What child abuse looks like in the real world… and what to do about it

Real-life abusers often don’t look like an alcoholic husband beating his battered wife and her children.  They can look like Steve Jobs, who is highly charismatic, intelligent, and successful.  His abusive behaviours have been documented in his biography by Walter Isaacson, by his daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs, and by Chrisann Brennan (Lisa’s mother and Steve Jobs’ ex-girlfriend).  Jobs had famously denied paternity of his daughter and absurdly claimed in court papers that he was “sterile and infertile”.  His toxicity did not go away over time.  As Jobs was dying from cancer, he put down his daughter by saying that she smelled like a toilet.

There are two major types of child abuse that seriously affect children:

  1. Narcissistic abuse.  Narcissists need to feel like they have social status.  Unfortunately, their addiction to admiration eventually causes them to hurt others.  They are willing to belittle their children so that they can feel superior.  Their maladaptive strategies for dealing with criticism (e.g. rage) are unhealthy; their children may accidentally trigger these behaviours if they criticize the narcissist.
  2. Control.  These are the more malignant abusers.  They need to control others to feel safe.  They associate the feeling of not being in control with their traumas, so their brain tells them that they need to avoid powerlessness at all costs.  They will intentionally hurt their victims (physically/emotionally/sexually) to verify that they’re in control and to try to increase their control over the victim.  Some of these abusers are constantly trying to manipulate everybody around them; others restrict their deranged compulsions to those closest to them such as their partner and their children.

Both men and women can abuse children (Steve Jobs’ wife was also a terrible human being towards her stepdaughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs).  They may do nice things for their children such as taking them on vacations and paying for their college education.  Then they mix in moments of abuse.  They will do whatever it takes to control their victims.  Most abusers are smart enough to figure out that they should hide the abuse so that others won’t interfere.  This can make it difficult for others to see what’s going on, especially because society teaches us the wrong ideas about what abuse looks like.  Real life abusers may wear a black turtleneck rather than a wife beater.

Familiarize yourself with emotional abuse

Here are some examples of abuse and/or red flags, ranging from subtle to more overt emotional abuse.

Autism Brother Pushed Down Stairs – In this video, the father is subtly encouraging his middle child to bully his older brother.  The coaching is more obvious in the second half of the video when the father rewards the child for making drawings that disparage his older brother.  While it may not necessarily be abuse, this is a red flag.  He tells the brothers that they should be nice to each other, only to later encourage the middle child to make fun of his older brother.  Unsurprisingly, the kid is confused as to how he should answer his dad’s questions.  When he grows up, he may figure out that his dad wants to emotionally cripple his older brother and to pretend like the brother’s problems are due to “autism” (or some nonsense about “a bad pollution inversion”) rather than coercive control.

Autism Meltdown at the Mall (Updated) – In this video, the same parents have their oldest child in a harness while out in public.  In other videos, the child is on a leash.  In case it isn’t obvious, putting a leash on a child is degrading and humiliating to the child.

14-year old Parker Leverett is emotionally abused by his mother after he refuses to live with her.  She uses a variety of manipulation tactics (e.g. threatening to have him arrested) to try to coerce her son into doing what she wants.  A shorter version of the hour-long video is available.

Emotional abuse is often subtle as abusers take steps to gaslight others into thinking that they are good parents and that the child is bad.  They pretend to care about the welfare of their children while simultaneously destroying them emotionally.  In the Parker Leverett video, the mother pretends to care about her son only to later threaten him with arrest.

Complicating matters is that many abuse victims don’t speak up about their abuse.  A few of them do not realize that they have been abused until their late teens to their late thirties; they simply aren’t aware that abuse isn’t normal (see this Reddit discussion for examples).  Many abuse victims seek validation from their abuser: they want their abuser to change and to finally love them (or to apologize for wronging them).  They will say that they have love for the parent who abused them.  While they seek validation, they may protect their abuser and try to hide the abuse.

As far as spotting abuse victims go, it can be tough if both the parents and the victim are trying to hide the abuse.  However, here are some red flags that should not be ignored.

