New Parental Figures and the Suspicion of Child Abuse

New Parental Figures and the Suspicion of Child Abuse

Life after divorce is full of uncertainty for many people. It may involve new financial situations, shared child custody, or even moving to a new state for a fresh start. Many people also begin dating and enter new relationships after divorce. In some scenarios, people remarry or move in with a new partner, which can be difficult to navigate when children are involved. 

New parental figures can bring many benefits, such as step-siblings, a fun family life, and shared household income. It is important to keep in mind how these new changes may affect a child. If a divorced parent does not recognize harmful behavior in a new partner, a child’s home life can be negatively affected. In the most extreme case, a new parental figure may inflict forms of abuse on a child, and in some cases, it can go undetected for too long. 

Child abuse is devastating for everyone involved. In even the most trusting of scenarios, parents need to be aware of the signs of child abuse when a new parental figure is introduced on either side of the divorce. Keep reading to learn more about potential warning signs of child abuse. 

Content Warning: The following article contains mentions and descriptions of child abuse, including physical, emotional, sexual, and neglectful abuse. 

The Different Forms of Child Abuse

Unfortunately, there are many different kinds of abuse that an adult can inflict upon a child or another adult. It is essential for adults to recognize the warning signs of relationship abuse in new partnerships. An abusive person may extend their behavior towards children. 

A perpetrator can inflict abuse on children while appearing trustworthy in every other scenario, so it is vital to know the signs of abuse. The most common forms of abuse are physical, emotional, sexual, and neglectful abuse. 


When someone hurts or harms a child on purpose, it is considered physical abuse. Often, this form of abuse consists of an adult using excessive force or using a harmful substance to cause physical damage. This form of abuse includes:

  • Hitting with hands or objects
  • Kicking
  • Shaking
  • Punching
  • Throwing
  • Poisoning
  • Burning and scalding
  • Breaking bones
  • Biting and scratching
  • Drowning
  • Fabricating or physically inducing symptoms of illnesses

What to Watch For

Whether a divorced parent shares custody through co-parenting or has sole custody, they should be aware of the signs of physical abuse when a new parental figure is introduced on either end. Most children get bumps and bruises from playing, falling off a bike, or tripping. Regular injuries could be cause for alarm if there is a pattern of injury or the explanation doesn’t match the injuries. Signs of physical abuse to watch out for include:

  • Bruises
  • Broken bones
  • Burns or scalds
  • Bite marks
  • Scarring
  • The effects of poisoning (vomiting, fatigue, or seizures)
  • Breathing problems

Shaking babies or toddlers can cause serious head injuries. Signs of damage include:

  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Extreme fatigue or unconsciousness
  • Breathing issues
  • Seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Not feeding properly, or other unusual behavior


Emotional child abuse occurs when an adult continually inflicts emotional mistreatment on a child. It is also referred to as psychological abuse. Emotional abuse typically involves purposely trying to scare, ignore, embarrass, or isolate a child. This form of child abuse can include:

  • Persistently ignoring a child
  • Not allowing them to have friends
  • Never expressing positive feelings towards the child or congratulating successes
  • Exposing a child to upsetting events, such as drug use
  • Persistently humiliating a child
  • Manipulating a child
  • Making verbal threats
  • Making a child perform degrading acts

Signs to Be Aware Of

Emotional abuse is the hardest to recognize because there are not usually physical signs like bruises or broken bones. Often, a child is too frightened to stand up for themselves, so they may not express what’s happening to a trusted adult. For this reason, it is vital to watch how a child acts. Children who are being emotionally abused may, among other things:

  • Struggle to control emotions
  • Have a lack of self-confidence 
  • Have trouble making or maintaining relationships
  • Act inappropriately for their age
  • Have extreme emotional outbursts
  • Be aggressive towards other children or animals


Child sexual abuse is a devastating scenario that can occur in person or online. Sexual abuse occurs when a child is forced, or tricked, into sexual activities. In most cases, the child might not understand the extent of what’s happening and may be afraid to tell someone. There are two types of sexual abuse: contact and non-contact.

  • Contact abuse is when an abuser makes physical contact with a child. This can include sexual touching of any body part, raping or penetrating a child with a body part or object, and forcing a child to undress, kiss, or touch someone else. 
  • Non-contact abuse is when a child is sexually abused without being touched. Examples of non-contact abuse include exposing a child to pornography or sexual acts, and forcing a child to take sexual photos or videos.

Warning Signs to Look Out For

Many children are too scared to speak out about sexual abuse. Therefore, it is critical for adults to know the signs of sexual abuse and foster frequent, open communication. It is important to teach children the anatomically correct terms for body parts so an adult can clearly understand a report of sexual abuse. Some warning signs of sexual abuse include:

  • Self-harm
  • Having recurring nightmares or bed-wetting
  • Using age-inappropriate language
  •  Age-inappropriate expression of sexual behaviors
  • Bruises, bleeding, or pain in their genital area
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Pregnancy
  • Being visibly upset about spending alone time with someone they know


Neglect is the most common form of child abuse. It presents when an adult purposely fails to meet a child’s basic needs. There are four common types of child neglect:

  • Physical: Basic needs like food, clothing,shelter, and appropriate supervision are not met.
  • Educational: A parent does not enroll their child in education or teach them at home.
  • Emotional: A child is not adequately nurtured due to being ignored, intimidated, isolated, or humiliated.
  • Medical: Health care, including dental care, is refused, or professional suggestions are ignored. 

Signs of Neglect

Unfortunately, neglect can be incredibly difficult to spot. Having one of the following signs does not guarantee a child is neglected; nevertheless, adults should be aware of signs that have patterns or last for an extended time. Warning signs of neglect include but are not limited to:

  • Poor hygiene and unwashed clothes
  • Recurring hunger  
  • Medical or dental issues or missed appointments 
  • Regular illness or infection
  • Skin issues
  • Anemia
  • Weight gain or growth issues
  • Being left alone for a long time
  • Becoming withdrawn, aggressive, or clingy
  • Displaying obsessive behavior
  • Excessive absences from school

What to Do if Abuse Is Suspected

If a parent suspects their child is being abused by a new parental figure, they should immediately report their concerns to the appropriate authorities or local social service agency. Residents of Minnesota who suspect child abuse can reference the Minnesota Children’s Alliance to find the contact information for their local child protection agency. Otherwise, they can call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at (1-800) 422- 4453. In the case of an emergency, call 911. This article contains general legal information and does not provide legal advice. For legal advice, please contact M. Sue Wilson Law Offices directly.