Child abuse is any mistreatment or neglect that causes harm to a child 18 years old or younger. This can include sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, as well as neglect.

The mistreatment is caused by an adult, often one with a role of responsibility in the child’s life.

The person responsible for the abuse may be a parent or family member. It can also be someone acting as a caregiver or with authority in the child’s life, including a coach, teacher, or religious leader.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says at least 1 in 7 children in the United States experience some form of abuse or neglect each year. However, the number may be much higher since abuse is often not reported.

In this article, you'll learn more about the types of child abuse and the symptoms you may see in a child who's being abused. You'll also learn why child abuse happens and what you can do to help stop it.

Neglect occurs when an adult or caretaker fails to meet a child’s basic physical and emotional needs. These needs include:

  • housing
  • food
  • clothing
  • education
  • medical care
  • supervision

Recognizing signs of neglect can be difficult. Families with limited means may be less able to provide for some aspects of care while still not truly neglecting their children.

Examples of neglect include:

  • not taking the child to the doctor or dentist when it’s necessary
  • leaving the child unattended at home for long periods of time
  • allowing the child to be unsuitably dressed for the time of year (e.g., no coat in winter)
  • not washing the child’s clothes, skin, or hair
  • not having money for basic needs, like meals

Children who are neglected may be left in a situation where they're more likely to experience other types of abuse or harm.

Physical abuse is the intentional use of physical force to harm a child. Examples of physical abuse include:

  • shaking, throwing, or hitting a child
  • excessive pinching, slapping, or tripping
  • forcing a child to run or exercise as punishment
  • burning or scalding skin
  • suffocating or depriving of air
  • poisoning
  • forcing the child into a stressed physical position or tying them down
  • withholding sleep, food, or medication

In some states and countries, corporal punishment is thought to be a form of physical child abuse.

Children who are physically abused may show the following signs:

  • bruises, burns, or welts
  • broken bones
  • wearing inappropriate clothing (e.g., long sleeves in the summer) to hide marks or bruises
  • appearing frightened of a particular person
  • actively protesting going to a particular place
  • flinching when touched
  • talking about being injured or creating fanciful explanations for their injuries

Emotional abuse, or psychological abuse, may be invisible, but it's powerful.

It occurs when a person purposefully harms a child’s self-worth or well-being by conveying to the child that they're somehow inadequate, worthless, or unloved.

Emotional abuse may be the result of verbal abuse, or physical actions may cause it.

Examples of emotional abuse include:

  • giving children the “silent treatment”
  • telling children they're “bad,” “no good,” or “a mistake”
  • mocking a child
  • shouting or yelling to silence them
  • not allowing them to express views or opinions
  • threatening
  • bullying
  • using emotional blackmail
  • limiting physical contact
  • withholding words of affirmation and love

Keep in mind some of these examples may happen from time to time when someone is very upset. That doesn't necessarily constitute emotional abuse. It becomes abusive when they're recurring and persistent.

Children who are emotionally abused may show the following signs:

  • being anxious or afraid
  • appearing withdrawn or emotionally distant
  • showing behavior extremes, such as compliance then aggressiveness
  • showing age-inappropriate behavior, such as sucking a thumb in elementary or middle school
  • lack of attachment to a parent or caregiver

Sexual abuse is any act that forces or coerces a child into participating in sexual activities.

Sexual abuse can occur even when a child isn't touched. Actions that cause sexual arousal in another person as the result of a child’s behavior or actions are also considered sexual abuse.

Examples of sexual abuse include:

  • rape
  • penetration, including oral sex
  • non-penetrative sexual contact, such as touching, kissing, rubbing, or masturbating
  • telling dirty or inappropriate jokes or stories
  • forcing or inviting a child to undress
  • watching others perform sexual acts with children or asking a child to watch sexual acts
  • flashing or exposing yourself to a child
  • encouraging sexually inappropriate behavior
  • grooming a child for future sexual contact

Children who are sexually abused may show the following signs:

  • displaying sexual knowledge beyond their years
  • talking about being touched by another person
  • withdrawing from family or friends
  • running away
  • shying away from a specific person
  • protesting going to a specific place
  • having nightmares
  • wetting the bed after potty training
  • having a sexually transmitted infection
How to tell if a child may have been abused

Signs of child abuse can be hard to detect. Bruises, for example, can be a natural byproduct of playing or sports. Still, many children who have been abused show some shared symptoms. These include:

  • being withdrawn, passive, or compliant in an unusual manner
  • protesting going to a specific place when other places don't bother them
  • resisting being around a specific individual
  • showing sudden and dramatic changes in behavior

Of course, children have emotional swings like many adults. It’s important to closely watch the child for other signs or symptoms of abuse.

If you suspect abuse or neglect, you can approach the child and offer them unconditional support and calm reassurance. This may help them feel safe enough to speak about what’s happening.

You may be hesitant to get involved when you think a child may be abused or neglected. After all, it’s difficult to know the whole story. However, speaking up can help children get the protection they need. It will also help parents get the help they need.

If you suspect someone you know is abusing their child, you can call emergency services, such as the police. In most U.S. states, you can report anonymously.

WHO TO CONTACT FOR HELP

If you don’t want to call the police, you can call:

These hotlines will redirect you to local resources, such as child protective services.

The causes of child abuse are complex. It’s often an interaction of several critical issues.

factors that may lead to child abuse
  • domestic violence
  • substance use
  • financial strain
  • unemployment
  • untreated mental health issues
  • lack of parenting skills
  • a personal history of abuse or neglect
  • stress
  • lack of support or resources

Helping a child you believe is being abused can be an opportunity to help their parents, too. That’s because abuse can be a cycle.

Adults who experienced abuse as a child may be more likely to show abusive behaviors toward their own children. Getting help for both parent and child may stop the abuse from reaching another generation.

If you believe you may be abusing your own child or fear you might, you can get help from the following resources:

These organizations can provide resources to support you both in the short term and in an ongoing manner.

The best treatment for children who have been abused is a safe, stable, and nurturing environment where they can prosper and heal. But before that's possible, children need help achieving these first steps:

  • Address physical needs. If a child has been physically abused, they may need to visit a doctor or hospital. Medical help can address any broken bones, burns, or injuries. If the child has been a victim of sexual abuse, they may need additional testing.
  • Find safety. If a child isn't safe in their home, child protective services may temporarily remove them. During this time, parents can work with a counselor to address issues or factors that lead to the abuse. Children may visit mental health specialists.
  • Seek mental health treatment. Children who have been abused or neglected may need therapy. The effects of abuse or neglect can be long-lasting, but therapy can help children express their feelings and learn to manage and cope with the effects. This can, in turn, prevent them from showing abusive behaviors to people in their lives.

Abuse and neglect can cause lasting effects on a child’s emotional and physical development.

Children who have been abused or neglected may experience emotional health problems, future victimization, conduct disorders, and decreased brain development, among other issues.

That’s why it’s vital that children who’ve experienced abuse or neglect receive immediate and ongoing treatment. This can help them recover both in the short term and cope with any lasting effects the behaviors may have on their health for years to come.

Finding a therapist is a good place to start. Here's how to access therapy for every budget.