Parents and other caregivers sometimes abuse the kids they’re supposed to be raising lovingly. Whether the adult abuses the child because of mental illness, substance abuse, or inability to cope, abused children often carry their pain into adulthood, suffering all sorts of psychological traumas and neuroses as a result.
There are four primary types of child abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect.
Physical child abuse is when a parent or caretaker harms a child’s body, even if the adult didn’t mean to injure the child. Hitting a child, burning the child, shaking, pushing, or throwing a child, pinching or biting the child, pulling a child by the hair, and cutting off a child’s hair are different forms of physical abuse. Such acts of physical aggression account for 17.8% of documented child abuse cases each year.
One major form of child abuse that's been in the news lately is called Shaken Baby Syndrome, in which a frustrated adult shakes a baby roughly to make the baby stop crying. However the neck muscles can’t support the baby’s head yet, so the brain bounces around inside its skull which can cause terrible neurological problems and even death. While the person shaking the baby may not mean to hurt him, shaking a baby is a form of child abuse.
Another form of physical child abuse is Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy, where a parent causes a child to become ill and rushes the child to the hospital or convinces doctors that the child is sick. The parent uses this method to get attention and sympathy, but the danger to the child constitutes child abuse.
Sexual abuse, which is about 10% of child abuse, is any sexual act between an adult and a child, including both touching and non-touching acts.
Non-touching sexual abuse offenses include indecent exposure, exposing children to pornography, or deliberately exposing a child to a sexual act.
Touching sexual offenses include fondling, making a child touch an adult's sex organs or any penetration of a child’s vagina or anus by an object that doesn’t have a medical purpose.
Sexual exploitation offenses include engaging a child for the purpose of prostitution or using a child to film, photograph or model porn.
Emotional abuse attacks a child’s conception of him or herself, and the child begins to see him or herself as unworthy of love and affection. Children who are constantly shamed, humiliated, terrorized or rejected suffer as much or maybe more than if they had been physically injured.
Emotional abuse is probably the least understood of all child abuse but can be the cruelest and most destructive over time.
Different forms of emotional abuse include:
- Ignoring: A parent may not be able to meet the needs of their children. The parent may not show any affection or nurture the child at all. He or she might not be interested in the child, not express affection or not even recognize the child’s presence in a room.
- Rejection: Some parents don’t bond well and will reject a child who is looking for love and affection. They may show a child that he or she is unwanted in a number of ways, telling the kid to leave, calling him or her names or making him or her doubt his or her worth.
- Isolation: A parent may not allow the child to have friends or interact with people in general, keeping a baby alone in its room, or preventing a child from playing sports or doing other social activities.
- Corruption: A parent might allow children to use drugs or alcohol; to watch cruel behavior toward animals; to watch pornographic materials and adult sex acts; or to witness or participate in crimes such as stealing, assault, prostitution, gambling, etc.
- Terrorization: A parent may focus all of his or her anger on one child. The parent may ridicule him or her for displaying his or her emotions or criticize him or her for different actions. The child may be threatened continually.
While physical and sexual abuse get the most attention, because they are the most physically shocking, neglect is actually the most common form by far, accounting for more than 60% of all cases of child abuse.
Neglect is a pattern of failing to provide for a child’s basic needs, which causes much damage to the child’s physical or psychological health.
Common types of neglect include physical, educational, emotional or medical neglect.
- Physical neglect: refusing to seek health care for a child, not supervising the child effectively, expelling a child from the home, and not watching out for the child’s safety and health.
- Educational neglect: not enrolling a school-age child in school or preventing the child from receiving necessary special educational help.
- Emotional neglect: abusing a spouse in front of a child, allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol, refusing to provide needed psychological care, and not providing adequate affection. Emotional neglect can lead to negative self-image, alcohol or drug abuse, destructive behavior and even suicide. Severe neglect of infants can result in the baby failing to grow or even death.
- Medical neglect: failing to get appropriate health care for a child even if the parent can pay for it. Sometimes, a parent will refuse to get traditional medical care because of religious beliefs. Usually, this does not fall under the definition of medical neglect, but, some states can get a court order to provide medical treatment for a child to save a child’s life or prevent life-threatening injury.
Causes of Child Abuse
Why would someone abuse a defenseless child? What kind of person abuses a child? Not all child abuse is deliberate or intended. Several factors in a person's life may combine to cause them to abuse a child:
- Stress, including the stress of caring for children, or the stress of caring for a child with a disability, special needs, or difficult behaviors
- Lack of nurturing qualities necessary for child care
- Immaturity: a disproportionate number of parents who abuse their children are teenagers
- Difficulty controlling anger
- Personal history of being abused
- Isolation from the family or community
- Physical or mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Personal problems such as marital conflict, unemployment, or financial difficulties.
No one has been able to predict which of these factors will cause someone to abuse a child. A significant factor is that abuse tends to be intergenerational – those who were abused as children are more likely to repeat the act when they become parents or caretakers.
In addition, many forms of child abuse arise from ignorance. Sometimes a cultural tradition leads to abuse. Such beliefs include:
- Children are property.
- Parents (especially fathers) have the right to control their children in any way they wish.
- Children need to be toughened up to face the hardships of life.
- Girls need to be genitally mutilated to assure virginity and later marriage.
Effects of Child Abuse
Child abuse can produce dire consequences during the victim’s childhood and adulthood. Some effects of child abuse are obvious: a child is malnourished or has a cast on her arm; a nine-year-old develops an STD. But some physiological effects of child abuse, such as cognitive difficulties or lingering health problems, may not show up for some time or be clearly attributable to abuse. Other effects of child abuse are invisible or go off like time bombs later in life.
Emotional Effects of Child Abuse
Just as all types of child abuse have an emotional component, all affect the emotions of the victims. These effects include:
- Low self-esteem
- Depression and anxiety
- Aggressive behavior/anger issues
- Relationship difficulties
- Alienation and withdrawal
- Personality disorders
- Clinginess, neediness
- Flashbacks and nightmares
Many adults who were abused as children find it difficult to trust other people, endure physical closeness, and establish intimate relationships.
Behavioral Effects of Child Abuse
Child abuse can play itself out not only in how its victims feel but in what they do years later. Children who suffer abuse have much greater chances of being arrested later as juveniles and as adults. Significant percentages of inmates in U.S. prisons were abused as children. One of every three abused or neglected children will grow up to become an abusive parent.
Other behavioral effects include:
- Problems in school and work
- Teen pregnancy
- Suicide attempts
- Criminal or antisocial behavior
- Alcohol and drug abuse
- Eating disorders
- Spousal abuse
Center for Child Protection and Family Support
Way 2 Hope Home
Child Welfare League of America