What Is Child Abuse and How Can I Recognize It?

It is a painful reality  that child abuse continues to be a significant problem in our country. Alarmingly, it may not always look like the way most people think it does. Popular culture has taught us that abused children will show black and blue bruises, or act in a way that would make others immediately aware of abuse, but the reality is much more complex. However, by learning and understanding the signs and symptoms, and by knowing what to look for, together, we can stop child abuse. 

There are various types of child abuse, ranging from physical, to emotional, to sexual abuse, and neglect.

Statistics vary due to the difficulties associated with measuring, characterizing, and reporting cases of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. But, recent studies suggest that up to 28 percent of children report incidences of physical abuse, nearly one-fifth of children report sexual abuse, and emotional abuse may affect more than 10 percent of children. 

What is Child Abuse? 

Child abuse is any act that endangers or harms a child’s physical or emotional health and development. This includes any injuries that cannot be reasonably explained (including any that appear to be non-accidental.)

Not all signs of child abuse are obvious, as it isn’t always physical in nature. Contrary to the sentiment expressed by a familiar childhood rhyme, sticks and stones may certainly break young bones, but vicious words definitely hurt, too (often to devastating ends). Regardless of the type of abuse, the result is serious emotional harm, and the wounds inflicted by such maltreatment likely leave long-lasting, negative impacts..

Types of Child Abuse

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is when a child is purposely physically injured or put at risk of harm by another person. This includes any non-accidental injury to a child, examples of which include hitting, kicking, slapping, shaking, burning, pinching, hair pulling, biting, choking, throwing, shoving, whipping, and paddling.

Emotional/Psychological Abuse

Emotional child abuse means harming a child’s emotional well-being or self-esteem.

It includes verbal and emotional assault — such as continually belittling or berating a child — as well as isolating, ignoring, or rejecting a child.

Examples of emotional abuse behaviors include rejecting, ignoring, or isolating a child. As well as emotional assaults like telling a child she is not loved, or even lovable. Other patterns involve shaming or humiliating the child; terrorizing the child, or isolating the child. Terrorizing may take many forms; it may involve accusing, blaming, insulting or punishing a child.

This form of abuse may involve making threats regarding dire consequences. Sometimes, abusers may engage their victims in criminal acts, corrupting the child’s innocence and exploiting their vulnerability.

All of these can do incalculable harm.

Neglect

Child neglect is failure to provide for a child’s physical needs. Examples of neglect are inadequate food, shelter, affection, supervision, education, or dental or medical care, lack of supervision, inappropriate clothing for season or weather, abandonment, and inadequate hygiene.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual child abuse is any sexual activity between a child and an adult. This includes acts such as fondling, oral-genital contact, intercourse, penetration, pornography, exhibitionism, child prostitution, group sex, oral sex, exploitation or exposure to child pornography, or forced observation of sexual acts.

Incidents of sexual abuse are understandably repugnant to responsible, caring adults. But the long-term damaging effects of emotional/psychological abuse should not be underestimated. Singular abuse events are bad enough.

This form of abuse typically involves years of sustained, damaging behavior on the part of an adult authority figure in the child’s life. This relentless abuse takes a significant toll on the child’s wellbeing. 

Signs of Child Abuse

As you can see, abusive behavior comes in many forms, but the end result is a child that feels unsafe, uncared for, and alone.

The warning signs for a child being abused or neglected can vary based on the type of abuse.

A victim of child abuse may feel guilty, ashamed, or confused, and if the abuse is a parent, another relative, or family friend, they may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse. That’s why it’s vital to watch for warning signs like: 

  • changes in behavior or school performance, 
  • withdrawal from usual activities and/or friends, 
  • depression, anxiety, or unusual fears, 
  • a sudden loss of self-confidence, 
  • an apparent lack of supervision,
  • frequent absences from school,
  • reluctance to leave school activities (doesn’t want to go home),
  • attempts at running away,
  • rebellious or defiant behavior,
  • self-harm or attempts at suicide,
  • poor hygiene,
  • sexual behavior or knowledge that’s inappropriate for the child’s age,
  • unexplained injuries, such as bruises, fractures, or burns,
  • and lack of clothing or supplies to meet physical needs.

Signs That an Adult May Be Abusive

Sometimes a parent or caregiver’s behavior is an indicator of child abuse. Parents or caregivers prone to emotional abuse may openly ignore, criticize or humiliate a child in your presence. They may foist blame on a given child, or attempt to cause distrust or arguments among siblings by blatantly favoring one child over another. 

These individuals typically model poor emotional self-control and may be prone to displays of uncontrolled anger. They may show signs of disrespect for authority in general, and may attempt to engage a vulnerable child in criminal acts, ranging from telling lies to committing crimes such as stealing. Humiliation and belittling are typical behaviors among such dysfunctional caregivers, and these harmful behaviors may cause a host of adverse consequences among their charges.

In cases of sexual abuse, it often looks like an inappropriate level of friendship between an adult and a child, this is called “grooming.”  Grooming is when an adult will deliberately establish an emotional connection with a child to prepare the child for sexual abuse. This can happen both online and in the physical world. Youth who are isolated, have low self-esteem, or somehow need attention are most at risk. 

Physical Indicators 

Children suffering abuse may experience delays in development, and other signs, such as bedwetting, speech disorders, weight problems, or other health issues such as skin disorders or even ulcers. 

Of course, clinicians are trained to be alert for signs of physical abuse, such as unexplained bone breaks, unusual or unexplained bruising, or even suspicious burns. Sprains, dislocated joints, cuts and scratches, blisters, and even internal injuries — including brain damage (e.g. shaken baby syndrome) may also provide clues to abuse behaviors. But such victims are not always seen by trained medical professionals on a regular basis, thus it’s important for all adults to notice and report such signs, if warranted.

Child Abuse Prevention

Obviously, it’s extraordinarily important for responsible adults who may interact with abused children to be on the lookout for any signs of neglect, abuse, or maltreatment. While legal parents and guardians bear ultimate responsibility for raising their children as they deem appropriate, it is the responsibility of all reasonable adults to notice any outward signs of possible abuse — and to intervene, if necessary — in order to assure that helpless children are safe and lovingly tended. 

But, as child abuse and neglect are very serious problems that can have life-longlasting harmful effects on their victims, the goal is to prevent child abuse and neglect and make sure to stop this violence from happening.

There are many ways to help prevent child abuse. 

The first step is knowing what child abuse is and knowing the signs, as well as empowering children to know their rights. When kids are taught that they have a right to feel safe, they are less likely to think abuse is their fault, and more likely to report an offender.

Supporting greater investments in programs such as family counseling and home visits by nurses who provide assistance for newborns and their parents has been proven to stop the abuse before it occurs.

Community investment in children in families for things like after-school activities, parent education classes, mentoring programs, and respite care are some of the many ways to keep children safe from harm. 

We firmly believe that it takes a village to raise a child, and that is why it is our mission to ensure that all children receive proper love, care, and nurturing.  

If you suspect child abuse, or you are currently or have ever experienced abuse, call us at 1800550CHILD x 1234.