It's hard to imagine someone intentionally hurting a child. Yet nearly 1 million
children are abused every year just in the United States alone. And these are only
the reported incidents of child abuse — many more cases are unreported and undetected,
often because children are afraid to tell somebody who can help.
Most of the time, kids know their abusers and the abuse happens in the home. This
makes it difficult for kids to speak up. They may feel trapped by the affection they
feel for their abusers or fearful of the power the abusers have over them —
so they stay silent. That's why it's especially important to be able to recognize
the signs of child abuse.
What Is Child Abuse?
Child abuse happens when a parent or other adult causes serious physical or emotional
harm to a child.
In the United States, the laws defining what constitutes child abuse vary from
state to state, but generally speaking, child abuse can take these forms:
neglect and abandonment
emotional or psychological abuse
The most serious cases of child abuse can end in death. Those who survive may suffer
emotional scars that can last long after the physical bruises have healed. Kids who
are abused are more likely to have problems building and maintaining relationships
throughout their lives. They're also more likely to have low self-esteem, depression,
thoughts of suicide, and other
mental health issues.
When people think of child abuse, their first thought probably is of physical abuse
— such as striking, kicking, or shaking a child. Physical abuse can also include:
holding a child under water
tying a child up
intentionally burning a child or scalding a child with hot water
throwing an object at a child or using an object to beat a child
starving a child or failing to provide a child with food
Abusive head trauma, or
shaken baby syndrome, is a specific form of physical abuse. It's the leading cause
of death in child abuse cases in the U.S. Most incidents last just a few seconds,
but that's enough time to cause brain damage or even kill a baby.
Sexual abuse happens when a child is raped or forced to
commit a sexual act. But it's also any sort of sexual contact with a child or any
behavior that is meant to sexually arouse the abuser. So, in addition to having sex
with a child, fondling a child's genitals or making a child touch someone else's genitals,
sexual abuse also includes:
making a child pose or perform for pornographic pictures or videos
telling a child dirty jokes or stories
showing a child pornographic material
forcing a child to undress
"flashing" a child or showing them one's genitals
Neglect is any action — or inaction — on the part of a caregiver that
causes a child physical or emotional harm. For example, withholding food, warmth in
cold weather, or proper housing is considered neglectful. Basically, anything that
interferes with a child's growth and development constitutes neglect. This also includes:
failing to provide medical care when a child is injured or sick
locking a child in a closet or room
placing a child in a dangerous situation that could lead to physical injury or
Abandonment is a type of neglect. This is when a child is left
alone for extended periods of time or suffers serious harm because no one was looking
after him or her.
Emotional abuse or psychological abuse is a pattern of behavior that has negative
effects on a child's emotional development and sense of self-worth. Ignoring a child
or withholding love, support, or guidance is considered emotional abuse. So is threatening,
terrorizing, belittling, or constantly criticizing a child.
The use of alcohol, tobacco, or illicit drugs can hinder a caregiver's judgment
and put a child in danger, leading to things like neglect or physical abuse. But in
some states, substance abuse is also considered a form of child abuse on its own.
Examples of child abuse due to a substance abuse problem in the house include:
allowing a child to drink alcohol or take illegal drugs
making, ingesting, or distributing illegal drugs in the presence of a child
It would be simpler if all child abusers followed a pattern and were easy to recognize.
The truth is that child abusers come from all walks of life. They can be parents,
other family members, teachers, coaches, and family friends. Virtually anyone who
has access to a child is in a position to mistreat the child. Fortunately, the vast
majority of people don't.
Sometimes, people who abuse kids can show some behavioral signs. For example, parents
who abuse their children may avoid other parents in the neighborhood, may not participate
in school activities, and might be uncomfortable talking about their children's injuries
or behavioral problems.
Adults who sexually abuse children typically know the kids beforehand. Rarely will
a sexual abuser pick a child at random. The abuser may use this relationship to his
or her advantage, telling the child to keep the relationship a secret or warning that
the child will be hurt or in trouble if he or she tells anyone.
