What is child abuse?
Child abuse is when a child is harmed by someone else, most often by a parent or relative. Child abuse can be:
- Physical — Such as slapping, pushing, punching, kicking, shaking, or burning
- Emotional — Such as insults, constant criticism, harsh demands, threats, and yelling
- Sexual — Such as rape, incest, fondling, and indecent exposure or exposure to pornographic material
What is incest?
Incest is any sex act, from fondling to intercourse, which takes place between family members who are too closely related to be able to be legally married.
What are the signs of child abuse?
Abused or neglected children may:
- Seem different from other children (Parents may describe them as “bad.”)
- Be withdrawn
- Be unusually passive or aggressive
- Seem fearful of one or both parents
- Always look unclean
- Often be absent from school
- May bully peers or younger children
- Have bruises, welts, or sores, or other skin problems that don’t seem to heal
- Shy away from physical contact with other adults
- Cry often or at times that seem inappropriate
- Have problems learning and paying attention
- Be super-achievers
A change in behavior or temperament without an obvious trigger is highly suspicious for abuse.
How does sexual abuse affect the child?
Abuse affects the child in profound ways. The following characteristics have been noted in children who have been sexually abused:
- Severe changes in behavior
- Recurring nightmares
- Lack of emotional development
- Return to childish behaviors such as thumb sucking and bed wetting
- Difficulty learning and concentrating
- Act out sexually in inappropriate ways
- Anxiety and depression
- Self-destructive behavior
- Poor self-esteem
- Running away
Adult survivors of child abuse are more likely to:
- Suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Have medical problems such as chronic pain syndromes, chronic daily headaches, fibromyalgia, abdominal pain
- Inability to trust others
- Engage in highly risky sexual behavior or become sexually promiscuous
- Abuse drugs and alcohol
- Sexual problems, including the inability to understand the difference between love and sex
- Suffer from depression
- Have low self-esteem
- Care for others at the expense of their own well-being
- Abuse others
- Accept abuse
Why do parents abuse their children?
Many parents who abuse children grew up in an abusive home or were abused as children. A mother who was abused as a child may look the other way when child abuse takes place in her own home.
Some abusive parents struggle with overwhelming feelings of anger when faced with an inability to cope with problems with family, bills, relationships, and other matters. They may see the child as the source of their problems. Parents who suffer from depression, addiction, or personality disorders that are not being treated are at risk for abusing others.
The reasons for child abuse are complex and vary with each individual. Most survivors of child abuse do not abuse their children or continue to suffer from the aftermath of their own upbringing.
If you have abused or neglected your child, or fear that you may abuse your child, you can seek help from a local mental health agency.
How can I stop child abuse?
Don’t let fear or embarrassment prevent you from seeking help. In the United States in 2012, child protective services agencies received an estimated 3.4 million referrals involving approximately 6.3 million children.
If you want to report an incident of child abuse, contact your local department of human services. A social worker will take a report over the telephone and investigate the situation. Your name will not be released to the family.
For more information:
National Child Abuse Hotline
24/7 National Hotline: 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453)
Prevent Child Abuse America
- Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Child Maltreatment
- American Psychological Association: Protecting Our Children from Abuse and Neglect
- CURRENT Diagnosis & Treatment: Pediatrics Chapter 8: Child Abuse & Neglect
© Copyright 1995-2017 The Cleveland Clinic Foundation. All rights reserved.
This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 7/8/2014...#4018