What are the Most Common Types of Child Abuse?

Child abuse

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Child abuse occurs when a child under the age of 18 is mistreated or neglected by an adult, resulting in harm, the potential for harm, or the threat of imminent harm. The adult may be a relative, caregiver, step-parent, religious figure, coach, or babysitter, though the majority of perpetrators are parents of the child.

In the United States, children experience child abuse or neglect at a rate of 8.9 per 1,000 children. Child abuse is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that can have long-term impacts on an individual’s health and well-being. 

Child abuse can occur in a single instance or in several instances, but it falls within four main categories: emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and neglect.

Emotional Abuse

Also considered psychological or verbal abuse, emotional abuse is persistent, non-physical abuse that makes a child believe they are unwanted, unloved, worthless, or only valuable in meeting their perpetrator’s needs. Words and actions are used to manipulate or control a child, causing emotional harm that may result in low self-esteem, hostility, anxiety, depression, or delinquency.

A pattern of emotionally abusive behavior is difficult to recognize or document but is often present in all categories of child abuse, including physical and sexual abuse. When a child is being verbally abused, often their emotional development suffers as a result.

Types of emotional abuse may include:

  • Name-calling or criticizing
  • Setting unreasonable expectations
  • Threatening or terrorizing 
  • Ignoring boundaries 
  • Demeaning or belittling
  • Bullying or cyberbullying 
  • Dismissing or invalidating the child and their feelings
  • Degrading or objectifying the child
  • Isolating the child

If a child is being emotionally abused, they will often exhibit behavioral changes. This could include excessive crying, bed wetting, bullying, seeming overly fearful of their parents, or showing symptoms of speech, sleep, eating, anxiety, or another mental health disorder.

Because emotional abuse is often invisible, signs and symptoms are difficult to recognize, but without intervention, this can cause long-term mental health issues, such as substance abuse or severe PTSD.

Sexual Abuse

By law, children cannot consent to sexual acts of any kind. Any sexual activity that occurs between an adult and a minor is considered sexual abuse. In more than 90% of child sexual abuse cases, the child or family knows the perpetrator.

Any sexually exploitative act conducted by an adult to a child or in the presence of a child is considered abuse. A perpetrator doesn’t have to touch a child to abuse them sexually. 

Types of sexual abuse include: 

  • An adult exposing their genitalia to a child
  • Molestation
  • Sexual intercourse of any kind, including vaginal, oral, or anal
  • Sexual assault incidents involving an object
  • Masturbation in the presence of a child
  • Phone calls, text messages, or other interactions that are sexual in nature
  • Forcing a child to perform sexual acts
  • Producing, owning, or distributing pornographic images or videos of children
  • Sex trafficking
  • Female genital mutilation
  • Incest

Sexual abuse may occur once or many times but can have lasting effects on a child’s health and mental health.

Some signs and symptoms of sexual abuse include children keeping secrets, exhibiting inappropriate sexual behavior, avoiding the removal of clothing, changes in eating habits, recurring pain during urination, mood changes, or loss of interest in school and activities, among others. Sexual abuse can also cause a sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy. 

In adolescents, sexual abuse is known to cause any number of mental health problems, such as self-harm, substance abuse, disordered eating, depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation. 

Physical Abuse

Any act of harm committed against a child that results in injury is physical abuse, even if it’s unintentional. This type of abuse can cause physical and mental health problems in adulthood and is a common cause of child morbidity and mortality.

Types of physical abuse include:

  • Severely shaking a baby, also known as shaken baby syndrome
  • Hitting or beating a child with a fist or object
  • Burning the child with hot water, a cigarette, or an iron
  • Kicking 
  • Tying a child up
  • Depriving a child of air or holding them underwater

A harmed child may exhibit physical signs, such as bruises, burns, scarring, hair loss, bone fractures, or other injuries. They may hide certain body parts with clothing, or they may blame the injury on a sibling. Their explanation of the injury may change or may not match the injury itself. They may also delay seeking medical care, change primary care providers frequently, or have a long history of visiting the emergency department.

While some parents still use spanking as a form of punishment, it can be considered a form of physical abuse, as it may result in emotional and/or physical harm. 

Neglect

Neglect occurs in 61% of child abuse cases. It is the most common form of child maltreatment in the United States. 

Child neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical care, or supervision to maintain or protect the child’s health, safety, and well-being, resulting in harm or the threat of harm.

Types of neglect include:

  • Failing to give a child medical care or treatment when needed
  • Denying a child food, clothing, or shelter
  • Abandoning or locking a child in a room for hours on end
  • Leaving a young child at home alone without a caregiver or with neglectful caregivers
  • Exposing a child to domestic abuse 
  • Failing to enroll a child in school or denying them educational access 

Unfortunately, neglect can occur with or without intention. A parent or caregiver may not have the financial resources to buy food, maintain shelter, or clothe their children. Still, this maltreatment can result in developmental problems, cognitive impairments, and emotional, social, and behavioral problems. 

Neglect can lead to sexual promiscuity, substance abuse, visual hallucinations, cognitive delays, antisocial personality disorder, dysthymia, and other mental health conditions.

Recognizing Signs of Child Abuse 

In 2019, Child Protective Services received 4.4 million referrals for the alleged mistreatment of 7.9 million children. The majority of reports come from professionals, such as education workers, legal and law enforcement workers, medical personnel, and social services staff members. However, friends, neighbors, and relatives reported 15.7% of the time.

Every child is susceptible to child abuse, and unfortunately, if a child is experiencing one form of abuse, they may be experiencing another.

If the child is exhibiting the following signs and symptoms, they may be experiencing some form of abuse:

  • Constantly hungry or exhausted
  • Showing signs of deteriorating health or mental health 
  • Missing school repeatedly 
  • Dressing in dirty or inappropriate clothes for the weather
  • Experiencing severe changes in mood and behavior 

If you have reasons to believe child abuse is happening, tell someone right away. Depending on the state, only select members of society, such as medical professionals and early childhood education teachers, can and are required to report child abuse suspicions, but you should never withhold your worries. A child’s life may be in danger. 

If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

Children are vulnerable to abuse and, depending on their age, may not know or understand child abuse. For this reason, child mistreatment can go unreported and unaddressed. To prevent and combat the abuse of children, it’s up to all of us, neighbors, community members, clinicians, and other members of society, to intervene. 

Trained professionals can investigate the situation and connect the child to relevant services if abuse is confirmed. They can then begin the process of recovery, starting with diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing care.

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14 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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