Effects, Signs & Symptoms of Physical & Sexual Abuse

Childhood abuse encompasses far more than bruises and broken bones. Physical child abuse can include serious physical problems and long-lasting scars, but the emotional effects of child abuse are far more serious. It doesn’t matter whether or not the abuse of a child was violent or physical; the aftereffects of neglect, sexual child abuse, and emotional abuse can be just as damaging. As the effects are more subtle, people may not even notice that a child is being abused. Child abuse occurs in every race, across all socioeconomic backgrounds, and across childhood ages. The long-term effects of child abuse impact a child’s psychological, behavioral, social, and developmental potential. The earlier the abuse is stopped and treatment begun, the more resiliency the child learns and the better the outcome.


Each year in the United States, over three million reports of child abuse are made involving more than 6 million children. On average, 4 to 7 children are lost to child abuse and neglect.

What Are Risk Factors for Child Abuse?

While child abuse and neglect does occur in all types of families, certain children are at a greater risk in some types of situations. The risk factors for child abuse and neglect may include:

Alcohol and drug use: Living with an addict is very hard on children and can often lead to neglect and abuse. Parents who are high are unable to care for their child appropriately, make proper parenting decisions, and control impulses. Substance abuse commonly leads to physical child abuse.

Domestic Violence: Watching domestic violence can leave a lasting impression on children and constitutes emotional abuse. Even if the abused parent tries his or her best to protect their child from abuse, it is still a damaging situation.

Parenting Skills: Some parents and caregivers never learned how to be a good parent, especially if they are younger or were the victim of abuse themselves.

Social Support: Parenting is a hard job at best especially when a parent or caregiver does not have the appropriate social support of friends, family, loved ones, or community resources. It can be especially stressful during financial hardships, marital strife, or job loss. Special needs or disabled children are especially challenging for stressed parents.

Untreated Mental Illness: Parents or caregivers suffering from untreated depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness may struggle to care for themselves, and their children often go uncared for. A parent who has untreated mental illness may be withdrawn, quick to anger, and abusive.

What Are The Types of Child Abuse?

There are a number of types of childhood, each of which leave lasting marks on the children who are affected.

Child neglect is the failure of a parent or guardian to provide for a child’s basic needs. Child neglect may include failure to provide for the child’s physical wellbeing, such as lack of food or shelter or appropriate supervision. It may involve medical neglect or failure to provide a child with necessary medical or mental health treatment. Educational neglect may involve the failure to educate a child or attend to the needs of a special needs child. Emotional neglect involves an inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol.

Physical child abuse involves non-accidental harm or injury to a child, sometimes as the result of punching, kicking, biting, beating, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting, burning, or otherwise harming a child. A child who is being physically abused knows that the abuse is unpredictable and is never certain what will set the abuser off. An abuser may use fear to control the child’s behavior and lash out in anger and control, rather than as a means to teach a child right from wrong.

Emotional (or psychological) child abuse represents a pattern of behaviors that impede the emotional development or sense of self-worth of a child. This may take the form of constant criticism, threats, withholding love, support, or guidance. While emotional child abuse may be hard to prove, it is almost always present when other types of child maltreatment exist.

Child sexual abuse involves activities by a caregiver or parent such as fondling, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or production of pornographic materials. This form of child abuse is riddled with guilt and shame; the emotional component of child sexual abuse is long-lasting and far-reaching as the child may feel as though he or she caused the abuse.

 If you feel that your child is in crisis, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Warning Signs of Child Abuse

The earlier child abuse is caught, the better the chance a child has at a more successful treatment and recovery. Child abuse is not always obvious and can manifest in a wide variety of ways. Common signs of child abuse may include:

Warning Signs of Child Neglect in Children:

  • Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the season
  • Consistently poor hygiene, unwashed hair, unbathed, notable body odor
  • Untreated illnesses and physical injuries
  • Frequently late or absent from school
  • Frequently left unsupervised or left to play in unsafe conditions and environments

Warning Signs of Child Neglect in the Adult:

  • Caregiver or parent appears indifferent to child
  • Behaves apathetically or depressed
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre way
  • Is abusing drugs or alcohol

Warning Signs of Physical Child Abuse in the Child:

  • Frequent and unexplained injuries, bruises, welts, or cuts
  • Hyper-vigilant, appearing to be on the lookout for trouble
  • Injuries appear in a pattern, such as handprints
  • Child shies away from touch
  • Child flinches at sudden movements
  • Child is afraid to return home
  • Child wears clothing to cover up injuries, such as long pants on a summer day

Warning Signs of Physical Child Abuse in the Adult:

  • Describes the child as “evil” or in another negative manner
  • Has a history of abuse as a child
  • Has a history of abusing animals
  • Offers conflicting, unconvincing, or no explanation for the child’s injuries, or provides an excuse that is inconsistent with the injury
  • Uses harsh discipline with the child

Warning Signs of Childhood Emotional Abuse in the Child:

  • Extreme fearfulness
  • Withdrawn
  • Anxious about doing something wrong
  • Extreme behaviors – very passive or very aggressive
  • Doesn’t have an attachment to a parent or caregiver
  • Behaves either inappropriately adult or inappropriately infantile

Warning Signs of Childhood Emotional Abuse in the Adult:

  • Constantly blames, belittles, or berates the child
  • Overly rejects the child
  • Is unconcerned with the child and refuses any offers for help for the child’s problems

Warning Signs of Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Child:

  • Trouble walking or sitting
  • Makes strong efforts to avoid a particular person without any notable reason
  • Displays interest or knowledge in sexual acts inappropriate to age
  • May act seductive
  • Has an STD or pregnancy under the age of 14
  • Runs away from home
  • Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others for gym or participate in physical activities
  • Extreme shame or guilt
  • Reports nightmares or bedwetting
  • Sudden changes in appetite
  • Attaches quickly to strangers and new adults
  • Reports sexual abuse by parent or caregiver

Warning Signs of Childhood Sexual Abuse in the Adult:

  • Unduly protective of the child
  • Severely limits the child’s contact with other children – especially of the opposite sex
  • Is isolated and secretive
  • Is jealous and controlling with other family members

Aftereffects of Childhood Abuse

Every type of childhood abuse and neglect leaves lasting scars upon a child. Some may be physical, however, the emotional impact of child abuse is just as serious. Children who undergo proper therapy and treatment for child abuse are able to work through some of their lasting emotional problems. Effects of childhood abuse may include:

  • Lack of trust
  • Impaired brain development
  • Inability to engage in fulfilling relationships
  • Poor physical health
  • Poor emotional and mental health
  • Cognitive difficulties
  • Social differences
  • Juvenile delinquency and adult criminality
  • Abusive behaviors
  • Feeling “too damaged to love”
  • Low self-worth
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Difficulties with emotional regulation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Alcoholism
  • Drug addiction
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors