What Is Child Abuse?

Child abuse happens when someone caring for a child hurts a child's feelings or body. It can happen to boys or girls in any family. Often, hurt feelings (or emotional trauma) last long after a hurt body has healed.

Knowing the dangers of abuse and what to do if you suspect it is key to keeping all children safe.

What Are the Types of Child Abuse?

Physical abuse is when a child's body has been hurt. Hitting hard with a hand or an object like a belt can leave bruises or cuts and cause pain. Shaking, pushing, choking, punching, painful grabbing, and kicking also can be physical abuse.

Sexual abuse is sexual contact (like sexual acts) or non-contact sexual activities (like taking or sharing sexual photos and sexual talk) between:

  • an adult and someone younger than 18
  • an older child or teen and a much younger child
  • one person who has power over another, no matter their ages

Most cases of sexual abuse involve a close trusted adult or family member who abuses the child's trust. Often, the child is pressured or talked into the activity, offered gifts, or asked to keep secrets, not physically forced into it.

Neglect is when an adult doesn't do what is needed to take care of a child. This means not giving the child enough:

  • food, housing or clothing
  • medical care
  • supervision
  • attention (called emotional neglect, when a child is ignored)
  • education/schooling

Emotional abuse (or psychological abuse) happens when adults caring for a child judge, threaten, put down or reject kids or teens, withholding love so the child feels bad about themselves or worthless.

Substance abuse, when adults use drugs or too much alcohol, can put a child in danger. It can cause adults to neglect, physically, sexually, or emotional hurt a child. When adults use drugs or overuse alcohol around a child, many state laws say this is child abuse, even if no one neglected or physically hurt the child.

In some states, it's child abuse if:

  • adults let a child drink alcohol or take illegal drugs
  • adults make, take, or sell illegal drugs in the presence of a child
  • a woman uses illegal drugs while pregnant

Medical child abuse is when adult caregivers harm a child with too much medical care, such as medicines, appointments, surgeries, or lab tests that are not needed.

Who Causes Child Abuse?

There is not one type of person who causes child abuse. Most of the time a child knows the abuser well. Sometimes people who abuse children were abused when they were children.

Sometimes, people who abuse kids can show some signs. For example, parents who abuse their children may:

  • Always talk negatively about the child or call the child worthless.
  • Try to keep the child away from others.
  • Have a hard time talking about their children's injuries or behavioral problems.
  • Show little concern or affection for the child.

What Are the Signs of Child Abuse?

Kids and teens often have a hard time speaking up about abuse. So knowing the signs of child abuse can help.

Kids who are being abused might:

  • have frequent bruises, especially in places kids don't usually get bruises from play
  • have stories to explain injuries that don't make sense or keep changing
  • not want to go home
  • avoid being with the abuser
  • avoid being with others
  • show signs of emotional trauma, like fear, anger, or trouble relating to or trusting others
  • be sad or depressed
  • bully others
  • hurt themselves, like cutting
  • have nightmares or trouble sleeping
  • act out in class, have trouble paying attention, or be hyperactive
  • use drugs 

Kids who see abuse (but are not the victims themselves) or see violence between adults caring for them sometimes show similar signs.

These signs don't always point to abuse. Kids going through stressful times — like their parents' separation or divorce, a move, or the death of a loved one — also might be sad, angry, or withdrawn. But if physical signs (like bruises) happen along with behavior problems, that's a stronger sign of abuse.

What Should I Do if I Suspect Child Abuse?

If you think a child is being abused or a child tells you about abuse, contact your local:

  • child protective services agency
  • police
  • hospital

You also can contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). You don't have to give your name. 

You might not be sure of the abuse, but having a concern is enough. The authorities will look into things and find out if abuse is happening. It is better to report and have no abuse found than to not act on your concern while a child continues to be hurt.

Never threaten a person or take the law into your own hands. Let the legal system do its work.

If you are worried that you might hurt a child in your care, make sure the child is somewhere safe, and then speak with a friend, relative, or health care professional. You also can contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). You might just need someone to talk to or you may want to seek counseling.

What Else Should I Know?

Not all suspicions of child abuse turn out to be true. But all deserve serious attention and fast action.

The earlier abuse is identified and stopped, the earlier medical care, therapy, and counseling can help children and families heal.

So if you suspect abuse, speak up. If a child tells you about abuse, take it seriously. All children deserve to be heard, protected, and helped.

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