obvious, but often they are subtle. This lesson will describe some common signs and behavioral indicators of child abuse and neglect. It will also help you learn to recognize signs of abuse or neglect that happen in home settings and institutional settings. 

  • Identify the signs and behavioral indicators of child abuse and neglect for preschool children.  
  • Identify examples of behaviors that might indicate familial or institutional abuse.  
  • Observe children for signs of suspected abuse and neglect. 



We all want to keep children safe. To do so, we must be able to recognize when a child is in harm’s way. Look for the following signs from the Child Welfare Information Gateway fact sheet on Child Abuse and Neglect (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services).

The child:

  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or seems to regress without explanation
  • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Lacks adult supervision
  • Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
  • Is dropped off at the program or other activities early, stays late, or does not want to go home

The parent:

  • Shows little concern for the child
  • Denies the existence of—or blames the child for—the child's problems in the program or at home
  • Asks teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
  • Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome
  • Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve
  • Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs

The parent and child:

  • Rarely touch or look at each other
  • Consider their relationship entirely negative
  • State that they do not like each other

It’s not always easy to recognize child abuse and neglect. Remember that any one of these signs by itself does not necessarily mean a child has been abused or neglected. Often a pattern or combination of behaviors may lead to the suspicion that a child is experiencing abuse or neglect.

Asking Questions and Opening the Lines of Communication

All children get hurt occasionally: bumps, bruises, and scrapes can be signs of healthy exploration. Sometimes, more serious accidents happen as well: a child pulls a cup of hot tea down on herself or a child is involved in a car accident. Sometimes a medical condition causes symptoms that mimic abuse. For example, some skin conditions can cause marks that look like bruises or scars. To be most effective at protecting children from child abuse and neglect, we must be able to differentiate between accidents and abuse. Conversations are a powerful tool for doing so. Whenever you notice an injury or symptom in a child, complete an incident or accident report and ask about the injury. This is a standard part of caregiving and shows you take an interest in the child’s well-being. Remember, you are not investigating the injury. You are simply doing what comes naturally when someone is hurt: asking what happened and how the person is doing. Here are some tips for asking questions:

  • Ask open-ended questions. You might say, “Ouch. That looks like it hurts. What happened?”
  • Show concern and empathy: “I bet that was pretty scary. How did it happen?”
  • Make sure it’s an OK time to talk, and be prepared to get help if the family needs it. “Is it OK to ask you about Geri’s bruises? Do you have a minute?”
  • Find out if there is anything else you should know about the injuries. “I’m glad you took her to the doctor. Is there anything we should do to make her comfortable during the day? Or is there anything she shouldn’t do?”

In most cases the family member will give you a clear and accurate account of what happened. You can also ask the child what happened. You might suspect child abuse or neglect if:

  • The child’s answer and the adult’s answers do not match or if two different adults give conflicting stories about how the injury happened. For example, a child has scratches all over her face. At drop-off, her dad says she got them from a child at a birthday party. At pick-up, her mom says she got them from the family cat.
  • The story does not seem consistent with the child’s developmental level. For example, if you know a child cannot yet physically pull her body weight up to climb a tree, you might be suspicious if the parent says she climbed high enough to fall and get seriously injured.
  • The story is not consistent with the injuries. For example, a child has burn marks on his hands that look almost like gloves—his hands were clearly submerged in something hot. His mother says the child accidentally grabbed a pot off the stove. Accidental burn injuries usually show some kind of splatter patterns as the child pulls away.

Resources You Should Know About

Your Training & Curriculum Specialist or Program Manager can be valuable resources as you learn about the signs of child abuse and neglect. They are your first line of support. Go to them whenever you have questions or concerns.

Your Family Advocacy Program can provide training and technical support around recognizing child abuse and neglect. Talk to your T&CS, PM, and FAP representative about any questions or concerns you have.

The Family Advocacy Program will provide more installation- and Service-specific training on local issues, protocols, and resources. You will also receive additional training from your T&CS throughout your career. The Virtual Lab School course is just the beginning of your professional learning around reporting and preventing child abuse and neglect.

Scope and Mission of Family Advocacy Programs

Your FAP team can help you recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect.

You can find a quick summary of FAP roles and responsibilities as an attachment at the end of the Learn section.


The following are signs often associated with particular types of child abuse and neglect. It is important to note, however, that these types of abuse are more typically found in combination than alone. A physically abused child, for example, is often emotionally abused as well, and a sexually abused child also may be neglected. Remember, there are two kinds of abuse to remain aware of: familial and institutional. The signs and behavioral indicators you see in children may be similar for each.

Physical Abuse

You might see a child who...

  • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones, or black eyes
  • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from the program
  • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home
  • Shrinks at the approach of adults
  • Reports injury by a parent or another adult caregiver

You might see a parent or adult who...

  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child's injury
  • Describes the child as "evil," or in some other very negative way
  • Uses harsh physical discipline with the child

Examples of Familial Physical Abuse

  • Jordyn has circular burn marks up and down her thighs. They are size and shape of a cigarette.
  • A child has bite marks on his arm. When you ask what happens, he says, “I bit my brother, so mom bit me back.”