Major red flags

  1. A narcissistic parent.  Narcissists are fairly easy to spot since they constantly seek admiration from others (e.g. boasting) and cannot handle criticism (even if it’s constructive criticism).  These parents rarely meet the emotional needs of their children.  Their children need to constantly walk on eggshells to avoid triggering the narcissist’s wrath.  You should tell children of narcissists that their maltreatment is not deserved, is not their fault, and is not normal.
  2. Unexplained injuries.  Bruises are very suspicious if they are in places that are difficult to bruise by accident such as behind the ear, inner thighs, etc.  Children playing or falling down will have bruises on their shins, knees, and forearms but probably not in other places. Also pay attention to stories that don’t make sense and injuries inconsistent with the story being given.  Some children will try to hide their bruises by wearing long sleeves during the summer despite such clothing being impractical.
  3. Untreated medical problems or nutritional problems.
  4. The parent has kicked their child out of the home.  This is child abandonment, which is illegal in most places.  Parents are legally obligated to provide shelter for their children.  Abusive parents kick their children out of the home to try to hurt them.  Do not buy into society’s trope about troubled teenagers fighting with their parents because of “angst”.  Even if the child has behaviour issues, there is a good chance that the abusive parents (or the abuser and their enabling spouse) were trying to hurt their child when they kicked the child out of the home.
  5. The child is scared of succeeding too hard.  This occurs because the abuser doesn’t like the child stealing attention from them, because they want to hurt and control the child, or because they want the child to be dependent on them.  A smart student may intentionally sabotage themselves on tests.  To see what abuse survivors say about this topic, see here, here and here.
  6. The child constantly lies, lies in situations where it doesn’t make sense to lie, and/or tries to tell you what you want to hear. They are afraid of telling adults the “wrong” answer as it would lead to abuse from their parents.  They may have weird ideas as to what the right and wrong answers are because their childhood did not allow them to learn what normal is.  They will lie in situations where lying doesn’t make sense- e.g. when discussing minor personal details such as their likes and preferences, why they don’t want to do something, etc. etc.  (For further reading, see here.)
  7. Food hoarding.  This may not be abuse but it’s always worth investigating.  Some foster parents use foster children as cash cows so they spend as little money on their food as possible (while giving preferential treatment to their biological children).  Or, an abusive parent may be withholding food as a means of control.  In other cases, a child is hungry simply due to poverty so a trip to the food bank may be helpful.
  8. The parent gaslights their child or attacks their sense of self-worth.  If the child is well-behaved but the parent tries to convince the child that they are not, then the parent is engaging in psychological warfare on the child.  They are trying to break the child’s sense of self-worth so that they are easier to control.  This is not misguided parenting- this is emotional abuse.  One very obvious example is this father bullying his son while ironically accusing him of being a bully.
  9. Inappropriate rage.  The parent inappropriately rages at other people.  In this Youtube video of a mother and her child in Walmart, the clip begins with the mother intentionally hurting her child “by accident”.  When she is called out on her behaviour, the mother begins to rage at her critic.
  10. Serious mental health issues.  Child abuse is one of the major causes of depression, which can lead to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.  When the children grow up, they may seek treatment for complex PTSD, phobias, agoraphobia, social anxiety, panic attacks, depression, and other mental health conditions caused by the abuse.  Sometimes abusers harm the child through psychiatry with forced medication, involuntary commitment, harassing welfare checks, or a psychiatric label (even though the child does not have that particular condition).  In other cases, narcissists may use their child as an object of sympathy; their “special needs” child can make the narcissist look like a martyr.  While you should not assume that abuse is the cause of a psychiatric condition, it is certainly something that you should pay attention to.

Other red flags

These are signs of abuse that also have other non-abuse explanations.

  1. Overly sexualized behaviour or conversations.  Unusual sexual behaviour could be from somebody sexually abusing the child (a parent, an adult, relative, cousin, sibling, etc.).  Something such as masturbating in public may potentially be normal because the kid simply hasn’t yet learned that it’s inappropriate.
  2. Urinating or defecating into their underwear.  This can occur if the child is being sexually abused since their brain makes a connection between these behaviours and less abuse.  However, there also are other potential causes for these behaviours (e.g. medical conditions).
  3. Behavioural issues.  If a child is very aggressive towards their peers and parents, it’s possible that an abusive parent is encouraging them into bullying their siblings (in those situations, all of the children are being abused but the non-scapegoats are being abused less).  Or, the child is bullying their parents because they believe that it leads to less abuse from their parents.  Of course, there are other causes of behavioural issues.
  4. The parent tells you that the kid is bad.  It might simply be the case that they are informing you of the truth.  However, many abusers will tell everyone that their kid is “bad” to hide their abuse (e.g. autism, schizophrenia, drug use, teenage angst, rebellious, troubled, etc.).  It is a major red flag if the parents are lying about their kid being bad.
  5. Social anxiety.  Social anxiety can be caused by abuse as the abuse victim develops a phobia of situations that superficially resemble their abuse.  If the abuse is emotional or psychological, then a few victims will develop a fear of social interactions after being repeatedly exposed to negative social interactions with their abuser.  However, the social anxiety might exist simply because they have poor social skills and have gotten burned in social interactions before.
  6. Panic attacks.  Panic attacks can develop when somebody is repeatedly exposed to anxiety and the brain erroneously thinks that the physical sensations associated with anxiety are dangerous (e.g. heart palpitations that feel like a heart attack).  Emotional abuse is typically a source of constant anxiety as it is constant and unrelenting.  However, there are other reasons why somebody may experience anxiety repeatedly.
  7. Unusual fears.  As abuse victims may develop phobias of situations that superficially resemble their abuse, they may be unusually triggered by people touching them, people yelling, doors slamming, etc.  Of course, there are people who simply don’t like being touched.
  8. The child does not like going home (or runs away).  Either there’s something about being at school that they enjoy (e.g. extracurriculars, they like the building, etc.) or there’s something about their home that is unpleasant.

