The Issue of Child Abuse
Every year more than 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States. It’s a terrible epidemic that we at Childhelp are dedicated to put an end to. To do this, we need to first increase awareness of the issue itself.
What is child abuse? Child abuse is when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or failing to act, causes injury, death, emotional harm or risk of serious harm to a child. There are many forms of child maltreatment, including neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exploitation, and emotional abuse.
Read through the sections below on the different types of child abuse to learn about signs to look out for. If you see these signs in anyone you know, or are a victim of child abuse, get help right away.
Physical abuse of a child is when a parent or caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child. There are many signs of physical abuse. If you see any of the following signs, please get help right away.
28.3% of adults report being physically abused as a child.
Physical abuse includes striking, kicking, burning, biting, hair pulling, choking, throwing, shoving, whipping or any other action that injures a child. Even if the caregiver didn’t mean to cause injury, when the child is injured it is abuse. Physical discipline from a parent that does not injure or impair a child is not considered abuse; however non-violent alternatives are always available.
Physical abuse can result in:
- Bruises, blisters, burns, cuts and scratches
- Internal injuries, brain damage
- Broken bones, sprains, dislocated joints
- Emotional and psychological harm
- Lifelong injury, death
Signs of Physical Abuse in parent or caregiver:
- Can’t or won’t explain injury of child, or explains it in a way that doesn’t make sense
- Displays aggression to child or is overly anxious about child’s behavior
- Indicates child is not trustworthy, a liar, evil, a troublemaker
- Delays or prevents medical care for child
- Takes child to different doctors or hospitals
- Keeps child from school, church, clubs
- Has history of violence and/or abuse
Signs of physical abuse in a child:
- Any injury to a child who is not crawling yet
- Visible and severe injuries, especially when injuries are:
- Many, at different stages of healing
- On different surfaces of the body
- Unexplained or explained in a way that doesn’t make sense
- Distinctive shape
- Frequency, timing and history of injuries (frequent, after weekends, vacations, school absences)
- Aggression toward peers, pets, other animals
- Seems afraid of parents or other adults
- Fear, withdrawal, depression, anxiety
- Wears long sleeves out of season
- Violent themes in fantasy, art, etc.
- Nightmares, insomnia
- Reports injury, severe discipline
- Immaturity, acting out, emotional and behavior extremes
- Self-destructive behavior or attitudes
Sexual abuse occurs when an adult uses a child for sexual purposes or involves a child in sexual acts. It also includes when a child who is older or more powerful uses another child for sexual gratification or excitement.
20.7% of adults report being sexually abused as a child.
Sexual abuse of children includes:
- Non-contact abuse
- Making a child view a sex act
- Making a child view or show sex organs
- Inappropriate sexual talk
- Contact abuse
- Fondling and oral sex
- Making children perform a sex act
- Child prostitution and child pornography
Signs of sexual abuse in parent or caregiver:
- Parent fails to supervise child
- Unstable adult presence
- Jealous/possessive parent
- Sexual relationships troubled or dysfunctional
- Parent relies on child for emotional support
Signs of sexual abuse in a child:
- Difficulty sitting, walking, bowel problems
- Torn, stained, bloody undergarments
- Bleeding, bruises, pain, swelling, itching of genital area
- Frequent urinary tract infections or yeast infections
- Any sexually transmitted disease or related symptoms
- Doesn’t want to change clothes (e.g.: for P.E.)
- Withdrawn, depressed, anxious
- Eating disorders, preoccupation with body
- Aggression, delinquency, poor peer relationships
- Poor self-image, poor self-care, lack of confidence
- Sudden absenteeism, decline in school performance
- Substance abuse, running away, recklessness, suicide attempts
- Sleep disturbance, fear of bedtime, nightmares, bed wetting (at advanced age)
- Sexual acting out, excessive masturbation
- Unusual or repetitive soothing behaviors (hand-washing, pacing, rocking, etc.)
- Sexual behavior or knowledge that is advanced or unusual
- Reports sexual abuse
When a parent or caregiver harms a child’s mental and social development, or causes severe emotional harm, it is considered emotional abuse. While a single incident may be abuse, most often emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that causes damage over time.
10.6% of adults report being emotionally abused as a child.
