Child abuse


Child abuse is the blanket term for four types of child mistreatment: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.


Prevalence of abuse

Child abuse was once viewed as a minor social problem affecting only a handful of U.S. children. However, in the late 1990s and early 2000s it has received close attention from the media, law enforcement, and the helping professions, and with increased public and professional awareness has come a sharp rise in the number of reported cases. Because abuse is often hidden from view and its victims too young or fearful to speak out, however, experts suggest that its true prevalence is possibly much greater than the official data indicate. An estimated 896,000 children across the country were victims of abuse or neglect in 2002, according to national data released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in April 2004. Parents were the abusers in 77 percent of the confirmed cases, other relatives in 11 percent. Sexual abuse was more likely to be committed by males, whereas females were responsible for the majority of neglect cases. The data show that child protective service agencies received about 2,600,000 reports of possible maltreatment in 2002. About 1,400 children died of abuse or neglect, a rate of 1.98 children per 100,000 children in the population. In many cases children are the victims of more than one type of abuse. The abusers can be parents or other family members, caretakers such as teachers and babysitters , acquaintances (including other children), and (in rare instances) strangers.

Although experts are quick to point out that abuse occurs among all social, ethnic, and income groups, reported cases usually involve poor families with little education. Young mothers, single-parent families , and parental alcohol or drug abuse are also common in reported cases. Statistics show that more than 90 percent of abusing parents have neither psychotic nor criminal personalities. Rather they tend to be lonely, unhappy, angry, young, and single parents who do not plan their pregnancies, have little or no knowledge of child development, and have unrealistic expectations for child behavior. From 10 percent to perhaps as many as 40 percent of abusive parents were themselves physically abused as children, but most abused children do not grow up to be abusive parents.

Types of abuse

PHYSICAL ABUSE Physical abuse is the non-accidental infliction of physical injury to a child. The abuser is usually a family member or other caretaker and is more likely to be male. One fourth of the confirmed cases of child abuse in the United States involve physical abuse. A rare form of physical abuse is Munchausen syndrome by proxy, in which a caretaker (most often the mother) seeks attention by making the child sick or appear to be sick.

EMOTIONAL ABUSE Emotional abuse is the rejecting, ignoring, criticizing, isolating, or terrorizing of children, all of which have the effect of eroding their self-esteem . Emotional abuse usually expresses itself in verbal attacks involving rejection, scapegoating, belittlement, and so forth. Because it often accompanies other types of abuse and is difficult to prove, it is rarely reported and accounts for only about 6 percent of the confirmed cases.

SEXUAL ABUSE Psychologists define child sexual abuse as any activity with a child, before the age of legal consent, that is for the sexual gratification of an adult or a significantly older child. It includes, among other things, sexual touching and penetration, persuading a child to expose his or her sexual organs, and allowing a child to view pornography. In most cases the child is related to or knows the abuser, and about one in five abusers are themselves underage. Sexual abuse accounts for 12 to 15 percent of confirmed abuse cases. In multiple surveys, 20 to 25 percent of females and 10 to 15 percent of males report that they were sexually abused by age 18.

NEGLECT Neglect, the failure to satisfy a child's basic needs, can assume many forms. Physical neglect is the failure (beyond the constraints imposed by poverty) to provide adequate food, clothing, shelter, or supervision. Emotional neglect is the failure to satisfy a child's normal emotional needs, or behavior that damages a child's normal emotional and psychological development (such as permitting drug abuse in the home). Failing to see that a child receives proper schooling or medical care is also considered neglect. Slightly more than half of all reported abuse cases involve neglect.

Infancy and toddlerhood

Infants who are premature, mentally retarded, or have physical handicaps are more likely to provoke abuse from their caregiver than are infants without such problems. Similarly, nonhandicapped infants who are nonrhythmic (that is, have uneven sleep and eating patterns) are more likely to be abused. It appears that the child's tendency to learn slowly, to be less coordinated, or less affectionate—rather than any physical problem—that promotes abuse. Infants, because of their fragility, are more susceptible to injury from physical discipline than older children. Infants are especially susceptible to head injury from shaking or being thrown. A baby can be fatally injured by being thrown even onto a soft mattress. The baby's brain hits the back of the skull if the child is thrown with even mild force and intracranial bleeding can result.

Shaken baby syndrome (SBS) is the leading cause of death in child abuse cases in the United States. The syndrome results from injuries caused by someone vigorously shaking an infant, usually for five to 20 seconds, which causes brain damage. In some cases, the shaking is accompanied by a final impact to the baby's head against a bed, chair, or other surface. Although SBS is occasionally seen in children up to four years of age, the vast majority of incidents occur in infants who are younger than one year; the average age of victims is between three and eight months. Approximately 60 percent of shaken babies are male, and children of families who live at or below the poverty level are at an increased risk for SBS (and any other type of child abuse).


