Background on Child Abuse

Girl covering her eyes

The Basics

Every year, approximately 3.3 million reports of child abuse, involving almost 6 million children, are made in the United States. Child abuse is described as the physical, emotional or sexual mistreatment of a child. It is horrifying how common this is.

  • More than five children die every day as a result of extreme child abuse.
  • Approximately 80 percent of the children that die from child abuse are under the age of 4.
  • More than 90 percent of child abuse victims know their perpetrators in some way, whether they are family members, friends, or trusted individuals like teachers or coaches .
  • 14 percent of all males in US prisons were abused at some point in their childhood, and 36 percent of all women in prison were abused during their childhood.
  • Children whose parents abuse alcohol and other drugs are three times more likely to be abused and four times more likely to be neglected than children from families with no alcohol or drug abuse.

The Background

Child abuse occurs at every socioeconomic level, crosses ethnic and cultural lines, and is present within all religions and at all levels of education. Child abuse can occur for multiple reasons:

  • Stress from caring for children, especially if the child has a disability, special needs, or particularly difficult behavior.
  • A lack of resources necessary to properly care for a child.
  • Difficulty controlling their anger (which can be due to physical or mental health problems like depression and anxiety, or alcohol or drug abuse).
  • Isolation from a family or community.
  • Personal problems like marital conflict, unemployment, or financial difficulties, which bring even more stress to any situation.
  • A lack of maturity (many teenagers who have children lack the maturity and dedication needed to care for them).

There are multiple types of child abuse: physical, emotional and sexual. Physical abuse involves any kind of punishment or other excessively violent act inflicted on a child. These can include:

  • Giving a child bruises or welts with a belt buckle or electric cord.
  • Repeatedly harming a child in the same spot.
  • Forcing the child into hot water, burning them on their feet or hands.
  • Pressing cigarettes into their arms or legs.
  • Burning them with a heater, iron, or fireplace tool.
  • Breaking or spraining bones.

Emotional abuse affects a child’s perception of him or herself. The child begins to see him or herself as unworthy of love and affection because they are constantly shamed, humiliated, terrorized or rejected. Sometimes the child suffers more from emotional abuse than they would if they were physically abused. Emotional abuse can be the cruelest and most destructive child abuse. Different types of emotional abuse include:

  • Disregard: a parent may not be able to meet the emotional needs of their child. They may not show any affection or nurture the child emotionally. He or she might not be interested in the child, and refuse to even recognize the child’s presence in a room.
  • Rejection: some parents do not bond well with their child, and will reject the child when it is looking for love and affection. They may remind the child that is unwanted in many ways: they might tell the child to leave, call him or her names, or make him or her doubt their worth.
  • Isolation: a parent may not allow the child to have friends or interact with other people in general. They might keep the child alone in his or her room, or prevent the 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 or gambling.
  • 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, non-offensive actions. The child may be constantly threatened by an adult figure who is supposed to be supportive and caring.

Sexual abuse is any sexual act between an adult perpetrator and a child victim. About 10 percent of any child abuse is sexual abuse. It can take place within the family, by a parent, step-parent, sibling or other relative; or outside the home, for example, by a friend, neighbor, person charged with the child’s care, teacher, or stranger. When sexual abuse has occurred, a child can develop a variety of troubling feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Sexually abused children may suffer from:

  • Unusual interest in or avoidance of all things of a sexual nature
  • Sleep problems or nightmares
  • Depression or complete withdrawal from friends or family
  • Seductiveness
  • Statements that their bodies are dirty or damaged, or fear that there is something wrong with them
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Secretiveness
  • Aspects of sexuality in drawings, games, or fantasies
  • Unusual aggressiveness or suicidal behavior

All child abuse has negative effects on the victim(s). Often, it is hard to spot child abuse until the child acts out.

Psychological Effects

There are multiple psychological effects from child abuse. The immediate psychological effects of abuse and neglect, which include isolation, fear, and an inability to trust others, can translate into lifelong consequences including low self-esteem, depression, and relationship difficulties. Many children who are abused experience:

  • Depression and withdrawal symptoms
  • Bad mental and emotional health—as many as 80 percent of abused young adults suffered from at least one psychiatric disorder by the age of 21 
  • Eating disorders
  • Suicide attempts
  • Multiple disorders, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, and reactive attachment disorder
  • Cognitive difficulties with things like language development, cognitive capacity, and academic achievement

Physical Effects

Most of the physical effects result from physical and sexual abuse. Most victims who suffer from such abuse receive lasting or permanent injuries, along with the accompanying psychological issues.

  • Minor bruises or cuts
  • Broken bones, hemorrhaging, even death
  • Allergies
  • Arthritis
  • Asthma or bronchitis
  • High blood pressure
  • Ulcers
  • Shaken baby syndrome, which can include bleeding in the eye or brain, damage to the spinal cord or neck, and rib or bone fractures
  • Impaired brain development, which has long-term consequences for cognitive, language, and academic abilities

Social Effects

Children who experience rejection or constant neglect from their parents are far more likely to develop antisocial traits as they grow up. Many withdraw themselves completely from society. However, sometimes children grow angry because of their own abusive childhood and continue the cycle by abusing their own children. It is estimated that one-third of all neglected and abused children will abuse their own children.

In addition, abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely to be arrested for criminal behavior as a juvenile, 2.7 times more likely to be arrested for violent and criminal behavior as an adult and 3.1 times more likely to be arrested for one of many forms of violent crime as a juvenile or adult. 

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Sources: Child Help, Center for Child Protection and Family Support, Baltimore County Police Department, Child Welfare Information Getaway