As youth workers working with young women and girls over a period of time, we get to know them. If their behaviour changes in some way, we notice it, because we are concerned about them. We may praise them when they seem to be developing better habits but also find ourselves criticising or punishing children if they suddenly adopt rude or disruptive behaviours. 

‘Bad behaviours’ can be signs or cries for help 

It’s important that we remember that children misbehaving or doing other disruptive things may need us to pay more attention, rather than jumping to conclusions. 

Here are some examples: 

If we take a girl who suddenly starts behaving in a sexualised way, or using sexual language, we have to ask ourselves how she knows these things. Has someone been showing her inappropriate things, or abusing her in some other way? Whilst our immediate reaction might be to tell her not to say those things, or even to punish her, these are warning signs that we should not ignore. 

If a girl who has previously been social and a good team player suddenly becomes aggressive or withdrawn, we may find ourselves telling her to behave, and reminding her that she knows how to behave, because she has always behaved before. Again, this is a warning sign. What has happened to make her so unhappy?

If a young woman suddenly starts dressing extremely modestly, we might praise her for being feminine or having good values, but perhaps it is because she is getting harassed and trying to hide, or because she has cuts and bruises. Whilst it could be that she is very happy dressing in this way, if her change in dress is twinned with unhappiness in other ways, it is important to notice. 

Signs of Abuse 

Rather than repeat detailed expert information, we would like to direct you to local sites on signs of abuse. As we know, culture affects our behaviour, and we need to be aware of this. 


A child who’s being abused may feel guilty, ashamed or confused. The child may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse, especially if the abuser is a parent, other relative or family friend. That’s why it’s vital to watch for red flags, such as:

  • Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
  • Changes in behaviour — such as aggression, anger, hostility or hyperactivity — or changes in school performance
  • Depression, anxiety or unusual fears, or a sudden loss of self-confidence
  • Sleep problems and nightmares
  • An apparent lack of supervision
  • Frequent absences from school
  • Rebellious or defiant behaviour
  • Self-harm or attempts at suicide

Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of abuse and can vary. Keep in mind that warning signs are just that — warning signs. The presence of warning signs doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is being abused.

Physical abuse signs and symptoms

  • Black, and swollen eyes
  • Injuries that the child or their parent or carer cannot explain or explain convincingly
  • Broken bones (especially in under 2s, non-mobile children)
  • Untreated or inadequately treated injuries
  • Injuries to parts of the body where accidents are unlikely, such as thighs, back, abdomen
  • Bruising which looks like hand or finger marks
  • Cigarette burns, human bites
  • Scalds and burns especially with upward splash marks, or rings suggesting they were made to sit or stand in very hot water
  • Sudden weight gain in a short space of time

Sexual abuse signs and symptoms

  • Pain, itching, bruising or bleeding in the genital or anal areas
  • Genital discharge or urinary tract infections
  • Stomach pains or discomfort walking or sitting
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Pregnancy
  • Displaying sexualised behaviour, knowledge or interests
  • Insomnia, fear of the opposite sex, anxiety, regressive behaviour (e.g. bedwetting)
  •  Fear of being left alone with a particular person

Emotional abuse signs and symptoms

  • Hyperactive or disruptive behaviour 
  • Extreme behaviour patterns – withdrawn/ aggressive/ demanding
  • Over adaptive behaviour, i.e. being too well mannered
  • Inhibited play
  • Unusually fearful of consequences of actions resulting in lying
  • Bedwetting
  • Threatening or attempting suicide
  • Running away from home
  • Usually the scapegoat of the family 
  • Anorexic or bulimic
  • Insomnia
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor peer relations
  • Delayed development, either physical or emotional
  • Sudden speech disorders

Neglect signs and symptoms

  • The child seems underweight and is very small for their age
  • They are often dirty, unwashed and have uncut and uncombed hair 
  • They have skin rashes, body odour and dirty thick nails
  • They are poorly clothed, with inadequate protection from the weather
  • They are always tired and lethargic and often doze off in class
  • They are often late or absent from school for no apparent reason
  • They are regularly left alone, or in charge of younger children
  • They do not get medical attention when they need it, and it is accessible
  • The child is always hungry or steals food

Parental behaviour

Sometimes a parent’s demeanour or behaviour sends red flags about child abuse. Warning signs include a parent who:

  • Shows little concern for the child
  • Appears unable to recognize physical or emotional distress in the child
  • Blames the child for the problems
  • Constantly belittles or berates the child, and describes the child with negative terms, such as “worthless” or “evil”
  • Expects the child to provide attention and care to the parent and seems jealous of other family members getting attention from the child
  • Uses harsh physical discipline
  • Demands an inappropriate level of physical or academic performance
  • Severely limits the child’s contact with others
  • Offers conflicting or unconvincing explanations for a child’s injuries or no explanation at all

Get Training 

How you address these things will differ according to your country and your culture. It is essential to get training to recognise and identify abuses in your context and to know how best to address them so that women and girls are protected from further harm. 

We also encourage you to read up on this – it may be useful to read all of them, so you can see what differs and what remains the same. 

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