Typically, abused children show developmental delays by preschool age. It is unclear whether these delays occur due to cumulative neurological damage or due to inadequate stimulation and uncertainty in the child about the learning environment and the absence of positive parental interactions that would stimulate language and motor processes. These delays, in concert with their parents' higher-than-normal expectations for their children's self-care and self-control abilities, may provoke additional abuse. Abused preschoolers respond to peers and other adults with more aggression and anger than do non-abused children. A coercive cycle frequently develops in which parents and children mutually control one another with threats of negative behavior.

School age

School-aged children who are abused typically have problems academically and have poorer grades and performance on standardized achievement tests. Studies of abused children's intellectual performance find lower scores in both verbal and math and visual-spatial areas. Abused children also tend to be distracted and overactive, making school a very difficult environment for them. With their peers, abused children are often more aggressive and more likely to be socially rejected than nonabused children. Less mature socially, abused children show difficulty in developing trusting relationships with others. The anger that is often instilled in such children is likely to be incorporated into their personality structures. Carrying an extra load of anger makes it difficult for them to control their behavior and increases their risk for resorting to violent action. To control their fears, children who live with violence may repress feelings. This defensive maneuver takes its toll in their immediate lives and can lead to further pathological development. It can interfere with their ability to relate to others in meaningful ways and to feel empathy. Individuals who cannot empathize with others' feelings are less likely to curb their own aggression and more likely to become insensitive to brutality in general.

As adolescents, abused children are more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system than nonabused children of comparable family constellation and income level. Many of these children are labeled "ungovernable" for committing offenses such as running away and truancy . A higher proportion of abused than nonabused delinquent youth are also involved in crimes of assault. Follow-up studies on abused children in later adolescence show that in addition to having problems with the law, they are also more likely to be substance abusers or to have emotional disturbances such as depression.

Common problems

Physical abuse

The usual physical abuse scenario involves a parent who loses control and lashes out at a child. The trigger may be normal child behavior such as crying or dirtying a diaper. Unlike nonabusive parents, who may become angry at or upset with their children from time to time

This graph of 2002 data on child abuse in the United States shows that neglect is by far the most common type of abuse. (Graph by GGS Information Services.)
This graph of 2002 data on child abuse in the United States shows that neglect is by far the most common type of abuse.
(Graph by GGS Information Services.)
but are genuinely loving, abusive parents tend to harbor deep-rooted negative feelings toward their children. Unexplained or suspicious bruises or other marks on the skin are typical signs of physical abuse, as are burns . Skull and other bone fractures are often seen in young abused children, and in fact, head injuries are the leading cause of death from abuse. Children less than one year old are particularly vulnerable to injury from shaken baby syndrome. Physical abuse also causes a wide variety of behavioral changes in children.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse can happen in many settings: at home, at school, on sports teams, and so on. Some of the possible symptoms include loss of self-esteem, sleep disturbances, headaches or stomach aches, school avoidance, and running away from home.

Sexual abuse

The two prerequisites for this form of maltreatment are sexual arousal towards children and the willingness to act on this arousal. Factors that may contribute to this willingness include alcohol or drug abuse, poor impulse control, and a belief that the sexual behaviors are acceptable and not harmful to the child. The chances of abuse are higher if the child is developmentally handicapped or vulnerable in some other way. Genital or anal injuries or abnormalities (including the presence of sexually

This graph of 2002 data on child abuse in the United States shows that younger children are more likely to be vicims of abuse than older children. (Graph by GGS Information Services.)
This graph of 2002 data on child abuse in the United States shows that younger children are more likely to be vicims of abuse than older children.
(Graph by GGS Information Services.)
transmitted diseases ) can be signs of sexual abuse, but often there is no physical evidence for a doctor to find. In fact, physical examinations of children in cases of suspected sexual abuse supply grounds for further suspicion only 15 to 20 percent of the time. Anxiety , poor academic performance, and suicidal conduct are some of the behavioral signs of sexual abuse but are also found in children suffering other kinds of stress. Excessive masturbation and other unusually sexualized kinds of behavior are more closely associated with sexual abuse itself.


Many cases of neglect occur because the parent experiences strong negative feelings toward the child. At other times, the parent may truly care about the child but lacks the ability or strength to adequately provide for the child's needs because handicapped by depression, drug abuse, mental retardation , or some other problem. Neglected children often do not receive adequate nourishment or emotional and mental stimulation. As a result, their physical, social, emotional, and mental development is hindered. They may, for instance, be underweight, develop language skills less quickly than other children, and seem emotionally needy.