Examples of Institutional Physical Abuse

  • Robert has been using severe challenging behavior lately. A staff member says, “I’ll take care of this. I know his mom and she would not want him to get away with this,” and takes Robert around the side of the building out of sight. When they come back, Robert is crying and holding his backside.

Sexual Abuse

You might see a child who...

  • Has difficulty walking or sitting
  • Suddenly refuses to change clothes or to participate in physical activities
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting
  • Experiences a sudden change in appetite
  • Demonstrates bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual knowledge or behavior
  • Runs away
  • Reports sexual abuse by a parent or another adult caregiver

You might see a parent or adult who...

  • Is unduly protective of the child or severely limits the child’s contact with other children, especially of the opposite sex
  • Is secretive and isolated
  • Is jealous or controlling with family members

Examples of Familial Sexual Abuse

  • You see Candice lying on top of a boy in the dramatic play center. She is clearly making sexual movements and seems to have a very accurate knowledge of sexual behavior.
  • Amelia’s 19-year-old brother is coming to pick her up today. She tells you she loves her brother and they have “secrets” in her room at night.

Examples of Institutional Sexual Abuse

  • A staff member has sexual pictures of a child on his or her phone.
  • A child tells you Mr. Jay’s “pee-pee is bigger than his.”

Emotional Abuse

You might see a child who...

  • Shows extremes in behavior, such as overly compliant or demanding behavior, extreme passivity, or aggression
  • Is either inappropriately adult (parenting other children, for example) or inappropriately infantile (frequently rocking or head-banging, for example)
  • Is delayed in physical or emotional development
  • Reports a lack of attachment to the parent

You might see a parent or adult who...

  • Constantly blames, belittles, or berates the child
  • Is unconcerned about the child and refuses to consider offers of help for the child’s problems
  • Overtly rejects the child
  • Has bruises, reports fear of partner/other parent, makes statements about abuse from partner (domestic violence)

Examples of Familial Emotional Abuse

  • A father comes to pick Dora up from the program. He tells her to stop being “slow and stupid like her mom.”
  • A 5-year-old says there is nothing he likes to do with his parents and ignores them when they arrive at the program.

Examples of Institutional Emotional Abuse

  • A staff member joins in when children begin ridiculing another child’s body size. She calls the child “fat and lazy.”
  • A staff member forces a child to stay in his soiled clothes after a toileting accident so he “learns a lesson.”


You might see a child who...

  • Is frequently absent
  • Begs or steals food or money
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care, immunizations, or glasses
  • Is consistently dirty and has severe body odor
  • Lacks sufficient clothing for the weather
  • States that there is no one at home to provide care

You might see a parent or adult who...

  • Appears to be indifferent to the child
  • Seems apathetic or depressed
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner
  • Is abusing alcohol or other drugs

Examples of Familial Neglect

  • 4-year-old Marjorie tells you her 6-year-old sister had to make dinner for her last night. No other adults were in the home.
  • Zach’s mom has not brought in a replacement for his empty rescue inhaler. Zach has severe asthma and needs the medication.

Examples of Institutional Neglect

  • A staff member leaves children unattended on the playground, and a child gets injured.
  • A staff member takes an unscheduled break and leaves children unsupervised.

Recognizing Child Abuse and Neglect in Child Development Centers

Caring for children can be a stressful job. There can be a fine line between inappropriate caregiving practices and child abuse. When in doubt, talk to your administratorT&CS, Program Manager, or FAP. In the course on Preventing Child Abuse in Center Settings, you will learn more about positive guidance and discipline strategies. Sometimes, discipline practices cross the line into maltreatment and even abuse. You will learn more about that in the next course. This lesson focuses on clear examples of child abuse or neglect in child development centers. If you see a pattern of any of these signs or behaviors, you might suspect child abuse or neglect in your setting:

Signs of Abuse in Programs

  • A staff member hits or strikes a child.
  • A staff member uses corporal punishment like spanking or whipping.
  • A staff member touches a child sexually or forces a child to touch the staff member sexually.
  • A staff member publicly ridicules a child for having an accident and soiling their pants.
  • A staff member takes an unscheduled break and leaves the program out of ratio or children unsupervised.
  • A staff member leaves children unsupervised while using dangerous equipment, or the staff member does not stop dangerous behaviors while using the equipment.
  • A staff member withholds food as punishment.
  • Staff members ignore a fight between two children, and a child is seriously injured.

Medical Conditions Mistaken for Abuse

There are several medical conditions that often bring about symptoms that could be mistaken for abuse. It is important to be aware of these conditions, but remember you are not responsible for making medical diagnoses. If you have questions, ask the family or a community resource for support.

  • Mongolian spots: These gray spots are present at birth and often look like bruises. They are usually found on the buttocks or lower back, but they can be found anywhere. They fade slowly over time.
  • Blood or bleeding disorders: Some genetic conditions can cause severe bruising.
  • Bone deficiencies or diseases: Some bone diseases cause bones to break easily.

