Child abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to provide basic needs or adequate care—known as neglect or acts of omission. Child abuse can also include acts of commission, where a parent or caregiver uses words or violence to threaten, physically injure, psychology harm, or sexually harm a child. Even disciplining a child can be a form of abuse if a parent intentionally harms the child or uses the punishment to encourage fear.
There are no clear-cut causes of child abuse—many factors can cause caregivers to unleash abuse. For instance, some caregivers lack a good support system, education, employment, or housing, so the pressure to escape poverty can cause them to act violent. Some abusers have mental illnesses or are socially isolated, so they don’t have the resources or don’t know how to properly take care of children.
If an abuser experience violence or stress from their own family members, they may repeat those behaviors. If an abuser is an alcoholic, drug addict, or has a poor self-esteem, he or she may be more prone to harming a child.
Child abuse can be hard to spot because there are so many different ways an abuser can cause injuries. Physical abuse often includes kicking, burning, punching, shaking, or biting a child.
Injuries from physical abuse can range from shaken baby syndrome, to burns, broken bones, poisoning, concussions, bruising, and the like. Since children are active, they can be more prone to bruises here and there, making physical abuse symptoms sometimes difficult to identify. However, if a child has repeat-injuries or has behavioral/psychological symptoms as well, that could be indicative of abuse.
Children who have been abused may be quick to anger, quick to crying, and quick to either hide from or please their abuser. If a child has a poor school performance or can’t keep up in physical education classes, then he or she could be victims of medical/dental neglect or education neglect. Children also develop anxiety disorders, which can cause them to have frequent stomachaches, headaches, and weight loss. This anxiety can also cause them to be depressed, isolated, or dependent on certain people. If a child has been sexually abused, he or she may exhibit inappropriate play with friends or masturbate in public.
A combination of risk factors contribute to the occurrence of child abuse. Families who are under duress or who lack proper education or financial resources can have higher instances of child abuse. Some of the risk factors mentioned include poverty, unemployment, poor education, marital problems, inadequate housing, lack of support from extended family, and social isolation. The abuser may also suffer from one or more of the following: depression, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, lack of parenting skills, mental health issues, alcohol and/or drug abuse, and a history of child abuse from their own parents, or other adults in their lives.
Sometimes child abuse is “passed down” through generations. Children tend to mimic the behavior of their parents in raising their own children.
The first line of treatment for abuse is getting a child away as soon as possible from the abuser. Once the child is safe and any serious injuries are treated by a doctor, then law enforcement and child-welfare services can be contacted. Counseling is usually required to help the child work through the emotional impact they’ve experienced and the negative behaviors they may have developed to cope.
While treatment mainly focuses on the child, some families and counselors intervene to provide the caregiver supervision, mentoring, and appropriate parenting skills.
You can prevent child abuse by educating yourself and people you know about it, as well as examining the way you discipline your own children. Knowing what child abuse is can help you determine whether a child you know is being abused. Child abuse can be both physical and verbal and it might not always look like abuse. Abuse can mean neglecting to provide the child with clothing, food and care. Looking for signs of neglect in children you teach or that you simply know is recommended if you suspect abuse.
If a child is afraid of a certain adult in their life, exhibits poor hygiene, or has difficulty trusting people or making friends, these can all be signs of abuse. Also, look out for a sudden change in sleeping patterns (if possible), secrecy, or hostility.
If you suspect that a child’s parents or another caregiver are mistreating them, report it to your state’s CPS (child protective services) department or the local police.
To avoid perpetrating child abuse yourself, try not to discipline your children when you’re upset. Instead, take some time to calm down first and then proceed with discipline. Using your words to berate or criticize your children is still child abuse, so be sure to teach your children through your actions that conflict can be resolved without yelling or hitting.