Parental concerns

When children reach age three, parents should begin teaching them about "bad touches" and about confiding in a suitable adult if they are touched or treated in a way that makes them uneasy. Parents also need to exercise caution in hiring babysitters and other caretakers. Anyone who suspects abuse should immediately report those suspicions to the police or their local child protection services agency, which is usually listed in the blue pages of the telephone book under Rehabilitative Services or Child and Family Services, or in the yellow pages. Round-the-clock crisis counseling for children and adults is offered by the Childhelp USA/IOF Foresters National Child Abuse Hotline. The National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse is an excellent source of information on the many support groups and other organizations that help abused and at-risk children and their families. One of these organizations, National Parents Anonymous, sponsors 2,100 local self-help groups throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. Telephone numbers for its local groups are listed in the white pages of the telephone book under Parents Anonymous or can be obtained by calling the national headquarters.

When to call the doctor

Physical signs of abuse may include bruises, especially those in different stages of healing, bruises in the shape of an object, such as fingers, a ring, or a belt buckle; unexplained burns, black eyes, or broken bones; vaginal or rectal bleeding, pain, itching , swelling or discharge; a vacant stare or dazed appearance; frequent attempts to run away; and sexual promiscuity.

Behavioral signs of child abuse include: low self esteem; flinching or ducking from motion or people moving towards them; eating disorders or loss of appetite; self mutilation such as "cutting," biting oneself or pulling out hair; unusual habits like rocking, sucking cloth; extreme changes in behavioral patterns; poor interpersonal relationships or a lack of self-confidence; clinginess, withdrawal or aggressiveness; regressing to infantile behavior such as bedwetting, thumb sucking or excessive crying; recurrent nightmares , disturbed sleep patterns, or a sudden fear of the dark; unexplained fear of a particular person; unusual knowledge of sexual matters; acting much younger or older than chronological age; frequent lying , or a fall in grades at school; and depression.

It is important to remember that some of these symptoms of child abuse can be normal manifestations of play and activity. Other symptoms could be the result of a traumatic event that is not necessarily abuse, such as divorce . Still, others are definitely "red flag" symptoms of abuse. If any physical signs of abuse appear, get medical help immediately. Talk frankly with the doctor and share any concerns about possible abuse. If there is physical proof of abuse, get a doctor's report in writing. Any behavioral signs of abuse are cause for concern to a good parent, teacher, or caregiver. A good first move is to open and nurture trusting lines of communication. The parent should increase the time spent with the child and increase the attention given to the child. The parent should show more interest in the child's life and ask more questions. The parent needs to assure the child of the parent's unqualified love and support, and make sure the children know that the parent wants them to feel happy and confident. Children need to know that no matter what has happened, their parents will always love them.


Munchausen syndrome by proxy —A form of abuse in which a parent induces symptoms of disease in a child.

Nonrhythmic —Having uneven sleep and eating patterns.

Shaken baby syndrome —Injuries caused by someone vigorously shaking an infant, usually for five to twenty seconds, which causes brain damage.



Browne, Kevin, et al. Early Prediction and Prevention of Child Abuse: A Handbook. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.

Crosson-Tower, Cynthia. Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect , 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon, 2004.

Richardson, Sue, and Heather Bacon. Creative Response to Child Sexual Abuse: Challenges and Dilemmas. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2003.


Bechtel, Kirsten, et al. "Characteristics that Distinguish Accidental from Abusive Injury in Hospitalized Young Children with Head Trauma." Pediatrics 114 (July 2004): 165–69.

Bensley, Lillian, et al. "Community Responses and Perceived Barriers to Responding to Child Maltreatment." Journal of Community Health 29 (April 2004): 141–53.

Brunk, Doug. "Complete Physical Key When Abuse Suspected: History May Be Unreliable." Family Practice News (April 1, 2004): 82.

——. "The True Incidence of U.S. Child Abuse Deaths Unknown: Fragmented Surveillance System Blamed." Family Practice News (April 1, 2004): 82.

Fritz, Gregory K. "A Child Psychiatrist's Dream: Ending Child Abuse." The Brown University Child and Adolescent Behavior Letter 20 (September 2004): 8.


National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. 330 C St., SW, Washington, DC 20447. Web site:

National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence. 1025 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 1012, Washington, DC 20036. Web site:


"Child Maltreatment 2002: Summary of Key Findings." National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information , April 2004. Available online at (accessed November 9, 2004).

"Recognizing Child Abuse: What Parents Should Know." Prevent Child Abuse America , 2004. Available online at (accessed November 9, 2004).

Howard Baker, RN

Ken R. Wells

Also read article about Child Abuse from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: