Spotting Signs of Child Abuse


by stacy smith.

As a nanny, you are at the forefront every day in the lives of the children you are entrusted to protect. Some nannies spend more time with their charges than the children’s parents do, which makes them the best instrument in recognizing when there may be a serious problem afloat.

There are many different forms of child abuse and neglect, and unfortunately the perpetrator is often someone the child knows very well such as a teacher, neighbor, family friend, relative, or even the child’s own parents. In many cases, the nanny may be the only person in a position to identify any signs of trouble and the only hope for a child desperately in need of help.

Signs of Abuse and Neglect

Knowing that as a nanny you may be the first line of defense against child abuse, it is important to familiarize yourselves with the signs and signals which indicate that something is wrong. Some signs are obvious, while others require a little more detective work.

It is quite possible that a child will disclose abuse or neglect to a person they trust, and the kids in your care may trust you more than anyone else in their lives. If a child tells you about an occurrence of something improper, it is important to tell the child that you believe them, making them feel safe and supported. However, most children are too afraid to tell someone what is going on. They may do everything they can to hide something they are ashamed of or think that they could get in trouble for. In fact, some children may have been told by their perpetrator that the abuse is normal or “no big deal.”

Some of the most telling signs are unexplained injuries, like bumps and bruises that occur more frequently than they should. A child might also display certain changes in behavior, such as anxiety, depression, stress, changes to their eating habits (including weight gain or weight loss), difficulty falling asleep, poor school performance or attendance, or a sudden fear of going to any place he or she previously went with no issues (home, school, etc.).

Sexual abuse, while sharing many of the same signs as physical abuse, has other signals you should look out for. The most common is when a young child has knowledge of sexuality that is inappropriate for their age. A child who is being sexually abused may play with dolls or other toys in a way that mimics what they may be experiencing.

Reporting Abuse

As a nanny, it is understandable that there are certain boundaries you don’t want to cross with the family you work for. While it is important to exercise caution when broaching the subject of child abuse or neglect, it is also important that a serious situation is addressed.

If you believe the source of the abuse to be anyone other than the child’s own parents, you should broach the topic with the parents in a manner that expresses your concern and states your specific observations. However, if you believe the children’s parents are the perpetrators, it is important that you simply call the child abuse reporting hotline and let trained professionals investigate the matter.

To report abuse, whether on behalf of the parents or without their knowledge, call the hotline for your state, a list of which can be found here: Upon calling, the operator will appropriately direct your call and will provide you with a safe and anonymous way to report any suspicions of abuse or neglect.

Myth vs. Fact

Child welfare agencies don’t exactly have the best reputations, however there are several myths associated with the process of reporting child abuse and neglect that may deter many people from speaking up or even filing a report.

Myth: It’s probably nothing.

Fact: Chances are, you became a nanny because you love children and you landed your job because you have a natural intuition when it comes to identifying and attending to their needs. If you feel something isn’t quite right, it probably isn’t. Trust your gut; don’t ignore it.

Myth: Someone else probably knows what’s going on and will step in to help so that I don’t have to.

Fact: It’s called the Bystander Effect. The more people in a position to help, the less likely anyone is to take action. Don’t assume that someone else will speak up instead of you, because if you are having doubts, chances are they are too.

Myth: If I call to initiate a child abuse report, the Division of Youth and Family Services will come to remove the children, haul the parents off to jail, and ruin the lives for this family AND myself.

Fact: Nothing could be further from the truth. It is VERY difficult to remove a child, and it is not something your child welfare agency takes lightly. If they decide to take the ultimate action of removal, it means that your suspicions were justified and those children will be safe because of you. If they do not find probable cause for removal, the family will get the assistance or services they may need to thrive as a family unit. In other cases, no action at all may be warranted and the case will close. Either way, you are only initiating an investigation by people who are more educated and trained to spot the signs of child abuse and neglect.

Myth: If I call and report my suspicions, the family will hate me and I could lose my job.

Fact: Calling to report abuse or neglect is 100% anonymous when you request not to be named. No one will ever know who made the report and the family will be told that there are numerous possible sources for a child abuse investigation.

Knowing the signs of abuse and having the confidence to brace them head on is a necessity for working with children in any respect. Understand that you are the first line of defense against abuse and remember, it is always better to be safe than sorry. It is your job to love, care, and support. This is one very important way to demonstrate that!