The Role of School Counselors in Identifying Abuse

As a school counselor, you have to juggle the needs of so many students at once. The role of a school counselor is to help students achieve academic and personal success so that they can continue on to their next step and pursue their dreams. While that might be as simple as coaching younger students in identifying their interests or helping high schoolers apply for college, counseling can also be a lot more complex and emotionally challenging.

In a perfect world, school counselors would only have to worry about the academic aspects of their students’ lives. However, many children experience abuse and neglect at home. Others are dealing with their own or a family member’s mental health problems. It’s part of a counselor’s role to know how to identify abuse and take appropriate action for the student’s best interest. 

Statistics On Domestic Abuse & Neglect

Family violence and neglect are sadly much more common than we would like to think. In 2019, there were about 1.2 million cases of reported domestic violence in the United States. This number doesn’t include incidents that went unreported, of course, so the actual number is much higher. Only a little more than half of all domestic violence cases were reported to law enforcement in that same year.

Even if children in abusive homes aren’t being victimized directly, they typically witness it between their parents or other family members. About 10 million children witness these kinds of interactions each year, affecting their sense of safety and security, affecting their mental health, and shaping their worldviews.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, incidents of domestic violence rose, with some cities seeing a 20% increase in calls during February and March of 2020. Now that most students are back at school in-person, it’s easier for counselors to notice problems that their students might be having at home.

Types of Abuse Affecting Children and Teens

Children and teens can experience different kinds of domestic abuse at home. These tend to fall into a few major categories:

  • Physical abuse — Hitting, kicking, beating, punching, or otherwise causing physical pain and harm. Locking a child in a room or withholding needs is also a type of physical abuse.
  • Sexual abuse — Forcing sexual contact. Children can never consent to sexual contact.
  • Emotional abuse — Manipulation, intimidation, insults, and other tactics to emotionally control, frighten, shame, or humiliate someone.
  • Neglect—Failure to provide basic necessities like access to food, water, sleep, shelter, hygiene, and healthcare.

Obviously, children can experience more than one type of abuse simultaneously. Abuse of any kind affects a child’s welfare, safety, and health. Making a child watch abuse take place is also a form of child abuse.

Signs of Family Violence and Neglect

As a counselor, it can be difficult to tell if a child is being abused at home. Most children don’t feel safe speaking up about their situation. Others feel ashamed or embarrassed about what they’re experiencing, even though it’s not their fault.

It’s extremely important for counselors to keep an eye out for signs of family violence and neglect when working with students. Some of the signs to look out for include:

  • Visible, suspicious injuries — bruises, cuts, scrapes, etc.
  • Wearing clothing that fully covers the body, especially during warmer months (to hide injuries)
  • Showing fear of adults
  • Withdrawing
  • Aggressive or defiant behavior
  • Struggling with friendships
  • Exhibiting “fearless” behavior
  • Being destructive
  • Being called “accident-prone” by parent or guardian
  • Spending excessive time at school and not wanting to be home
  • Struggling with schoolwork for no clear reason
  • Avoiding physical contact with others
  • Coming to school in the same clothes consistently
  • Hygiene issues
  • Showing signs of being excessively hungry

It’s important to remember that these are not definitive signs of abuse. There are lots of reasons for unusual behavior, and children do injure themselves playing together. However, if multiple signs are coming up and a child is unwilling to talk about their home life, it’s important to consider the possibility of abuse.

How to Help Students Affected By Abuse

Reporting abuse can be emotionally difficult for school counselors. No one wants to accuse a child’s parents or guardians of abuse, especially when there is any uncertainty surrounding the issue. Still, it’s critical for counselors to speak up and report potential abuse to the authorities.  

When a report is filed, Child Protective Services will get involved. The person making the report is not identified. You might be called on to provide additional information during or after the investigation, however. The most important thing is to ensure that children and teens who might be experiencing abuse are safe. If you do need to make an abuse report and you’re having trouble with your own emotions, don’t hesitate to get mental health support for yourself!