What Is Child Abuse?

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Child abuse is the wrongful treatment of a child. It may be in the form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. This form of abuse may also be recognized as the exploitation of a child, as well as the failure to properly care for a child, otherwise known as neglect.

Children that are subjected to abuse usually experience harm to their health, welfare, and self-respect.

This article covers the many forms of child abuse, how each form impacts a child's mental and physical well-being, and discusses how childhood trauma can be treated.

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.

Indicators of Child Abuse

When a child is experiencing ill-treatment from a caregiver or other person, there are signs that may indicate abuse. These include:

Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Unexplained facial injuries
  • Injuries on forearms
  • Burn marks on the skin
  • Bruises on the ears
  • Oral and dental injuries
  • Dislocations around the body
  • Internal damage 
  • Vomiting or breathing difficulties due to head trauma

Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Bruising around the genitals
  • Painful urination or defecation
  • Discharge around the genital or rectal areas
  • Difficulty walking or sitting

Signs of Neglect

  • Poor hygiene
  • Improper clothing during the seasons
  • Lack of access to medical care
  • Worsening medical conditions
  • Poorly-tended wounds
  • Hair loss
  • Malnutrition
  • Low weight

Behavioral Cues of Child Abuse

Types of Child Abuse

Child abuse is committed in epidemic proportions in the United States. Every year, approximately one million childrenare deprived of a normal, harm-free childhood. Instead, they are subjected to the horrors of maltreatment in their formative stages.

The abuse of children may take different forms, listed below.

Physical Abuse

This form of abuse refers to the deliberate physical harm of a child by parents or caregivers. Physical abuse affects around 18% of maltreated children, and is a leading cause of child deaths—homicide falling in second for the loss of infant lives younger than one.

Physical abuse may involve hitting a child with hands or an object. Burning, biting, or physically restraining a child with the intent to do harm is also considered physical abuse.

Children of all races, ethnicities and economic groups may be subject to physical abuse. It is, however, more commonly observed in boys and infant children.

A child is also at a higher risk of physical abuse where they live with a disability or are under the care of an unmarried mother.

There is also an increased chance of violence where a child is raised in poverty, or in a home where domestic violence is rampant. The same goes in situations where a child grows up with an unrelated adult, or with more than two siblings at home.

Emotional Abuse

This form of abuse may not always have the immediately apparent signs of physical harm but is no less painful.

Emotional abuse occurs where a child is degraded, terrorized, isolated, or exploited by a parent/caregiver. This is seen where a child is constantly criticized, threatened, rejected, or given no support or love while growing up.

In 2010, The Federal Report of Child Maltreatment Statistics stated that 8% of all reported cases of child maltreatment involve emotional abuse. There is a chance that cases of emotional abuse may be even higher than those reported.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse refers to the forceful participation of children in sexual acts. It may also involve forcing a child to engage in sexual acts that they do not fully understand.  This abuse may also force children to engage in sexual acts that they do not fully understand.

Sexual abuse includes sexual assault, rape, incest, fondling, oral sexual contact, the commercial sexual exploitation of children, or genital/anal penetration. Sexual abuse is a worryingly common form of child abuse. By adulthood, it is estimated that 26% of girls and 5% of boys will experience this maltreatment.

While sexual contact typically makes up sexual abuse, non-contact improper treatment may also come under the abuse classification. This includes the exposure of a child to sexual activity or taking inappropriate photographs of children.

Neglect

This is the failure of a caregiver/parent to meet the most basic needs of a child. It is the most common form of child abuse where approximately two-thirds of reports to child protective services are made over concerns of child neglect.

Neglect takes many forms and can be observed where a child is not taken for regular doctor appointments, or is denied access to healthcare by a caregiver.

This form of abuse is also apparent where a child is not given the right nutritional care, or when children are exposed to harmful substances like drugs.

Impact of Child Abuse

Abuse has far-reaching effects on every aspect of a child’s well-being.

Impact of Physical Abuse

Physically, children may suffer the pains of fractures, burns, facial or bodily disfigurement, and even seizures brought on by bodily maltreatment. The mental effects of this treatment may leave children with PTSD or even cognitive retardation.

Impact of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse may cause a disconnect in a child’s sense of self. This abuse could be responsible for negative disruptions in the brain, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, hostile behaviors, and noticeable delinquent habits such as alcohol use in early adulthood. 

Impact of Sexual Abuse

The sexual abuse of children has both immediate and long-term effects on their well-being. Survivors of child sexual abuse may feel anger, guilt, and shame over the treatment they have endured.

Children who have experienced sexual abuse are also at a higher risk of developing anxiety, depression, and inappropriate sexual behaviors in life. In later years, these survivors may experience problems like alcoholism, drug dependency, marriage/family difficulties, and a worrying preoccupation with suicide.

Impact of Neglect

A child left without the useful tools and care for proper development may perform poorly in school. This child is also likely to display emotional and behavioral problems as a result of their abandonment. 

Later difficulties in life like liver and heart disease may also be traceable to poor treatment received in childhood.

How to Manage the Effects of Child Abuse

In suspected cases of child abuse at the hands of a parent or caregiver, this treatment should be reported to child protection services or other relevant law enforcement agencies. 

Children that have been physically abused should then be stabilized, with examinations carried out to determine the extent of the ill-treatment endured. 

Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse victims, as well as children that have lived through neglect, need appropriate care. These children may be protected using treatments like psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.

Therapy is useful for addressing the issues linked with abuse and neglect. It is also necessary to teach a child appropriate behaviors for adult-child relationships. Therapy can also provide a support system for poorly treated children.

Medication may be recommended for the PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other pains associated with abusive treatment.

Maltreatment is a painful thing to experience during development. The different forms of child abuse have far-reaching effects on welfare, but may be managed using the right methods.

A Word From Verywell

Child abuse is an alarmingly common form of abuse. With many different forms, children are exposed to multiple ripple effects from the maltreatment they've been subjected to. While recovery from a life punctuated by physical assault, sexual violence, or neglect can be difficult, healing is possible. Putting a child affected by abuse in therapy, or placing them on medication to manage adverse outcomes are effective ways to manage child abuse. To protect a child against abuse, it's important to report suspected cases of ill-treatment to the correct authorities.

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