Further reading:

Some children will not want to talk

There are different reasons why children might lie for their abuser or try to cover it up:

  1. Grooming.  Because the abuser knows that what they’re doing is wrong, they will try to silence the children with any number of methods: threatening the victim, making the victim feel like they “caused” their own abuse, guilt tripping, making the victim feel obligated to the abuser, etc.
  2. Validation seeking.  Some abused children desperately want their parent to finally love them and to treat them properly.  Because they are still trying to get their abuser to love them, they are quite hesitant to act against their abuser.
  3. They have previously been invalidated after telling an adult.  Unfortunately, there are many abuse victims who report their abuse to one or more adults who do not believe them.  They may have been invalidated on more than one occasion.
  4. They have become narcissists.  Some victims will not admit to what happened to them because they can’t deal with (A) their feelings of worthlessness and (B) the lack of social status associated with being a victim or having mental health problems.  These victims may be incredibly difficult to help because they do not feel safe admitting their situation.

If this happens, don’t pressure the child into talking.  Build rapport with the child so that they eventually will be comfortable enough to talk to you.  Most children will eventually want to talk because nobody likes being abused.

You can also try referring the case to the police (or CPS if the police will not act).  Some of their employees may be very good at getting children to talk.  On the other hand, there are some people who are terrible at their jobs and ignore children who tell them about sexual abuse.1

What to do if the child has been abused

Validate the victim

The abuse victim’s brain often draws connections between the abuse and who they are as a person.  Their brain may illogically tell them that the abuse is “evidence” of their worthlessness and that they somehow “caused” the abuse because their actions weren’t good enough.  The damage to a child’s self-worth is the part of abuse that frequently causes the most damage.  The sense of worthlessness and lack of self-esteem can last a lifetime.  The abuser’s death will not make it go away.  It can sometimes be very difficult for abuse victims to completely free themselves from psychological damage because they have been exposed to emotional abuse for a very long period of time, typically most or all of their childhood.  Many survivors of physical and sexual abuse consider the emotional abuse associated with it to be worse.

Make it clear to the victim that:

  1. They were wronged.
  2. They didn’t deserve what happened to them.
  3. They are not worthless.
  4. It’s not their fault.  They did not cause the abuse.

For many abuse victims, simply having somebody validate them will make a huge difference in their well-being.

Validate all of the victims

If a child is being abused, then it is extremely likely that all of the children being raised by the child’s caregiver are also being abused.  If the abuser is still with their partner, then it is either the case that their partner is also an abuse victim or the partner is allied with the abuser in harming the children.

Collect evidence and document the abuse

If the child has physical injuries, have a nurse or doctor take care of the child’s medical needs.  You can have somebody take photos and videos of the injuries (e.g. on a smartphone) so that there is objective evidence of the injuries.  If the child has been sexually abused, insist on having a forensic rape examination (“rape kit”) performed- you can call the police department’s non-emergency line for help.

If the child has disclosed their abuse to you verbally, record or write down everything that they have said.  Ideally, any future interviews with the child should be recorded so that the child is not traumatized by having to repeat their story over and over again to different parties.

Optionally, you can have somebody talk to the parents and record what they say.  (Google Voice, Android apps, and paid iPhone apps are some ways in which you can record a conversation.)  You may want to avoid asking the parent if they have abused the child as you can let the police do that (or you can do it yourself later).  This gives you an opportunity to potentially record the abuser incriminating themselves.

