What we know about ourselves and our behavior tells us that any of us might abuse or neglect our children. Many of us have felt at times that life is more than we can handle. What stops us from giving up or lashing out are skills and mechanisms we have learned to control or divert our anger, accept and assume adult responsibility, recognize realistic boundaries of acceptable behavior and expectation, and seek and accept help and support. When adults are faced with a situation which requires the use of coping skills that have not been developed, child abuse or neglect often results.
Although this explanation is oversimplified, it does help us understand how abuse and neglect can occur. It also explains the term “cycle of child abuse and neglect.” Children learn from their parents. A child who has been raised in a home where violence is an accepted response to frustration will as an adult tend to react violently. The skills necessary for controlling anger or frustration are never learned. What is learned is violence.
In the same way, a parent who lacks self-esteem or maturity cannot instill these characteristics within his child. Without significant outside influences, the child is likely to become an adult who perceives himself and life in the same manner as his parent does. This is the cycle of child abuse and neglect: adults tend to repeat the actions and attitudes that they learn as children.
We can identify many skills as essential for good parenting and use them to identify families who may be experiencing problems of abuse or neglect. Frequently, adults who abuse or neglect children share characteristics that reflect their failure to learn these skills. We must remember, however, that child abuse and neglect is a multifaceted problem created through a mix of many ingredients, each unique and as complex as the individuals involved. An indicator of child abuse and neglect is a clue to a child’s possible need. As with any clue, it is only a small piece that must be fitted into a larger picture.
Adults who abuse or neglect children usually will share several of the following general characteristics:
A shoulder to cry on and a friend to lean on are things most of us need. Adults who abuse or neglect children often do not have this support. They are isolated physically and emotionally from family, friends, neighbors, and organized groups. They may discourage social contact, and rarely will participate in school or community activities.
Many of these adults perceive themselves as bad, worthless, or unlovable. Children of parents with a poor self-concept often are regarded by their parents as deserving of abuse or neglect, because they see their children as reflections of themselves. They view abuse and neglect as behavior that is expected of them.
This characteristic may be reflected in many ways:
using the child to meet the adult’s own emotional or physical needs;
a constant craving for change and excitement.
Lack of Parenting Knowledge
Many times, abuse or neglect results because the adult does not understand the child’s developmental needs. Society expects people to know the rights and wrongs of parenthood. But parenthood is a complex and difficult job. Abusive parents often are strict disciplinarians who are frustrated from unmet expectations. These parents tend to place unrealistic demands upon their children, and view their child’s inability to perform as willful, deliberate disobedience.
It has not been clearly established whether substance abuse is a causative or a resulting factor. However, studies consistently have shown a correlation between the misuse of drugs or alcohol and the occurrence of abuse and neglect.
Lack of Interpersonal Skills
The abusive or neglectful adult often has not learned to interact with people. How to form relationships, socialize, and work together are skills we learn in childhood.
Unmet Emotional Needs
Often, the abusive or neglectful parent has not had met the basic emotional needs which we all share — warmth, support and love. Unable to provide the child with these feelings which let us grow and mature, they will, instead, seek fulfillment from the child.
The adult may express these characteristics through different attitudes or actions. Certain adult behaviors and attitudes can be correlated with the occurrence of specific types of abuse or neglect.
