What is child abuse: Definitions, signs, and symptoms


Editor’s Note: Shannon Dingle begins a series for pastors, church staff, volunteers and parents today on recognizing and responding to suspected child abuse. Here’s Shannon.

Last week’s anonymous post by one of our readers was powerful. While difficult to read, children’s ministry leaders and others who work with kids need to be reminded that we will encounter some who are being abused or neglected and need our help. As she wrote last week,..

If someone had taken action when I first disclosed my circumstances instead of dismissing my words because my family seemed fine, I believe it would have made a world of difference in my life. Maybe if someone took my words and signs of abuse seriously, I could have been rescued before the abuse escalated and my abuser started coming to my room at night.

Following the post, our readers had three common responses:

  1. Me too. Several brave women and men commented on our Facebook page (see here and here), sharing that the post resonated with them because they also had been little kids in similar situations. Their stories were heartbreaking but underscore the importance of this topic.
  2. What are the signs of abuse? This post aims to answer that question.
  3. How does mandatory reporting work? In the near future, we will be sharing a post on this topic. For now, I’ll say that reporting should be done officially to those involved in child welfare or law enforcement, not simply to a pastor or friend.

Before we dive into the signs of abuse, how often does it happen, anyway? Well, the CDC offers the research-based estimate that 1 in 4 children experience some form of child maltreatment in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, child abuse and neglect isn’t rare, even if we wish it were. This matters.

So let’s start with some definitions. The federal government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway provides the following primary categories and definitions, found in full here:

  • Physical abuse is nonaccidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.
  • Neglect is the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child’s basic needs. Neglect may be:
    • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
    • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)
    • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
    • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)
  • Sexual abuse includes activities by a parent or caregiver such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials…
  • Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove, and therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm or mental injury to the child. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other types of maltreatment are identified.

shutterstock_1641958So what signs might indicate that a child is being abused? We curated this list from a few sources, including both the Child Welfare Information Gateway, Safe Horizons, and Mending The Soul:

  • Behavior changes such as new fear, anxiety, depression, aggression or withdrawal, not wanting to go home, running away, or appearing afraid of certain individuals
  • Overly sexualized behavior or use of explicit sexual language that’s inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Changes in sleeping patterns including frequent nightmares, difficulty falling asleep. Both may result in the child appearing tired or fatigued
  • Sudden refusal to change for gym or to participate in physical activities
  • Changes in school performance and attendance, such as being unable to concentrate in class or frequent absences
  • Trouble walking or sitting
  • Eating habits that lead to extreme weight gain or loss
  • Visible unexplained injuries such as burns, bruises, or broken bones
  • Noticeable fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
  • Evidence of self harm (including but not limited to cutting, which we’ll address in a post here later this month)
  • Use of drugs or alcohol

The biggest sign of abuse, though, is a child’s disclosure to you as a trusted adult (either directly or to a friend who comes to you on his or her behalf). In most cases, the journey of healing begins for a victim of childhood trauma when he or she tells someone and is believed. The best response you can give is, “I believe you, and I’m so sorry that happened to you.” The pain doesn’t end then, but trust and belief can be precious gifts for vulnerable kids in need of adult allies.

Let’s commit to being those allies.

Next week we’ll post about what comes next after the child’s disclosure, in terms of reporting the abuse and connecting the child and family to needed supports for safety and healing.

In addition to serving as a Key Ministry Church Consultant, Shannon Dingle is a co-founder of the Access Ministry at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC.


shutterstock_185745920Key Ministry has produced a number of resources to help church leaders respond more effectively to kids and families impacted by trauma. Dr. Grcevich did this series on trauma and kids. Jolene Philo, author of Does My Child Have PTSD?, authored this series on PTSD in children.

We also recommend resources from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network as well as resources for adoptive and foster parents developed by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Michael & Amy Monroe at Empowered to Connect.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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2 Responses to What is child abuse: Definitions, signs, and symptoms

  1. Michele says:

    My children have been abused by their father, years before I knew it and then went events happened in front of me and to me. The abuse was mainly emotional and verbal with the physical happening only to the kids because that is ok and not severe enough to leave marks or go to the hospital. They refuse to talk to anyone about it, even me. They were told as I was it was their fault it was happening to them, they were bad. I know now he is a narcissistic abuser and found out other truths that were never talked about in front of me and swept under the rug – 10 years of behavior therapists, pyschiatrists, ritalin for adhd and other drugs due to the “danger to his sibling” from brother’s anger issues/aggression, social workers, continued behavioral problems for either military school or juvenile hall that he is now trying to project onto his son. Creating crises with his son makes him seem the caring parent who wants to medicate and he makes a point of saying that there is no aggression at his house. Because I was angry at the abuser about the abuse at the abuser, I had to go to anger management. The twice-ethics violated pyschiatrist diagnosed son with ADHD and ODD from dad taking the test, then lied about what was said in sessions to the GAL and had the son removed from her custody. The recordings she made of those sessions directly contradict the pyschiatrist and the GAL refused to listen to, just like when he got mad about mom videotaping what was happening to the children and said he would give sole custody to the parent who did not videotape the kids. I told him it was to show what was happening to them. He did not care. He told my lawyer and therapist that the abuse did not matter. The GAL said he took my son away from me because I did not follow the doctor’s instructions. The abuser did not follow psychiatrist #2’s instructions for 4+ months and then got mad and took son to another pyschiatrist to write drugs for him because #2 refused to write ritalin scripts for son who did not test for ADHD. GAL has given dad “parenting lessons” and was amused telling me that dad just “loses his mind” in front of the GAL. Imagine what happens behind closed doors to the children. I don’t have to. I was there, stepping in between dad and son, the chosen target. GAL thinks that is ok. Whatever dad wants is ok so long as he claims it is for his son’s benefit. More crisis generating to keep the focus off of the true objective.

    Most of the abuse traits above do not apply, yet they were abused and refuse to say anything, or like son is coached and is a tape recorder to what is said to him over and over again – no, I have never been abused. The conditional questions are interesting too – GAL and doctor asking Are you happy? and then applying it to the drugs are working. My children have been abused once by the person who should have protected them and are now being abused by the court and the GAL who is biased toward the abuser and is not doing what is best for the child but what the abuser wants. No one is doing anything about it. The people who need to be most educated on it and what happens are the least educated on the abuse, in the positions for power, and further the abuse either because of their ignorance or their own ambitions/disorders. Many may be wanting to help. There are too many who are there only to further their own goals, gain power and side with abusers due to false beliefs of made up accusations. I have spoken only the truth, and because I am angry about the abuse and brutally honest in what I say, I am disregarded and punished for it, and thus so are my children.


  2. Pingback: Protect Our Children, Lord - Special Needs Parenting

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