Child Abuse

Child abuse can be defined as any act by a parent, guardian, or other caretaker towards a child that results in serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, neglect, or death. When a parent, guardian, or other caretaker is responsible for the abuse, it constitutes domestic violence. Abuse towards a child that is committed by anyone other than a parent, guardian, or other caretaker is still considered child abuse, but is not considered domestic violence.

Currently, child abuse constitutes domestic violence in 11 states. Regardless of categorization, child abuse is a prevalent and serious issue that is important to understand, and stop. Child abuse affects millions of families in the United States, with more than 3 million referrals of child mistreatment reported every year. In this country, every day, five children die as the result of child abuse.

Types of Abuse

Physical: Physical abuse is any action by a parent, guardian, or family member that results in harm, injury, or the death of a child. This includes, but is not limited to, hitting, slapping, scratching, burning, throwing, and/or choking. Harm to a child is considered abuse whether or not it was intended. The only exception to this rule, is spanking as a means of discipline. Spanking is not considered child abuse, so long as it does not result in serious injury.

Sexual: Sexual abuse occurs when an adult engages in sexual activity with a child, exposes the child to sexual material or acts, and/or uses a child for sexual purposes. Sexual activity with a child includes fondling, oral sex, and/or penetration, whether vaginal or anal.

Sexual exposure includes inappropriate sexual discussion, showing a child pornography, and/or forcing a child to view sexual organs or witness sexual acts. Using a child for sexual purposes can refer to forcing the child into prostitution, or using him or her to manufacture pornography.

Emotional: Emotional abuse is the infliction of emotional distress or anguish on a child by the parent, guardian, or other caretaker. This may include yelling, shaming, criticizing, ignoring, humiliating, blaming, threatening, isolating, or otherwise corrupting the child. Emotional abuse may also include exposing a child to extreme or frequent violence.

Neglect: The term “neglect” refers to the failure to provide the appropriate care, supervision, and/or support that a child needs for his or her health, safety, and overall development. Physical neglect includes the failure to provide food, shelter, appropriate clothing, hygienic needs, and/or adequate medical care.

Inadequate supervision includes leaving the child alone for extended periods of time, leaving the child with an inappropriate or unqualified caregiver, deserting a child, or exposing a child to unsafe or unsanitary environments. Educational neglect includes denying a child access to school on a regular basis, or failing to attend to special educational needs.

Signs of Abuse

There are many signs, both physical and behavioral, that can indicate that a child has been abused. Whether a child presents just one or several of these indicators, it’s important to recognize them in order to report the abuse. It’s also important to realize that children often present differently than adults. There are general signs of abuse that can result from any or all types of abuse, and there are signs of abuse that are specific to certain forms of abuse.


  • Changes in behavior such as being more anxious, depressed, withdrawn or aggressive

  • Apprehension about or fear of going home

  • Sudden weight gain or loss, not explained by other factors such as puberty

  • Difficulty sleeping: appearing fatigued or tired

  • Decreased school attendance

  • Difficulty concentrating and lowered school performance

  • Engaging in risky behaviors such as drinking, using drugs, and/or sexual activity


  • Bruises, burns, starches, and scars

  • Broken or sprained bones

  • Unexplained injuries

  • Delay between injury and seeking medical care

  • Frequent injuries

  • Appearing afraid of parent(s)

  • Wearing long-sleeves out of season

  • Violent themes in art or fantasy

  • Aggressive behavior, or otherwise acting out toward peers, teachers, and/or animals

  • Parent(s) keeps children out of school, and/or absent from extracurricular activities

  • Parent takes child to different doctors for each injury


  • Bruising on/around genitals

  • Difficulty walking or sitting

  • Unexplained sexually transmitted diseases

  • Extreme apprehension about changing clothes in front of others, such as in a locker room for gym class, etc.

  • Sexual behavior or sexual knowledge beyond what is appropriate for his or her age/level of maturity

  • Obsessive preoccupation with body image

  • Parent is possessive or jealous

  • Parent relies on child for emotional support


  • Anti-social behaviors including violence, stealing, and lying

  • Learning disabilities

  • Speech disorders

  • Depression and/or suicidal tendencies

  • Extreme weight fluctuation or obesity

  • Habits such as rocking, sucking, and/or biting

  • Parent often yells, criticizes, and/or ignores child

  • Parent has trouble controlling anger and other difficult emotions


  • Indicators of malnutrition (below average height and weight, discolored hair and skin, etc.)

  • Untreated injuries and illness

  • Often hungry and/or dehydrated

  • Clothing that is too small, dirty, or inappropriate for the season

  • Poor hygiene such as not bathing or brushing teeth

  • Parent is indifferent or inattentive towards child

  • Parent relies on child for care

How to Report Child Abuse

If you suspect a child is being abused, there are several ways you can report it. First, if you feel that the child is in an emergency you should immediately contact the police. You can also call your local child protective or welfare agency. You can find the contact information for your local agency by visiting You may also contact the Child-help National Child Abuse Hotline by calling (800) 422-4453. This hotline can provide advice and assistance as well as local referrals.