Many times, people who abuse children were themselves abused as kids. This cycle
of abuse can be hard to break and can pass down for generations within a family.
Signs of Abuse
It's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the ordinary scrapes and
scratches of childhood and a physical sign of child abuse. Multiple bruises or those
that keep coming back, black eyes, and broken
bones are certainly red flags, but other signs — like a child's emotional
health — are also telling.
Here are some ways that kids who are being abused might react:
Being sad or angry. Kids who are being abused may act withdrawn,
fearful, depressed, have low self-esteem, or engage in self-harm, like cutting. The
most depressed kids might contemplate suicide or attempt suicide. Other kids become
bullies and have problems managing their anger and other strong emotions. Many have
nightmares or trouble sleeping.
Relationship troubles. Those who are abused usually have trouble
developing and maintaining relationships. They are often unable to love or trust others,
especially adults, whom they can be fearful of. A telling sign that something's just
not right is when a child fails to seek comfort from a parent or other caregiver who
is an abuser.
"Acting out" or engaging in risky behavior. Kids who are being
abused sometimes act out in class and are disruptive. They may lose interest in activities
they once loved or lose focus on their schoolwork — and their grades suffer.
Drug and alcohol abuse, as well as sexual promiscuity, are also common.
Other kids might not act out in the typical ways, but will avoid going home after
school or doing any activity that would cause them to spend time alone with the abuser.
In addition to kids who are being abused, those who witness abuse (but
are not the victims themselves — like siblings) sometimes show similar signs.
But just because a child is showing these signs, it doesn't necessarily point to
abuse. Children who are going through stressful situations, like parents' separation
or divorce, a family move, or the loss of a friend or family member, may undergo a
change in their mood or disposition.
If You Suspect Abuse
Abuse is not a private family matter, although it most often occurs
within families and often is kept as a family secret. Once you suspect child
abuse, you need to act to protect the child from further possible harm. It
doesn't matter if you're wrong: it's better to be wrong than sorry.
Here's what to do:
If you suspect that a child is being abused, it's your responsibility to contact
your local child protective services agency, police, hospital, or emergency hotline.
If necessary, you may remain anonymous. The child's safety is the immediate issue:
you could save his or her life by removing the child from a dangerous situation as
soon as possible.
If you think you may have abused your own child, or you're worried that you might,
make sure the child is somewhere safe away from you, and then speak with a friend,
relative, or health care professional. It may be that you just need someone to talk
to or you may want to seek counseling. Speaking with a trained professional can be
an effective way to work through the reasons behind your abusive feelings.
If you suspect that someone you know, such as a babysitter or childcare provider,
is abusing a child, keep the child away from that person until authorities have been
notified. If you suspect the person may abuse the child again, make sure any future
contact between the child and that person is supervised. Never threaten a
person or take the law into your own hands. Let the legal system decide an
appropriate punishment for an abuser.
Pediatricians recommend that children who are suspected abuse victims be brought
to a hospital, where the initial diagnosis can be made and treatment can be given.
Hospitals are havens for abused kids, especially battered children who may need X-rays
or cultures for a diagnosis to be made. Imaging can indicate broken bones, which are
often the only sign that infants and very young children have been abused, as they
aren't able to speak of the abuse themselves.
Psychological help is also strongly recommended. Without it, children who have
been abused may suffer emotional problems or repeat the pattern of abuse with their
Break the Silence
While not all suspicions and accusations of child abuse turn out to be true, all
deserve serious attention and immediate action. Child abuse can rob kids of the joy
of growing up and affect them negatively for years to come.
But abuse doesn't have to ruin a child's life, as long as it's stopped and dealt
with. The earlier abuse can be identified and stopped, the less destructive it will
be. Healing from the abuse and dealing with its aftermath can also start that much
So take any accusations of abuse seriously until you know for sure whether or not
they're true. All children deserve to be heard, protected, and helped, no matter what./p>