What is child abuse?
Child abuse is defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as any recent act or failure to act on that results in a child’s serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, exploitation or death. An act or failure to act that presents a risk of serious harm to a child is also considered to be child abuse.
Child abuse is most commonly perpetrated by someone known to the child. He or she can be a caregiver, relative, family friend or any adult in a position of authority over the child. Abusers can also be strangers to the family and child. Although the government definition refers specifically to abuse enacted by parents and caregivers, any adult or older child can perpetrate abuse during a child’s youth. Peer-against-peer abuse can result in equally as serious emotional, physical and mental effects.
Child neglect is the most frequent type of abuse of children, with children that are born to young mothers at a substantial risk for neglect. In 2008, the U.S. state and local child protective services received 3.3 million reports of children being abused or neglected. Seventy-one percent of the children were classified as victims of child neglect (“Child Abuse & Neglect”). Maltreated children/youth were about five times more likely to have a first emergency department presentation for suicide related behavior compared to their peers, in both boys and girls. Children/youth permanently removed from their parental home because of substantiated child maltreatment are at an increased risk of a first presentation to the emergency department for suicide-related behavior. Neglected children are at risk of developing lifelong social, emotional and health problems, particularly if neglected before the age of two years.
Each state provides its own definitions of child abuse within civil and criminal statutes, but they are informed by the following definitions of various forms of child abuse:
Physical. A non-accidental physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting, burning or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver or other person who has responsibility for the child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child.
Sexual. A form of child abuse that includes any sexual act performed with a child by an adult or older child, with or without force or threat of force. It may start as seemingly innocent touching and progress to more serious acts, including verbal seduction or abuse, anal or vaginal intercourse, oral sex, sodomy, manual stimulation, direct threats, implied threats or other forms of abuse.
Emotional. A pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This form of abuse is almost always present when other forms of abuse are identified. It may include constant criticism, threats or rejection, as well as withholding love, support or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, Child Protective services may not be able to intervene without clear evidence of harm to the child.
Psychological. this is a pattern of behavior that affects a child’s sense of worth by communicating to the child that he or she is not worthy, loved or important. Psychological abuse may include harsh demands, constant criticism, threats and yelling. Witnessing other violent incidents such as, domestic violence or school violence is also a form of psychological abuse due to the intense fear it produces and the indirect threat to a child’s safety.
What is child neglect?
Child neglect is the leading form of child abuse in the United States and occurs when a caretaker fails to provide for a child’s basic needs, which include adequate food, clothing, shelter, education, supervision medical care or safekeeping. As a result of such treatment, the child’s physical, mental, or emotional development can be impaired.
Know the Signs
There are many signs that can indicate ongoing or recent child abuse and neglect. The most recognizable are physical signs, such as cuts and bruises in different stages of healing, rashes, redness in the genital area or a child’s appearance overall.
However, there are other signs of abuse like changes in behavior, fatigue or changes in eating patterns that may not be as apparent, which can contribute to abuse going undetected.
Child abuse and neglect are never the child’s fault. Many abusive adults rely on a child’s innocence to convince children to be silent, or lie about abuse that is going on. Children who have survived abuse may experience feelings of shame, guilt or embarrassment associated with maltreatment or neglect, and may even believe the abuse is their fault. Experiencing these feelings is wounding and can make a child feel confused or alone. However, in many cases it is possible to mitigate—or even prevent—these negative outcomes by recognizing and knowing the common signs and reactions to child abuse. Recognizing the indicators and beginning an open and supportive conversation with a child is an important first step in identifying a problem and beginning the healing process.
The signs listed below are not definitive statements of abuse, but rather suggest that if a child is exhibiting these signs, close monitoring should be enacted to ensure the child is protected.
Signs of child abuse
Children who have experienced child abuse and may demonstrate any of the following signs.
Failure to thrive socially or academically
Delayed physical development
Attachment issues, such as discomfort with physical contact or difficulty connecting with others
Lags in physical, emotional or intellectual development
Behavior extremes, such as appearing overly compliant and passive or very demanding and aggressive.
Withdrawn and/or overly sensitive behaviors
Increased fear or avoidance of a specific person and/or situation
Difficulty expressing thoughts and feelings
Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
Anxiety and/or excessive worrying
Bruises, welts or swelling
Sprains or fractures
Lacerations or abrasions
Frequent physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches
Difficulty in walking or sitting
Torn, stained or bloody clothing
Pain or itching in the genital area; bruises or bleeding in the external genital area
Sexually transmitted infections or diseases
Knowledge of or interest in sexual behaviors that are not age appropriate
Uncharacteristic obedience or perfectionism
Strong feelings of shame or guilt
Programmed statements or behaviors
Failure to thrive
Delayed physical development
Attachment issues, such as seeking comfort and attention from others or difficulty forming relationships
Lags in physical, emotional or intellectual development.
Lack of adequate supervision, nutrition, shelter
Rashes or skin abrasions
Frequently home alone or without appropriate supervision
Infrequent attendance in school
Lack of school supplies
Incomplete or missing homework or school forms
Unattended medical or dental needs
Behavior extremes, such as appearing overly compliant and passive or very demanding and aggressive