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Warning Signs of Abuse

Abuse can be inflicted in many ways, in many places, and by a range of people who have power over their victim for a variety of reasons. This can make abuse difficult to identify, but this article tells some warning signs of abuse you can be aware of.


Abuse can range from out-of-bounds demands on a worker by an employer to verbal, physical, psychological, or sexual mistreatment in venues that range from home to work to school. Abuse can be inflicted by family members, so-called friends, teachers, employers, bullies, and romantic partners. Because abuse is so varied in its type, perpetrator, locale, and effects, the signs can be very different in different case, making abuse difficult to identify. Here is some information that may help you to pick up on warning signs of abuse. It's good to be aware that a single sign may have explanations other than abuse, so while being careful not to jump to conclusions, if you notice these signs, you should seriously consider the best course of action.

Talking About It . . . or Not

In cases of abuse in which the abusive conduct is not criminal but definitely out of bounds, (for instance, a boss expecting an employee to do personal errands for him or her or a person making unreasonable demands on a spouse, child, or other family member), the person who is subject to the abuse is likely to complain about the situation. Even though the mistreated person may not confront the abuser, he or she may be quite vocal with friends and family or even with colleagues. So complaining can be a sign of abuse.

This type of abuse can grow insidiously and slowly take over the victim's life. Because the encroachment is slow, the victim of this type of abuse may need a reminder from outside to recognize how outrageous the situation has become.

When the situation is more dire, victims may speak out at either the first instance of abuse or if something changes in a way that makes things insupportable. For example, a woman may put up with an abusive husband, but leave if she perceives her child to be in danger from him.

However, in many cases, abuse is not discussed. Often, the person being abused is the victim of criminal acts, ranging from assault and battery to rape, and is too afraid, embarrassed, guilty, or ashamed to tell. An abuser may threaten a victim, making him or her afraid to tell. In addition, a victim may feel that the abuse reflects poorly on him or her, making the victim ashamed or embarrassed to tell. If the victim was warned against the abuser, then he or she may feel guilty for having gotten involved with him or her. When this approach is taken, warning signs may include secretiveness, rather than complaints.

Now You See It; Now You Don't

Physical injuries occurring with no reasonable explanation or occurring frequently may be another sign of abuse. The victim may try to cover these up with long-sleeved clothing, make-up, scarves, or other means.

Another thing you may not see in cases of abuse is the victim. Especially if they live in the same household, the abuser may want to control the victim to the extent that the victim is rarely allowed to leave the house, no longer allowed to be in contact with friends and family, etc. If someone you know is not only out of touch, but either doesn't answer the phone or has to end calls suddenly, as if fearful that innocent conversations are unacceptable, the source could be abuse.

Children Who Are Being Abused

The signs of child abuse may be more obvious because children are likely not to be as skilled at covering them up, but many of them may not point directly to abuse, but could be the product of a variety of issues or even, in some cases, just one of those moments in normal development. These warning signs that may not prove abuse, but may point to other issues that should be followed up) include:

  • trouble sleeping, whether difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep or nightmares or not wanting to go to bed or fear of the dark
  • mood swings or depression and withdrawal
  • loss of appetite on the one hand or food addiction on the other
  • seeming inattentiveness or daydreaming
  • regressive behavior that would be within the normal range for a younger child
  • anxiety
  • injuries that do not have reasonable explanations
  • substance abuse
  • change in behaviors like hugging or kissing parents goodnight
  • truancy
  • running away
  • self-injury
  • suicide attempts or ideation
  • secretive behavior

Changes in toileting behavior, including pain, knowledge of sexual activity or vocabulary that is not age-appropriate, or sudden strong negative reaction to be touched are signs that are less equivocal.

If you suspect someone may be being abused, but the signs are not clear, seek the advice of a trusted professional, either a licensed health care worker, a social worker, or a minister, priest, or rabbi. If you are afraid there is serious abuse taking place now or a crisis, it may be wise to call a crisis hotline or the police.

Related Article: Suicide Warning Signs >>

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