Raising a child is hard. Understatement of the century, right. Raising a child is next to impossible and it’s not short of a full-time job. Between cooking meals and buying car seats and blocking electrical outlets, it seems like the task of keeping your kids safe never really ends.
And once you’ve finally baby-proofed everything in your home, they’ve grown old enough to start put padding on the sharp corners of the cabinets—and they’ve started leaving the house alone, be it for school or for some kind of club activity.
One of the scariest things as a parent is the outside world, or specifically, bad people in the world outside harming their child, any child. We might feel helpless when it comes to keeping our kids safe outside of the home, where the world doesn’t have padding on sharp edges. But there are actually some signs and signals we can pay attention to in order to better prepare ourselves for when things are going wrong when we’re not watching.
While it may be hard to think about, in this article, we’ll discuss the signs of abuse children display when they are being victimized outside of their homes. We’ll explain what to watch for in children's behavior and in their environment that might suggest that their teachers, club-masters, or even another kid’s parents are abusing them.
In addition, we’ll provide some pointers as to what parents can do if they find out that their child has been abused to prevent that person from hurting their child or any other child in the future.
15 A New, Older Friend
One of the things to watch out for in children, usually children old enough to speak relatively fluently, is if they begin to talk about a new friend who is older and frequently gives them things. These are usually gifts, occasionally money. This is a warning sign because it means that an older person that you don’t know could be manipulating them with gifts to get them to do things or perhaps to keep them quiet about something that happened.
Often, abusers (especially sexual abusers who want a long-term situation) will try to manipulate the child into doing what they want or as a bribe to keep the child from telling the parents about the abuse. If your child is receiving a lot of new gifts without explanation or mentioning a friend in their life that they describe to be much older than themselves, this is a red flag, and you should identify the gift giver as soon as possible.
14 Inappropriate Knowledge
A child who has been sexually abused will have a lot of knowledge about sex that most children their age will not have. Because they’ve been exposed to this platform, your child might seem fascinated by it, and ask you a lot of questions about sex and genitalia that you don’t know how he’s been exposed to in the first place.
In addition, a child who has been sexually abused will demonstrate sexual behavior. They might draw sexual acts taking place or make their stuffed animals do sexual acts with one another, or even try to get one of their friends to do something with them because an adult told them it was alright. An increase in knowledge about sex that has nothing to do with anything you’ve taught them might mean that someone in the child’s life has been sexually abusing them.
A child who is being abused will probably be under strict instructions from the abuser not to tell anyone. Therefore, that child will become excessively secretive. It’s likely that a child who is being abused will spend an abnormal amount of time alone. A child who once didn’t spend a lot of time alone might be seeking time alone, also, a sort of contradiction of character that we’ll discuss later.
In addition to keeping secrets and wanting to stay hidden, a child might be anxious to be around people, especially certain types of people. For example, your child might be exceedingly anxious around men or women with long hair, depending on their situation. Pay attention to your child’s body language. If your child is locking themselves away for long periods of time, it might be a sign that not everything is going alright.
Among the things that can signal a major change in a child’s behavior is their appetite. Abuse puts a child under a large amount of stress, and one of the body’s natural reaction to stress is to adjust eating patterns. Therefore, your child might start eating differently than they did, in quantity and time. If your child used to be a ravenous eater, they might not be eating at all, and if they usually are picky and eat constantly, they might be stress eating.
In addition to this, your child might stop eating altogether. This is a sign of something gone horribly wrong. If your child is having trouble swallowing, too, that could be a sign that something is physically wrong with the throat and can mean that your child has been harmed. Look for eating problems with your child; know what is normal so that you can identify deviances.
When any person is put under significant stress, they will have a lot of temper changes. A child is no exception. When a child is being abused, they might have a much different disposition when the abuser is not present. You might notice them acting out and throwing fits more often than usual, or in a typically ‘active’ child, you might notice them doing exactly the opposite and retreating more than usual, being more mild than usual.
Try to communicate with your child. Understanding what’s wrong is the first step to fixing the problem. If your child is unwilling to communicate with you and usually there isn’t a problem, and all they want to do is throw a fit or have mood swings, it might be because they’ve been put under instructions not to tell anyone. This, in turn, causes them to act out. Be on the lookout for temper changes in your child.
A child who is being abused or a child who has been abused will struggle with self-image. This is prevalent in abused children as well as abused adolescents. An adolescent is more likely to internalize the self-loathing, but a younger child might use language to describe themselves, more specifically their bodies, as bad or dirty or wrong. This is because of the abuse’s effect on the child’s mind.
Another way that a child might struggle with self-image is by refusing to de-clothe when appropriate, be that at bath time, changing to get into pajamas or the doctor’s office. A child who has been abused will not want to take off their clothes and make themselves vulnerable like that because, in the past, something happened when they did. Be keen on your child’s behavior and if your child is resisting taking their clothes off in front of you, try and find out why.
9 Sleep Problems
In a child who has been abused, you might find them having large differences in their sleep patterns. They might have a hard time sleeping when they used to or wake up frequently with nightmares. If they tell you about these nightmares, they will often involve something frightening that you didn’t think they knew about, often sexual. Your child might also sleep more than usual, because of emotional exhaustion.
If you don’t notice them sleeping less than normal, you might notice their behavior changing. For example, in an older child, teachers might say that they are falling asleep in class more often. Their performance in different activities might drop as a result of exhaustion and they might have a heightened fear of the dark or of being alone in the room at night, often wanting to sleep with the parents.