In the family where physical abuse is occurring, the abusive adult may:
have unrealistically high standards and expectations for himself/his children
be rigid or compulsive
be hostile and aggressive
be impulsive with poor emotional control
be authoritative and demanding
fear or resent authority
lack control or fear losing control
be cruel or sadistic
be incapable of child rearing
trust no one
believe in the necessity of harsh physical discipline
accept violence as a viable means of problem resolution
have an undue fear of spoiling the child
consistently react to the child with impatience or annoyance
be overly critical of the child and seldom discuss the child in positive terms
lack understanding of the child’s physical and emotional needs
lack understanding of the child’s developmental capabilities
be reluctant or unable to explain the child’s injuries or condition or give explanations which are farfetched or inconsistent with the injury
over or under react to the child’s injury
not consent to diagnostic studies of the child
have the child treated by a different hospital or physician each time the child needs medical attention
fail to keep appointments
perceive himself as alone, without friends or support
view seeking or accepting help as a weakness
be under pressure
have an emotionally dependent spouse
be engaged in a dominant-passive marital relationship
have marital problems
have been physically abused himself/herself
In the family where sexual abuse is occurring, the abusive adult may:
be overly protective of the child
refuse to allow the child to participate in social activities
be jealous of the child’s friends or activities
accuse the child of promiscuity
distrust the child
have marital problems
need to be in control or fear losing control
be domineering, rigid, or authoritarian
favor a “special” child in the family
have been sexually abused himself/herself
In the family where emotional maltreatment is occurring, the maltreating adult may:
act irrationally or appear to be out of touch with reality
be deeply depressed
exhibit extreme mood swings
constantly belittle the child or describe the child in terms such as “bad,” “different,” or “stupid”
be cruel or sadistic
be ambivalent towards the child
expect behavior that is inappropriate to the child’s age or developmental capabilities
consistently shame the child
threaten the child with the withdrawal of love, food, shelter, or clothing
consistently threaten the child’s health or safety
reject the child or discriminate among children in the family
be involved in criminal activities
use bizarre or extreme methods of punishment
avoid contact with the child, seldom touching, holding, or caressing him/her
avoid looking or smiling at the child
be overly strict or rigid
torture the child
physically abuse or neglect the child
have been abused or neglected himself
In the family where neglect is occurring, the neglecting adult may:
have a constant craving for excitement and change
express dissatisfaction with his/her life
express desire to be free of the demands of the child
lack interest in the child’s activities
have a low acceptance of the child’s dependency needs
be generally unskilled as a parent
have little planning or organizational skills
frequently appear unkempt
perceive the child as a burden or bother
be occupied more with his/her problems than with the child’s
be overly critical of the child and seldom discuss him/her in positive terms
have unrealistic expectations of the child, expecting or demanding behavior beyond the child’s years or ability
seldom touch or look at the child
ignore the child’s crying or react with impatience
keep the child confined, perhaps in a crib or playpen, for long periods of time
be hard to locate
lack understanding of the child’s physical or emotional needs
be sad or moody
fit the clinical description “passive and dependent”
lack understanding of the child’s developmental capabilities
fail to keep appointments and return telephone calls
have been neglected himself/herself
Although some forms of abuse and neglect are more difficult to detect than others, there always are signs or clues which, singly or together, suggest that a child might be in need of help. Two types of clues are usually given by an abused or neglected child — physical indicators and behavioral indicators.
These clues are the easiest to detect and diagnose. Aspects of the child’s appearance and the presence of bodily injury are physical indicators.
Often, children will send messages through their behavior which suggest the occurrence of abuse or neglect. These clues may be in the form of “acting out” behaviors or behaviors which reflect the child’s attempt to cope with or hide the abuse or neglect. Behavioral indicators are more difficult to detect and interpret than physical indicators. It is not your responsibility to use these indicators to determine if a child is being abused or neglected. The child’s safety and the serious ramifications of alleged child abuse and neglect make it critical that the determination be made by an experienced and trained professional. You can help by asking for the assistance the child may need. Immediately report any suspicion of child abuse or neglect to your local public children services agency.
Remember that child abuse and neglect involves people. Every incident is individual in its causes and effects. There is no blueprint for identifying an abused or neglected child. While any of these clues may occur without cause for alarm, you should be especially alert to frequent repetition or the presence of multiple indicators.
Child maltreatment falls in one or more of four general categories:
1. Physical Abuse
2. Sexual Abuse
3. Emotional Maltreatment
Clues to Recognizing Physical Abuse
unexplained, chronic, or repeated bruising
Be especially alert to bruises:
o on the face, throat, upper arms, buttocks, thighs, or lower back
o in unusual patterns or shapes which suggest the use of an instrument (loop, lash, linear, circular or rectangular marks)
o on an infant
o in the shape of bite or pinch marks
o in clusters
o in various stages of healing
Be especially alert to:
o cigarette burns. This type of burn is circular, and often found on the child’s palms, soles of feet, genitalia, or abdomen.
o immersion burns. These burns characteristically will produce sharp lines of demarcation and appear on the buttocks, genital area, or extremities. On the hands and feet, burns can produce a “glove” or “stocking” effect; on the buttocks, immersion burns often will be “doughnut shaped.”
o rope burns
o burns in the shape of common household utensils or appliances.