Emotional abuse can include:
- Rejecting or ignoring: telling a child he or she is unwanted or unloved, showing little interest in child, not initiating or returning affection, not listening to the child, not validating the child’s feelings, breaking promises, cutting child off in conversation
- Shaming or humiliating: calling a child names, criticizing, belittling, demeaning, berating, mocking, using language or taking action that takes aim at child’s feelings of self-worth
- Terrorizing: accusing, blaming, insulting, punishing with or threatening abandonment, harm or death, setting a child up for failure, manipulating, taking advantage of a child’s weakness or reliance on adults, slandering; screaming; yelling
- Isolating: Keeping child from peers and positive activities, confining child to small area, forbidding play or other stimulating experiences
- Corrupting: Engaging child in criminal acts, telling lies to justify actions or ideas, encouraging misbehavior
Signs of Emotional Abuse in parent or caregiver:
- Routinely ignores, criticizes, yells at or blames child
- Plays favorites with one sibling over another
- Poor anger management or emotional self-regulation
- Stormy relationships with other adults, disrespect for authority
- History of violence or abuse
- Untreated mental illness, alcoholism or substance abuse
Signs of Emotional Abuse in a child:
- Delays in development
- Wetting bed, pants
- Speech disorders
- Health problems like ulcers, skin disorders
- Obesity and weight fluctuation
- Habits like sucking, biting, rocking
- Learning disabilities and developmental delays
- Overly compliant or defensive
- Extreme emotions, aggression, withdrawal
- Anxieties, phobias, sleep disorders
- Destructive or anti-social behaviors (violence, cruelty, vandalism, stealing, cheating, lying)
- Behavior that is inappropriate for age (too adult, too infantile)
- Suicidal thoughts and behaviors
Child neglect is when a parent or caregiver does not give the care, supervision, affection and support needed for a child’s health, safety and well-being. Child neglect includes:
- Physical neglect and inadequate supervision
- Emotional neglect
- Medical neglect
- Educational neglect
Children need enough care to be healthy and enough supervision to be safe. Adults that care for children must provide clothing, food, and drink. A child also needs safe, healthy shelter, and adequate supervision.
Examples of physical neglect:
- Deserting a child or refusing to take custody of a child who is under your care
- Repeatedly leaving a child in another’s custody for days or weeks at a time
- Failing to provide enough healthy food and drink
- Failing to provide clothes that are appropriate to the weather
- Failing to ensure adequate personal hygiene
- Not supervising a child appropriately
- Leaving the child with an inappropriate caregiver
- Exposing a child to unsafe/unsanitary environments or situations
Children require enough affection and attention to feel loved and supported. If a child shows signs of psychological illness, it must be treated.
Examples of emotional neglect:
- Ignoring a child’s need for attention, affection, and emotional support
- Exposing a child to extreme or frequent violence, especially domestic violence
- Permitting a child to use drugs, use alcohol, or engage in crime
- Keeping a child isolated from friends and loved ones
Some states do not prosecute parents who withhold certain types of medical care for religious reasons, but they may get a court order to protect the child’s life.
Parents and caregivers must provide children with appropriate treatment for injuries and illness. They must also provide basic preventive care to make sure their child stays safe and healthy.
Examples of medical neglect:
- Not taking child to hospital or appropriate medical professional for serious illness or injury.
- Keeping a child from getting needed treatment
- Not providing preventative medical and dental care
- Failing to follow medical recommendations for a child
Parents and schools share responsibility for making sure children have access to opportunities for academic success.
Examples of educational neglect:
- Allowing a child to miss too much school
- Not enrolling a child in school (or not providing comparable home-based education)
- Keeping a child from needed special education services
Signs of Child Neglect
There is no “smoking gun” for most child neglect. While even one instance of neglect can cause lifelong harm to a child, neglect often requires a pattern of behavior over a period of time.
Signs in Caregiver
There is no “typical neglectful parent.” Nevertheless, certain indicators may suggest a parent or caregiver needs help to nurture and protect the child or children in their care:
- Displays indifference or lack of care toward the child
- Depression, apathy, drug/alcohol abuse and other mental health issues
- Denies problems with child or blames the child for problems
- Views child negatively
- Relies on child for own care and well-being
Signs in Child
While a single indicator may not be cause for alarm, children who are neglected often show that they need help:
- Clothing that is the wrong size, in disrepair, dirty, or not right for the weather
- Often hungry, stockpiles food, seeks food, may even show signs of malnutrition (like distended belly, protruding bones)
- Very low body weight, height for age
- Often tired, sleepy, listless
- Hygiene problems, body odor
- Talks about caring for younger siblings, not having a caregiver at home
- Untreated medical and dental problems, incomplete immunizations
- Truancy, frequently incomplete homework, frequent changes of school
If you see any signs of abuse in someone you know, or if you yourself are involved in an abusive relationship, get help right away. Our Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is a 24-hour hotline with resources to aid in every child abuse situation. All calls are anonymous and confidential. Call 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) for help. For additional resources like Risk Factors and Protective Factors or Handling Child Abuse Disclosures, visit our Story & Resource Center.