Cultural Practices Mistaken for Abuse

Some cultures have rituals or healing practices that might be mistaken for signs of abuse. All suspected concerns of abuse should be immediately reported. It is not your job to determine whether something you see is a cultural practice or an instance of abuse. Even though the action may be a cultural practice, it could still be considered abuse. This is why you should make a report and let CPS or FAP make that determination. This section is intended only to give you some basic information about customs that can be mistaken for child abuse. Two common examples are coining and cupping.

In coining, the chest, back, and shoulders are rubbed with a medicated ointment. Then a warmed copper coin is rubbed from the top of the shoulders down the back. Dark lines appear from the pressure and the heat. The marks, which look like long bruises, usually last for several days.

Cupping is a home remedy used to relieve pain in the legs, back, chest, abdomen, or head. A small glass cup is held upside down and a candle is lit inside it. The cup is quickly placed on the skin and a vacuum effect draws the skin up. A circular mark is left on the skin for several days. There is often a series of cup marks along the affected area. Olympic gold medalist and swimmer Michael Phelps brought the practice to the forefront during the 2016 Olympics.

There are many other cultural practices that might be considered child abuse by state law. If you are unsure whether a mark is a sign of child abuse, it is always best to make a report. The appropriate authorities will make the determination.


  • Get to know all the children in your care and their families. You cannot recognize a problem if you don’t know what is typical for the child. Learn children’s patterns, temperaments, preferences, and abilities. Talk to families every day.
  • Learn all you can about child development. Some changes in a child’s behavior can be startling but completely typical. For example, it’s not unusual for toddlers to have bruises all over their legs or on their heads. Falling is a part of learning to walk and run! Young children may be scared of certain adults as part of typical stranger anxiety. Knowing these developmental stages can help you recognize when a child’s behavior goes beyond what is typically expected.
  • Attend trainings offered by your installation’s Family Advocacy Program on child abuse identification and reporting.
  • Develop respectful communication skills. If you have a concern, ask about it. Ask open-ended questions that focus on the child’s well-being. “Is it okay if I ask you about Jordan’s bruises?” or “I’ve noticed that Tasha hasn’t seemed like herself lately. Is everything okay?” If something doesn’t seem right, gather as much information as you can.
  • Keep careful records. Your daily health screening can be an important tool for identifying child abuse and neglect. Look for signs or behavioral indicators and write down what you see or hear. Write down adults’ explanations for injuries and children’s explanations (if applicable). If a pattern emerges, you will have ample evidence for making your report.
  • Learn about the cultures of the children you serve. Some cultures have rituals or healing practices that might be mistaken for signs of abuse. Ask your trainer or manager for information if you need help. When in doubt, make a report. Child Protective Services or the Family Advocacy Program will decide whether abuse has occurred.
  • Learn reporting procedures for your state or installation. You will learn more about this in the next lesson.


Learn more about the scenario that you read in Lesson 1. Look for the signs of abuse and neglect in the activity Preschool Case Study: Part 2. Then answer the reflection questions. When you are finished, share your answers with your trainer, coach, or administrator. Then, review the suggested responses for additional reflection on Kate’s story.


Print the fact sheet Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms from the Child Welfare Information Gateway. This is a useful resource to review and share with other team members to ensure that everyone at your program learns to recognize the warning signs of child abuse and neglect.

Child abuse and neglect can also have lasting effects. Print this additional fact sheet, titled Long-Term Consequences of Abuse and Neglect, from the Child Welfare Information Gateway. This handout will help you learn about the possible outcomes of child abuse and neglect.


Emotional abuse:
A pattern of behavior by adults that seriously interferes with a child’s cognitive, emotional, psychological or social development
Familial abuse and neglect:
Abuse or neglect performed by a parent, guardian, or member of the family
Guidance and touch policy:
The policy your program has developed that describes the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable discipline procedures and ways of touching children
Institutional abuse and neglect:
Abuse or neglect that takes place outside of the child’s home and is performed by someone in a supervisory role over the child (teacher, scout leader, etc.)
Failure by a caregiver to provide needed, age-appropriate care although financially able to do so or offered financial or other means to do so (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2007)
Physical abuse:
Non-accidental trauma or injury
Sexual abuse:
The involvement of a child in any sexual touching, depiction, or activity


Which of the following scenarios might make you suspect child abuse or neglect? 
True or false? Parents are the only people who abuse or neglect children. 
A mobile infant comes in with new bruises. What should you do first? 
Which of the following is not an example or sign of institutional abuse or neglect? 
Which of the following is not a sign of familial abuse or neglect? 
References & Resources

Center for the Study of Social Policy. (2018). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2013). Violence Prevention. Retrieved from:

Military One Source. (n.d.). Military Family Advocacy Programs. Retrieved from

Seibel, N. L., Britt, D., Gillespie, L. G., & Parlakian, R. (2006). Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: Zero to Three: Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Cyberbullying. Retrieved from