How might a child's behavior show signs of abuse?

Parents, teachers, and other adults who work with children are often trained to spot physical signs of abuse, including unexplained bruising, poor hygiene, self-mutilation, and the like. However, any change in a child's behavior should also be considered a possible sign of abuse. Incidents of sexual, physical or emotional abuse do not always leave physical scars, but the child may still show emotional scars through her behavior with other children and adults. Abused children may suddenly become very introverted or begin to bully other children. Many exhibit inappropriate or overly mature behaviors for their age, and may become overly affectionate or unwilling to be touched.

A possible sign of behavioral abuse is a sudden switch between an extroverted and introverted personality. However, the effects of abuse can work in either direction, and it's not always a shift toward social withdrawal or introversion. Some victims of child abuse may become more outgoing and extroverted, even to the point of excess.

If a child suddenly becomes a bully or a perpetual victim, this can be a warning sign. Abused children often react to their trauma by either lashing out or collapsing internally. Both the harasser and the victim may be reacting to an abusive situation.

Another behavioral sign is age-inappropriate activity. Some victims of child abuse may return to a safer time in their lives as a coping mechanism. These children may throw tantrums, use security blankets, or display other early childhood behaviors.

Other children, especially victims of physical or sexual abuse, may show signs of maturity beyond their years. They may use sexual or obscene language, or depict sexual behavior. Victims of physical abuse may force other children to perform dangerous stunts or re-enact violent scenes from video games or movies.

Many adults may view an increased display of affection from a child as normal, but it can also be a sign of abuse. Abused children often seek the comfort of an adult who they know will not hurt them. Some victims, especially those who have been sexually abused, may become very attached or even inappropriately affectionate toward adults. Female victims of sexual abuse have often been groomed to be seductive by their abuser. Children should be taught limits when it comes to physical contact with adults, and overly affectionate behavior should be viewed as a potential warning sign.

Other children may display exactly the opposite behavior. Victims of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse often avoid any physical contact with adults or other children. If a child flinches when a certain adult enters the room, this could suggest a problem. A child may also start crying every time an abusive babysitter comes to the house.

Even the physical resemblance of an adult to a child's abuser may be enough to provoke a reaction. If a boy seems afraid of bearded men, for example, this may indicate abuse by a bearded relative or neighbor. Some abused children may react negatively to a teacher's commanding voice or refuse to enter a storage closet or other small room.

Reporting possible child abuse can be a difficult decision to make, as the physical and behavioral signs can also be the result of normal childhood experiences. It is difficult to charge an adult with a crime based on circumstantial evidence. Yet thousands of children become victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse each year in the United States alone, which means that adults have a responsibility to report any potential abuse to law enforcement agencies or social welfare organizations.

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