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Signs of Neglect Abuse in Children

Signs of Neglect Abuse in Children

Child neglect is not always easy to spot. Sometimes, a parent might become physically or mentally unable to care for a child, such as with a serious injury, untreated depression, or anxiety. Other times, alcohol or drug abuse may seriously impair judgment and the ability to keep a child safe.

The first step in helping abused or neglected children is learning to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect. The presence of a single sign does not prove child abuse is occurring in a family, but a closer look at the situation may be warranted when these signs appear repeatedly or in combination. If you do suspect a child is being harmed, reporting your suspicions may protect the child and get help for the family. Any concerned person can report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. The behaviour of children may signal abuse or neglect long before any change in physical appearance. Abused children may seem:

  • Be emaciated or have a distended stomach
  • Be underweight or dehydrated
  • Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather, have clothes that are torn, dirty, do not fit or are not appropriate for the season
  • Fearful and anxious
  • Have medical or dental problems that will not go away because the parent does not take the child for treatment, such as infected sores, decayed teeth or not having needed glasses
  • Hygiene is consistently poor (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odour).
  • Is frequently late or missing from school
  • Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments.
  • Nervous around adults or afraid of certain adults
  • Reluctant to go home (coming to school early or staying late)
  • Tired a lot or they may complain of nightmares or not sleeping well
  • Very passive and withdrawn or aggressive and disrupted
  • Untreated illnesses and physical injuries

Behavioural signs

  • Demand constant attention
  • Have parents who are not interested and not involved
  • Say that their parents are rarely home to look after them, have inadequate supervision, be left alone or in the care of another child who is too young
  • Have poor school attendance
  • Have an obvious lack of energy
  • Frequently say they are hungry, or steal or beg for food


Indicators of Neglect Abuse


Failure to give due attention or care to a child resulting in serious emotional or physical harm. These signs, alone, do not prove abuse or neglect but they do tell us we need to know more about the child’s or youth’s circumstances. They can be the result of phenomena such as divorce, separation, death of a significant person or the arrival of a new sibling. That’s why indicators must be assessed by professionals. The important thing to know is what the signs are, and how to report them if a child or youth may need protection.

Physical indicators of Neglect Child Abuse - A child who has stopped growing and/or has experienced significant weight loss may be suffering from failure-to-thrive syndrome. Medical assessment is necessary to determine whether the syndrome is organic or non-organic in origin. The following physical characteristics are often present in failure-to-thrive children:

  • Abandonment
  •       Child appears pale, emaciated, has “sunken cheeks”
  •       Child’s body fat ratio is extremely low, e.g. wrinkled buttocks
  •       Child has not attained significant developmental milestones within their age range, e.g. cannot hold head up at six months of age, cannot walk at 18 months, etc.
  • Consistent hunger
  • Consistent lack of supervision
  • Developmental delays (e.g. language, weight)
  • Ingestion of cleaning fluids, medicines, etc.
  • Inappropriate dress for weather conditions
  • Irregular or nonattendance at school or child care
  • Lack of shelter
  • Not attending school
  • Not registered in school
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Persistent (untreated) conditions (e.g. scabies, head lice, diaper rash, or other skin disorders)
  • Poor hygiene
  •       Prolonged vomiting and/or diarrhea
  •       Skin may feel like parchment paper as a result of dehydration
  • Unattended medical and dental needs

Behavioural Indicators of Neglect Child Abuse

  • Appears lethargic and undemanding (e.g. cries very little)
  • Delinquency
  • Demands constant attention and affection
  • Depression
  • Displays little or no movement, (e.g. lies in crib motionless)
  • Drops out of school (adolescent)
  • Frequently absent or tardy
  • Is unresponsive to stimulation from strangers
  • Lack of parental participation and interest
  • Lacks trust in others, unpredictable
  • Misuse of alcohol/drugs
  • Plans only for the moment
  • Poor impulse control
  • Regularly displays fatigue or listlessness, falls asleep in class
  • Reports that no caregiver is at home
  • Self-destructive
  • Steals food, or begs for food from classmate(s)
  • Shows little stranger anxiety, (e.g. is indifferent to attention received from strangers)
  • Takes over adult caring role (of parent)
  • Uninterested in environment or surroundings

Recognizing Child Abuse within the Family

The following signs may signal the presence of child abuse or neglect.

Signs and behaviours from the child:

  • Comes to school or other activities early, stays late, and does not want to go home
  • Has learning problems (or difficulty concentrating) that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
  • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Is overly compliant, passive, or withdrawn
  • Lacks adult supervision
  • Shows sudden changes in behaviour or school performance

Signs and behaviours from the parent

  • Asks teachers or other caregivers to use harsh physical discipline if the child misbehaves
  • Shows little concern for the child
  • Demands a level of physical or academic performance the child cannot achieve
  • Denies the existence of—or blames the child for—the child’s problems in school or at home
  • Looks primarily to the child for care, attention, and satisfaction of emotional needs
  • Sees the child as entirely bad, worthless, or burdensome

Signs and behaviours from the parent and child

  • Consider their relationship entirely negative
  • Rarely touch or look at each other
  • State that they do not like each other

Physical Indicators of Neglect


  • Non-organic failure to thrive
  • Signs of malnutrition (child is chronically hungry, too thin, weak, lethargic, and fainting — and perhaps with a bloated stomach, sunken cheeks, and skin that’s dry and flaking)
  • Developmental delays in speech and/or motor skills. Height and/or weight is substantially below the norm
  • Inappropriately dressed for weather – either overdressed or underdressed, missing important articles of clothing
  • Dirty, unkempt, smells bad, squints, poor oral hygiene. Might have lice, scabies, severe or untreated diaper rash
  • Left alone and/or unattended in inappropriate and/or harmful ways
  • Lacks proper immunizations
  • Unattended medical conditions (illnesses, sunburns, ear infections, infected burns, bites or scrapes, broken bones). Note: If withdrawal or refusal of necessary medical care is considered to be for “religious” reasons, it might nevertheless constitute a crime or a situation requiring intervention by the state.
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse in the home; unhealthy, unsafe, and/or inadequate living conditions
  • Presence in the home of an abuser and/or child molester


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