8 Strange Reports
Sometimes, children who are being abused outside of the home will do a really good job at keeping their abuser’s secret and you won’t really be tipped off to anything going on in their life. However, occasionally children will act out in public when they aren’t home because they’ll feel less safe outside of the home and therefore will feel more stressed and prone to acting out.
If your child’s teachers report that your child is more aggressive than normal, if your child is getting into trouble, sleeping in class, or anything else that sticks out as uncharacteristic behavior for your child, it’s worth looking into. Often when children are violent or aggressive it’s because of something on in their life that is diffusing aggressive and hateful energy into their heads. This is projection, putting what they feel on the inside out onto others, and is common in abused people.
This symptom of abuse is common among older children and is one of the biggest red flags for sexual abuse in children. If a child is being abused, they will start to display behavior that is characteristic of a younger child. A potty-trained child might start wetting their pants more often, or wetting the bed. Thumb-sucking and carrying a blanket is also common with this symptom.
Also, a child might get excessively clingy with the parent. They might even develop speech problems that reflect the speech pathology of a much younger child, reversing progress made in their vocabulary and in some cases the child will stop talking altogether and start communicating in points and head motions.
They may not want to sleep alone anymore, and they may be more prone to temper tantrums akin to what younger children have. Regression to earlier years’ behavior is common in sexually abused children; be familiar with your child’s behavior to note any abnormalities.
6 Abusive Head Trauma
Abusive head trauma (AHT), also known as Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), is something that happens to babies or very young toddlers. AHT occurs when a baby is shaken and their head is either jerked too hard, hits something, or is struck with an object. It can happen to children up to five years old, and while often a mistake on behalf of the caretaker, it’s incredibly dangerous because babies often don’t show signs of trauma until it’s too late.
A baby will experience severe brain damage after AHT. Symptoms include partial or total blindness, hearing loss, seizures, developmental delays, speech difficulty, and difficulty with learning and paying attention. When hiring a caretaker, make sure you hire someone with a level head to avoid having that person lose their temper and shake your baby. It is important to never, ever shake a baby; AHT severely damages babies.
Now that we’ve covered some (but not all!) of the signs of your child being abused by someone, let’s talk about prevention, ways to handle an abuser, and the people most likely to abuse your child. The first step is communication. It’s important to have regular communication with your child so that they’re comfortable enough to tell you when something is wrong.
If your child goes somewhere for daycare or school, ask them about their day regularly. Ask them questions that are easy to answer, like ‘Did anything happen to you today that you didn’t like?’ Asking these questions regularly and making your child comfortable with answering them makes them more likely to tell you when something is going wrong. Children rarely lie about serious abuse, though it is difficult for them to come clean about it most of the time.
4 Healthcare Provider
If you believe that your child is being abused, or if your child tells you that they are being abused, it is wise to take them to healthcare provider. Don’t wait until you have ‘proof’ of abuse; as mentioned earlier, children rarely lie about abuse, and you don’t want to give an abuser more time to cause more harm. Go to a healthcare provider to get your child looked at to check for physical damages.
Keep in mind that healthcare providers are legally required to report suspected cases of abuse. This is a good thing, and it’s to help your child. Be honest with your healthcare provider, and believe and support everything that your child says. Shutting them down while they’re explaining something or refusing to believe them can make them refuse to open up any further or tell you about anything happening in the future.
3 Get Help
A person who abuses children is not entirely likely to stop at your child. Once you know your child is being abused and remove them from the abuser (which you should do at all cost and immediately), the abuser is likely to move on to another target. Call the police in your area to make an investigation about this person so that they can keep from harming children in the future.
You may feel hesitant to call the police; don’t. At the very least, warn other parents about the person who is abusing your child so that they can also avoid them. There are several hotlines to help with child abuse as well. These are the Stop it Now! hotlines and they vary by area, so look up yours to get advice on the best course of action for you and your child—your child’s safety is a priority. Make sure they’re in a safe place.
2 Believe Your Child
As mentioned before, accept and believe what your child tells you. One of the biggest fears that abuse victims have is people not believing what they have to say, and it’s what keeps most people from coming forward and telling someone about it. Your child will take a lot of courage to tell you if someone is abusing them, so don’t shut them down or dismiss anything they say as ‘too exaggerated’ or ‘unlikely.’ It could seriously damage their ability to open up about future problems to anyone.
In addition, support your child. Creating a safe environment where a child knows that they will be supported and believed is fundamental in the child’s ability to emotionally recover from an abusive situation. Externalizing feelings and emotions are key in recovery, so create a place where your child can come to you with problems and talk about concerns.
1 Most Likely to Harm
One of the most important things to do when dealing with child abuse is to prevent it. One of the best ways to prevent it is to know where it’s coming from or where it’s likely to come from. Most cases of abuse happen within the family—sad, yes, but true. Usually, a relative is the perpetrator of most child abuse cases, if not the parent then a slightly more distant relative that still spends a lot of time with the child.
Be thorough in your investigation when you hire a babysitter or caretaker as well. Look for histories of drug and alcohol abuse, and run a background check to make sure they have no history of violent behavior. Spend time with the babysitter and the child to make sure that the babysitter knows how to behave around the child before leaving the babysitter alone with the child. These tips will help keep your child safe and prevent abuse.