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How to Know if Your Child is in Trouble



Trust Your Instincts  

Professionals Who Know What They are Talking About

Signs of Abuse

Sexual Abuse  

Physical Abuse



Trust Your Instincts

Trust your instincts, even if others claim you are being over-protective. If your child appears fearful of someone or some place, honor that by not forcing your child to return to that place – if at all possible. Sometimes custody agreements make that choice difficult, but seek legal assistance to enhance your child's safety. Seek professional help to determine what is probably causing the child’s behavior. Sometimes fear of one person or place is transferred to another. For example, a child who is sexually or physically abused by a male, may become suddenly afraid of his own father –- another male.That certainly is a behavior that would merit immediate attention and intervention with a professional who is well versed in working with children and trauma. It also would signal the need for an immediate investigation by the parent or other concerned adult. A healthy dad would be concerned about that, and allow this child to have time to feel safe again. He'd also want to make sure his child received immediate help.


Below are some symptoms that indicate your child may be having serious problems as the result of some type of traumatic event, physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

Each child is unique and may react with all or only a few of these symptoms.  If things “just don’t seem right” with a child, investigate.

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Professionals Who Know What They are Talking About

Seek professional counsel until you are satisfied. Not all professionals tend to think these events cause as much damage as others. Its important to find licensed mental health counselors who have substantial experience in working with trauma. This author has worked with trauma survivors for years and has seen the immediate effects in children, and potential for long-lasting impact on people's lives. Adults who were abused as children often suffer through emotional and developmental struggles without professional intervention. They may dissociate, have school problems, negative relationships, problems with food and weight, use alcohol or drugs, compulsively spend and more. They often develop an entire set of negative core beliefs about themselves that dramatically effects their abilities and satisfaction with life. For more information see dissociation, PTSD, Weight, abuse, dissociation, PTSD, abuse, or the author's book Body Sense Balancing Your Weight and Emotions.

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Signs of abuse

1. First and foremost, look for any changes in behavior. Children react differently. The key is noting the difference in what their behavior was. Be especially tuned in to extremes.

2. Child becomes clingy, seems needy.

3. Child begins to have problems in school.

4. Teachers complain he/she is not paying attention.

5. Child becomes aggressive

6. Child becomes withdrawn

7. Child becomes very quiet

8. Child becomes hyperactive, or attention-seeking.

9. The child may develop a fear of certain people, or places. For example, a young child abused by a male, may suddenly become fearful of all males.

10. Suicidal thoughts

11. The child feels constantly jumpy, or on guard.

12. The child has nightmares

13. The child may appear to have no feelings, except anger. This is a method of “becoming numb” or dissociating from the pain.

14. Disturbing memories

15. Sleep problems: not sleeping, sleeping too much, awakening in the night.

16 Headaches, stomach aches, nausea and other psychosomatic physical complaints.

17. Acts fearful

18. Excessive bathing, or poor hygiene

19. Appears depressed

21. Appears anxious (with children this is sometimes seen as being very needy, fearful or hyperactive.)

22. Becoming a discipline problem

23. Emotional eating, restricting or not eating, very “picky eating"

24. Hostility or aggression

25. Withdrawal from friends, or activities

26. Using drugs or alcohol.

27. Bed wetting that is not medical in origin.

28. Overly compliant, too well-mannered, too clean or too obedient to be considered normal for that age.

29. Forgetful

30. Appears to dissociate, “space out,”  “not be able to pay attention”, short attention-span, inability to focus.

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Sexual Abuse

Children who have been victims of sexual abuse may (but not necessarily)also have the following additional symptoms:

1. Sexual play or acting out with other children, themselves, toys or pets.

2. Hints about the abuse.

3. Questions without identifying themselves as the victim.

4. Displaying knowledge of sex beyond what is normal for their age; knowledge of bizarre or sophisticated acts related to sex.

5. Urinary infections, unusual discharges, unexplained pain, swelling or bleeding of the mouth, genital or anal area; injuries to those areas; sexually transmitted disease.

6. Torn, stained or bloody underwear.

See sexual abuse for additional information on how to help a child or family. 


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Physical Abuse


Physical abuse, or the threat of physical abuse which incites fear in a child, can occur once or over a period of time and have dramatic negative effects on self-esteem. Children who grow up in a home where they witness a parent or another sibling being physically abused also suffer from that abuse. Fear becomes an underlying feeling within the home. They also may suffer from emotional effects of the abuse and fear, PTSD, or develop dissociation as a means to cope with their own overwhelming feelings. As adults, these may become destructive, such as alcohol or drug addiction, compulsive shopping or gambling, work addiction, negative relationships and using food to alter moods. See also Get the Past Off Your Plate, Weight Gain and Failed Diets Linked to Past Loss, and Body Sense Balancing Your Weight and Emotions.


Children who have been victims of physical abuse may exhibit the symptoms above. They may also exhibit the following:

1. Bruises, scratches, redness, welts, cuts, fractures, burns or internal injuries.

2. You may notice different injuries over a period of time.

3. The injuries are not consistent with the child or caretaker’s version of what happened, nor are they consistent with the child’s developmental phase or age.

4. They may cringe when touched.

5. They may have a highly excitable startle response.

6. They also may become very aggressive or withdrawn.

7. They may become extremely compliant and eager to please, or they may become a rebel and be perceived by outsiders as a troublemaker.

8. Abuse may affect their ability to focus and organize, which could negatively impact their abilities at school.

9. When questioned, the child may act nervous, or recite by rote. The child may say he/she forgot.

10. Infants may display a vacant stare.

11. Infants may have physical signs of abuse. They also may have internal injuries. If you suspect your child is hurting, get professional help immediately.

12. The child may seek affection inappropriately from people they know, people they have just met or strangers.

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If you are concerned about your child and don't know where to turn, contact the nearest Crisis Center. They should have available a list of referrals to help you through this troubled time. For more information on identifying and helping troubled children, sign up for our online course Improving Your Parenting.

Brenda Crawford-Clark, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

Author: Body Sense Balancing Your Weight and Emotions 

©Copyright 2001 Brenda Crawford-Clark