  • Ask them if their child is injured.  If the child has physical injuries and the parents lie about it, then their lie is (additional) evidence of abuse.
  • If the parents tell you one story and tell a completely different story to the police, then their inconsistency can be used as evidence of abuse.
  • The child may have lied about which parent abused them.  If the parents are divorced, it is not uncommon for an abusive parent to manipulate their children into lying about the other parent.  If the parents do not get along, talk to both parents and get their sides of the story before accusing anybody of abuse.
  • Let them talk.  You can call the parents and talk in general about whether their child is reaching their full potential.  If you don’t bring up abuse and they start denying abuse, then you know that something is very wrong.

(Optional) Get the child a smartphone

In most cases, a smartphone can dial 911 without a SIM card.  Or, a SIM card is required but no phone plan is needed.

More importantly, a smartphone can record audio.  You can show the child how to lock themselves in a washroom and how to secretly record audio of their abuser.

Go to the police first before child protective services (CPS)

The police are less likely to fail victims of child abuse.  The police typically have better training in investigations, better pay, more experience (due to lower turnover), lower workloads, and investigative powers that CPS does not have.  They also do not have a mandate to reunite families so they will not ultimately try to put abuse victims back with their abuser.  If you run into an indifferent police officer, then try to find a police officer who cares.  There are some people in the world who will not take child abuse seriously, possibly because they were abused themselves and are in denial about what happened to them.  If the police cannot do anything, then go to CPS.

If the abuse is serious and you would like to do everything possible for the child, then follow up with the police and/or CPS.  From the Justice for Children website:

[…] It is not enough to merely report the case to law enforcement authorities, however. In many jurisdictions, it is the policy of the police to defer the initial investigation of the case to CPS, which as previously stated has resulted in botched investigations and leaving the child at risk in the home. Therefore, to ensure the safety of the child, it is imperative that you must follow-up on the case.

What does this mean? This means that if the case has been referred to CPS, you must find out who the caseworker is and make contact with the caseworker to determine the status of the case. This includes determining if the child has been placed in protective custody (i.e., foster care or a shelter) as well as whether the case has been assigned to a police officer for the criminal investigation. This also means contacting the responsible police officer and determining the status of his or her investigation. Ask on a periodic basis if the police officer has forwarded his report to the District Attorney’s office for the filing of criminal charges and, if not, find out when the police officer plans on doing this. Once the case has been referred and criminal charges have been filed, contact the responsible prosecutor and, if you have facts of the case, make sure that the prosecutor is aware of these and that you are listed as a potential witness. Your information can help make or break the prosecutor’s case. If the District Attorney’s office has declined to file criminal charges, or if the police officer has decided not to refer the case to the DA’s office, or if the CPS caseworker has failed or refused to report the case to the police, find out why and keep scrupulous notes on the entire process. If the explanations given by the various entities do not satisfy you as to why criminal charges have not been filed, contact Justice for Children at 713-225-4357. Also, consider contacting your local media to see if pressure can be applied to the system. You may succeed in bringing the alleged abuser to the bar of justice and ensuring that the child, if not in your custody, is in adequate protective custody.

If the child is in your custody or that of a responsible relative or acquaintance, attempt to get the child immediately to a qualified pediatrician who has experience in the diagnosis of child abuse. If sexual assault is suspected, insist that a rape kit be prepared. If bruises are visible on the child, take pictures. It is critical that this be done as soon as possible after you suspect the abuse in order to preserve any evidence of the abuse for subsequent prosecution. Unfortunately, if the collection of this evidence is left up to CPS, we have seen in too many cases that the appropriate evidence is not collected and the case cannot be successfully prosecuted. Of course, this means that the child stays in the home and the perpetrator is not removed from his or her victim.

If the police do not intervene and arrange for a protective/restraining order, you can help the child get a restraining order against their abuser (see this overview on restraining orders).


Unfortunately, child abuse is quite common and the situations can be complicated.  Remember to validate the child to help restore their self-esteem and self-worth.  It makes a huge difference to abuse victims for others to recognize that they have been wronged.

Because most forms of child abuse are illegal, you should go to the police with the evidence that you have.  Try CPS next if the police cannot do anything.  If CPS fails to act (or does not act right away) and the child is still in danger, try to help them get a restraining order against their abuser.  Good luck.




  1. Item 293 in one court case discusses how the Vancouver police botched their investigation due to tunnel vision.  https://www.canlii.org/en/bc/bcsc/doc/2012/2012bcsc938/2012bcsc938.html#_Toc328142180

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