The Warning Signs of Child Abuse

Did you know that two-third of Canadian adults report experiencing some form of child abuse before the age of 15? Every child deserves to be protected from all forms of violence and to grow up in a safe and nurturing home.

Sadly, children and youth often face abuse at hands of close family members and other adults in their lives – the same people who are supposed to protect them. This past year, children have faced an increased risk of child abuse due to COVID-19 restrictions: School closures have kept kids away from safeguards against abuse, and increased screen time has left young people vulnerable to online predators.

Whether you’re a teacher, doctor or neighbour, we all interact with children in various ways. It’s important to understand the warning signs of abuse, as a child may not want to disclose this information. Identifying child abuse is not as simple as finding bruises or marks on a child’s body. Abuse can also be emotional, sexual, or due to neglect. 

Child abuse can take different forms, affecting a child’s physical or emotional health and well-being. Before identifying the warning signs of child abuse, it’s important to understand the various forms. Take a look at the main ones below. 

Physical abuse

Physical abuse relates to putting a child in harm’s way. It can be a deliberate attempt to harm a child through excessive physical punishments. While abusive parents insist that their actions are simply forms of discipline, there is a difference between discipline and abuse. Discipline is about educating a child rather than instilling fear. Once an adult passes that line, a child may be under physical abuse. 

Children who experience physical abuse often deal with unpredictability in their lives due to their abusers’ temperament or mood swings. This can make some children feel like they are constantly walking on eggshells, causing them to remain cautious around adults. Based on their experience, they don’t know what kind of behaviour will trigger a physical assault. 

Sexual abuse 

Sexual abuse is another form of child maltreatment that deeply affects the physical and mental well-being of children. This form of abuse occurs when an adult – or even a teenager or older child – touches a child’s private parts or makes a child touch another person in a sexual way. However, this type of child abuse does not always involve body contact. Examples of non-touching sexual abuse include manipulating and forcing a child to pose for sexual photos or coercing a child to watch sexual acts.

Sextortion is blackmail. It’s when someone online threatens to send a sexual image or video of you to other people if you don’t pay them or provide more sexual content.

Online luring is when a person (typically an adult but not always) communicates with youth through technology, like texting, direct messaging, or chatting in an app/game/website, to make it easier to commit a specific sexual offence against them.

This form of abuse causes a great deal of shame, confusion and guilt for children and youth. As a result, young people find it difficult to seek help. They fear that others may not believe their story or somehow blame them. Children may also fear splitting the family apart. 


Child neglect is the most common type of abuse, but it can be difficult to spot. This type of child abuse refers to failing to provide for a child’s basic needs. This includes affection, food, shelter, education, supervision or medical care. 

There are various reasons why a parent may be physically or mentally available to care for their child. For example, it could be due to a severe injury or illness, or even untreated anxiety or depression. Other times, drug or alcohol abuse may cloud a parent’s judgment to provide for their child and keep them safe. 

Emotional abuse 

Emotional abuse is a form of injuring a child’s emotional well-being. Painful words can seriously damage a child’s social development and mental health. Constant belittling or shaming can also cause a child’s confidence to drop. 

Frequent yelling, threatening or silent treatments as punishments are other examples of abuse. Limiting affection is also a form of emotional abuse, as the lack of love and care can change the social and mental development of a child. 

Warning Signs of Child Abuse 

Knowing the warning signs of child abuse will help you protect the child’s rights. A child may feel guilty or ashamed to tell the truth to somebody else. It may also be difficult to speak since the abuser may be their parent, relative, or family friend. The child may become increasingly secretive, especially regarding their time and activities spent online.

Look through these warning signs of child abuse to reduce risks and possible outcomes for the child. 

Physical Abuse 

Physical abuse may be hard to identify since playing and other normal activities can lead to injuries. Be on the watch for unexplained injuries, such as burns, bruises, black eyes or broken bones.

Forced to cover their injuries, children may wear inappropriate clothes to hide them. Wearing long-sleeved shirts on very hot days is an example. They may also flinch at sudden touches or movements.

Another sign is when a child seems afraid of their parent or protests to head back home. You should also observe the parent or adult caregiver. Do they lack a reasonable explanation or appear uncaring or insensitive to the child’s injury? It’s best to ask both the child and parent about the injury to check if their stories conflict.

Sexual Abuse 

This kind of trauma can change a child’s behaviour in ways that point to warning signs of sexual abuse. This includes acting out, withdrawn behaviour, substance abuse, harming themselves, and referring to sexual themes during playtime.

Have you seen a child with an unusual or premature understanding of sex? A child who has undergone sexual abuse will likely show sexual behaviour or knowledge. Sexual abuse may cause a child or youth to either be more promiscuous or cautious about touching. 

If a child has trouble sitting or walking around due to pain around their private parts, this is something that should be addressed. Be concerned if they suddenly don’t want to join the physical activities they usually love to do.


When a child exhibits poor behaviour or consistently has bad hygiene, this could be a sign of neglect. Lack of clothing and meals is also a sign of neglect and goes against a child’s rights. If a child shares that there is no care at home, this is not something to take lightly. 

Emotional Maltreatment 

Children may show extremes in behaviour if they’ve experienced emotional maltreatment. Emotional abuse also causes children to be more cautious or fearful when doing certain actions. The child may either act too much like an adult or inappropriately childish. If you notice that a child does not seem to have a reasonable connection to their parent, caregiver or another adult in their life, they may be experiencing emotional abuse. 

Notice child abuse before it’s too late 

Always put children first when you find signs of abuse. If a child discloses an abusive situation to you, or if you suspect they may be a victim of child abuse, get the authorities involved. There is an obligation / legal duty to report suspected abuse. If the danger is imminent, call 9-1-1 immediately.

For more resources on how to report suspected cases of child abuse, click here. If you know a young person who needs to talk to someone for support, they can all Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or text 686868. Let’s work together to keep kids safe!

For more information about online sexual exploitation of children and to report it, go to: