Why some people hurt children

There’s no simple answer that will help explain why some parents or adults abuse children.

As with many things, the factors that lead to child abuse are complex and often interwoven with other issues. These issues may be far more difficult to detect and understand than the abuse itself.

What increases a person’s risk for abusing a child?

  • history of child abuse or neglect during their own childhood
  • having a substance use disorder
  • physical or mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • poor parent-child relationships
  • socioeconomic stress from financial issues, unemployment, or medical problems
  • a lack of understanding about basic childhood development (expecting children to be capable of tasks before they’re ready)
  • a lack of parenting skills to help cope with the pressures and struggles of raising a child
  • a lack of support from family members, friends, neighbors, or the community
  • caring for a child with intellectual or physical disabilities that make adequate care more challenging
  • family stress or crisis caused by domestic violence, relationship turmoil, separation, or divorce
  • personal mental health issues, including low self-confidence and feelings of incompetence or shame
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Adults who are abusing children may also show certain signs or behaviors, such as:

  • ignoring or denying a child’s problematic behavior, changes, or difficulties
  • using language that shows they view the child as worthless or burdensome
  • demanding physical or academic performances that aren’t achievable by their child
  • asking teachers or other caregivers to use harsh punishment if the child misbehaves
  • rarely showing physical affection to the child
  • showing hostility to the child, especially in light of bad behavior
  • displaying little concern for their child

What to do if you’re afraid you might hurt a child

Being a parent can be a joyful, meaningful, and sometimes overwhelming experience. There may be times your children push you to the limit. You may feel driven to behaviors you wouldn’t normally think you were capable of.

The first step to prevent child abuse is recognizing the feelings you’re having. If you’re afraid you might abuse your child, you’ve already reached that important milestone. Now is the time to take steps to prevent any abuse.

First, remove yourself from the situation. Don’t respond to your child during this moment of anger or rage. Walk away.

Then, use one of these resources to find ways to navigate your feelings, emotions, and the steps that are necessary to handle the situation.

Resources to prevent child abuse

  • Call your doctor or therapist. These healthcare providers can help you find immediate help. They can also refer you to resources that might be useful, such as parent education classes, counseling, or support groups.
  • Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline. This 24/7 hotline can be reached at 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453). They can talk to you in the moment and direct you to free resources in your area.
  • Visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway. This organization provides families and individuals with links to family support services. Visit them here.
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What to do if you suspect a child is being hurt

If you believe a child you know is being abused, seek immediate help for that child.

How to report child abuse

  • Call the police. If you fear the child’s life is in danger, the police can respond and remove the child from the home if needed. They’ll also alert local child protective agencies to the situation.
  • Call a child protective service. These local and state agencies can intervene with the family and remove the child to safety if necessary. They can also help the parents or adults find the help they need, whether that’s parenting skills classes or treatment for a substance use disorder. Your local Department of Human Resources can be a helpful place to start.
  • Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD (800-422-4453). This group can help you find organizations in your area that will help the child and family.
  • Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or TTY 800-787-3224 or online 24/7 chat. They can provide information about shelters or child protective agencies in your area.
  • Visit Prevent Child Abuse America to learn more ways you can help the child and promote their well-being. Visit them here.
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What is child abuse?

Child abuse is any type of abuse or neglect that harms a child. It’s often perpetrated by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has authority in the child’s life.

5 categories of child abuse

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The facts of child abuse

Child abuse is almost always preventable. It requires a level of recognition on the part of parents and caregivers. It also requires work from the adults in a child’s life to overcome the challenges, feelings, or beliefs that lead to these behaviors.

However, this work is worth the effort. Overcoming abuse and neglect can help families become stronger. It can also help children lower their risk for future complications.

Facts about child abuse

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 676,000 children were abused or neglected in 2016 in the United States. But many more children may have been harmed in episodes of abuse or neglect that were never reported.
  • Around 1,750 children died as a result of abuse and neglect in 2016, says the CDC.
  • Research estimates 1 in 4 children will experience some type of child abuse during their lifetime.
  • Children younger than 1 year old are most likely to be a victim of child abuse.
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Consequences of abuse during childhood

A 2009 study examined the role of a variety of adverse childhood experiences on health in adults. Experiences included:

  • abuse (physical, emotional, sexual)
  • witnessing domestic violence
  • parental separation or divorce
  • growing up in a home with family members who had mental health conditions, substance use disorders, or were sent to prison

Researchers found those who reported six or more adverse childhood experiences had an average life span 20 years shorter than those who didn’t have these experiences.

Individuals who were abused as children are more likely to repeat the cycle of behavior with their own children. Child abuse or neglect may also lead to substance use disorders in adulthood.

If you were abused as a child, these consequences may seem dismal to you. But remember, help and support is out there. You can heal and thrive.

Knowledge is also power. Understanding the side effects of child abuse can help you make healthy decisions now.

How to spot the signs of child abuse

Children who are abused don’t always realize they’re not to blame for the behaviors of their parents or other authority figures. They may attempt to hide some of the evidence of the abuse.

However, adults or other authority figures in the child’s life, such as a teacher, coach, or caregiver, can often spot telltale signs of possible abuse.

Signs of child abuse or neglect

  • changes in behavior, including hostility, hyperactivity, anger, or aggression
  • reluctance to leave activities, such as school, sports, or extracurricular activities
  • attempts at running away or leaving the home
  • changes in performance at school
  • frequent absences from school
  • withdrawal from friends, family, or usual activities
  • self-harm or attempted suicide
  • defiant behavior
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You can help stop the cycle

Healing is possible when adults and authority figures find ways to help children, their parents, and anyone involved in child abuse.

While the treatment process isn’t always easy, it’s important that everyone involved find the help they need. This can stop the cycle of abuse. It can also help families learn to thrive by creating a safe, stable, and more nurturing relationship.