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Prevent child abuse: Know the warning signs

Reviewed By: Kim Harrell, director of Children’s Health Advocacy for Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt (Last Updated: April 17, 2012)

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

Tennessee's Department of Children's Services responds to more than 37,000 reports of child abuse and neglect a year. There are many more unknown children suffering from abuse every day. 

Below are indicators of child abuse. Some signs that a child is experiencing violence or abuse are more obvious than others. Trust your instincts. Suspected abuse is enough of a reason to contact authorities.

  • Unexplained injuries. Visible signs of physical abuse may include unexplained burns or bruises in the shape of objects. You may also hear unconvincing explanations for these injuries.
  • Changes in behavior. Abuse can lead to changes in a child's behavior. Abused children often appear scared, anxious, depressed, withdrawn or more aggressive.
  • Returning to earlier behaviors. Abused children may display behaviors shown at earlier ages, such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, or fear of the dark or strangers. For some children, loss of acquired language or memory problems may be an issue.
  • Fear of going home. Abused children may express apprehension or anxiety about leaving school or about going places with the person who is abusing them.
  • Changes in eating. The stress, fear and anxiety caused by abuse can lead to changes in a child's eating behaviors, which may result in weight gain or weight loss.
  • Changes in sleeping. Abused children may have frequent nightmares or have difficulty falling asleep, and as a result may appear tired or fatigued.
  • Changes in school performance and attendance. Abused children may have difficulty concentrating in school or have excessive absences, sometimes due to adults trying to hide the children's injuries from authorities.
  • Lack of personal care or hygiene. Abused and neglected children may appear uncared for. They may present as consistently dirty and have severe body odor, or they may lack sufficient clothing for the weather.
  • Risk-taking behaviors. Young people who are abused may engage in high-risk activities such as using drugs or alcohol or carrying a weapon.
  • Inappropriate sexual behaviors. Children who have been abused may exhibit overly sexualized behavior or use explicit sexual language.

Join the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt and the Tennessee Children's Advocacy Centers by increasing awareness about child abuse and neglect. Together, we can gain the courage necessary to talk about child abuse and report it as appropriate. We are each obligated by law to report suspected child abuse. If a child appears in immediate danger, call 911. Call the abuse and neglect hotline at (877) 237-0004 for all other suspected cases in Tennessee.

Be the ONE with courage to protect a child.

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