unexplained skeletal injuries
Skeletal injuries resulting from physical abuse often include:
o injury to the facial structure, skull, and bones around the joints
o fractures and dislocations caused by a severe blow or twisting or pulling of the arm or leg
o any skeletal injury in an infant
other unexplained or repeated injuries
Injuries resulting from physical abuse often include:
o lacerations, abrasions, welts, scars, human bite or pinch marks
o missing, chipped, or loosened teeth, tearing of the gum tissue, lips, tongue, and skin surrounding the mouth
o loss of hair/bald patches
o broken eardrum
o retinal hemorrhage
o abdominal injuries
behavioral extremes (withdrawal, aggression, regression)
inappropriate or excessive fear of parent or caretaker
unusual shyness, wariness of physical contact
antisocial behavior, such as substance abuse, truancy, running away
reluctance to return home
belief that punishment is deserved
suggestion that other children should be punished in a harsh manner
victim’s disclosure of abuse
depression, excessive crying
unbelievable or inconsistent explanation for injuries
attempt to hide injuries
Clues to Recognizing Sexual Abuse
somatic complaints, including pain and irritation of the genitals
sexually transmitted disease
bruises or bleeding from external genitalia, vagina or anal region
torn, stained, or bloody underclothes
frequent, unexplained sore throats, yeast or urinary infections
the victim’s disclosure of the sexual abuse
poor peer relationships, inability to relate to children of same age
regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking, bedwetting, fear of the dark, or reattachment to a favorite toy
sudden changes in behavior
promiscuity or seductive behavior
aggression or delinquency
truancy or chronic running away
difficulty in walking or sitting
reluctance to participate in recreational activity
in young children, preoccupation with his/her sexual organs, his parents’, or other children’s
recurrent nightmares, disturbed sleep patterns, or fear of the dark
unusual and age-inappropriate interest in sexual matters
age-inappropriate ways of expressing affection
avoidance of undressing or the wearing extra layers of clothes
sudden avoidance of certain familiar adults or places
sudden decline in school performance
Clues to Recognizing Emotional Maltreatment
Except regarding bizarre and deviant behavior, there is a wide range of opinion of what is emotionally abusive or neglectful. Some argue that spanking is a degrading experience, humiliating to a child, while others regard physical discipline as a necessary parental behavior. The Model Child Protection Act, developed by the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, provides criteria to aid in identifying emotional maltreatment:
Emotional maltreatment causes emotional or mental injury.
The effect of emotional maltreatment can be observed in the child’s abnormal behavior and performance.
The effect of emotional maltreatment constitutes a handicap to the child.
The effect of emotional maltreatment is lasting rather than temporary.
eating disorders, including obesity or anorexia
speech disorders, such as stuttering or stammering
developmental delays in the acquisition of speech or motor skills
weight or height level substantially below the norm
flat or bald spots on an infant’s head
nervous disorders, such as hives, rashes, facial tics, or stomachaches
habit disorders, such as biting, rocking, head banging
regressive behaviors, such as thumb sucking, “baby talk,” bedwetting by an older child, wetting or soiling by school-age child
poor relations with peers
withdrawal or self-isolation
cruel behavior, appearing to get pleasure from causing harm to children, adults, or animals; seeming to get pleasure from being mistreated
excessive risk taking
loss of touch with reality, frequent daydreaming, hallucinating, extreme fantasies
behavioral extremes: overly compliant-demanding; withdrawn-aggressive; listless-excitable
Clues to Recognizing Neglect
Indicators of neglect must be considered in light of the parents’ cultural mores and financial ability to provide. Poverty is not neglect. Because many situations of neglect require judgment calls, you must be careful not to use personal values as the decision-making standard. Instead, ask yourself if the child is:
appropriately and sufficiently clothed for the weather?
clean and practicing good hygiene?
receiving necessary medical and dental care?
having nutritional needs met?
assured of a safe, warm and sanitary shelter?
receiving adequate love and emotional support?
receiving necessary developmental and educational stimulation?
chronic uncleanness or poor hygiene, including lice, scabies, severe or untreated diaper rash, bedsores, body odor, squinting
unsuitable clothing; missing key articles of clothing such as underwear, socks, shoes, or coat; or overdressed in hot weather
untreated illness or injury
excessive sunburn, colds, insect bites, or other conditions which would indicate prolonged exposure to the elements
height and weight significantly below age level
lack of immunizations
unusual school attendance, such as frequent or chronic absence, lateness, coming to school early or leaving late
chronic hunger, tiredness, or lethargy
begging or collecting leftovers
assuming adult responsibilities
reporting no caretaker in home
vandalism or delinquency
information provided by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services