Child Abuse & Neglect

 Child abuse is something that all parents want to protect their children from. The best way to protect your child from all forms of child abuse is learn about the signs of child abuse and how to put a stop to it. There are multiple types of child abuse, not all of them are easily spotted or leave visible marks on your child. Many children are able to heal and grow up healthy after recovering from being abuse with the help of a trusted adult in their lives.

More than bruises and broken bones

In understanding child abuse, it is important to realize that neglect is also abuse. Other silent or hidden types of child abuse include verbal, emotional, and sexual. All child abuse can leave scars on a child, either physically or emotionally. With a trusted adult and early intervention to stop the abuse, children often heal and break the cycle of abuse without continuing it.

Child abuse can come from all types of people across all ages, backgrounds, and professions. Most child abuse is done by someone the child's caregiver knows. This includes older siblings, friends, family members, coaches, community leaders, and more. It is important to learn the signs of child abuse in order to best protect children in your community.

MYTH #1: It's only abuse if it's violent.

Not true, physical abuse is only one form of child abuse. Neglect and emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and since they are harder to spot or seen as "not as bad" most people will not intervene. The longer any child experiences any type of abuse, the higher chance there is of lasting damage.

Effects of Child Abuse

All types of child abuse and neglect leave lasting scars. Some of these scars might be physical, but emotional scarring has long lasting effects throughout life, damaging a child’s sense of self, ability to have healthy relationships, and ability to function at home, at work and at school. Some effects include: Show more

  • Lack of trust and relationship difficulties. If you can’t trust your parents, who can you trust? Abuse by a primary caregiver damages the most essential relationship as a child—that you will safely, reliably get your physical and emotional needs met by the person who is responsible for your care. Without this base, it is very difficult to learn to trust people or know who is trustworthy. This can lead to difficulty having or keeping relationships due to fear of being controlled or abused. It can also lead to unhealthy relationships because the adult doesn’t know what a good relationship is.
  • Core feelings of being “worthless” or “damaged.” If you’ve been told over and over again as a child that you are stupid or no good, it is very difficult to overcome these core feelings. You may experience them as reality. Adults may not strive for more education, or settle for a job that may not pay enough, because they don’t believe they can do it or are worth more. Sexual abuse survivors, with the stigma and shame surrounding the abuse, often especially struggle with a feeling of being damaged.
  • Trouble regulating emotions. Abused children cannot express emotions safely. As a result, the emotions get stuffed down, coming out in unexpected ways. Adult survivors of child abuse can struggle with unexplained anxiety, depression, or anger. They may turn to alcohol or drugs to numb out the painful feelings.

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MYTH #2: Abused children always grow up to be abusers.

While it is true that some abused children grow up to be abusers, it is also not that children who were not abused grow up to be abusers too. Abused children are more likely to repeat the cycle of violence as adults, not consciously repeating the behaviors they learned from abusive adults around them as children. This is not true for all or even more adult survivors of child abuse. Many survivors use their personal experience child abuse that they suffered as a strong motivation to protect their children from experiencing the same and become healthy parents.

Types of Child Abuse

MYTH #3: Only bad parents abuse their children.

It's easy to think that only "bad people" abuse their children, while in everyday life it's not always so black and white. Thinking only "bad people" abuse their children can keep us from protecting children from abuse because most of use won't think to look towards our partners, family members, friends, and community leaders if we suspect child abuse. In fact, the majority of children are abused by someone their caregiver knows, if not their caregiver themselves. The reality is that caregivers who abuse their children may not realize they are abusing their children because that's how the caregiver was raised, or they may be suffering from untreated behavioral health issues or addiction to drugs and alcohol.

There are several types of child abuse, but what ties them together as abuse is the emotional effect on the child. Children need predictability, structure, clear boundaries, and the knowledge that their caregivers are looking out for their safety. Abused children cannot predict how their caregivers will act. Abuse makes their world an unpredictable, frightening place with no rules. Whether the abuse is a slap, a harsh comment, stony silence, bad touching, or not knowing if there will be dinner on the table tonight, the end result is a child that feel unsafe, uncared for, and alone. Show more

Emotional Abuse

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me? Contrary to this old saying, emotional abuse can severely damage a child’s mental health or social development, leaving lifelong social, behavioral, and learning problems. Examples of emotional child abuse include:

  • Constant putting down, shaming, and humiliating a child.
  • Calling names and making negative comparisons to others, including other family members.
  • Telling a child that they are “no good," "worthless," "bad," or "a mistake."
  • Telling a child that they have "held you back," ruined," or "stopped" your life.
  • Frequent yelling, threatening, or bullying.
  • Ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment, giving them the silent treatment.
  • Limited physical contact with the child—no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection.
  • Exposing the child to violence or the abuse of others, whether it be the abuse of a parent, a sibling, or animals.

Neglect

Neglect - failure to provide the basic needs for a child - is one of the most overlooked forms of child abuse. Neglect is pattern to not provide adequate food, shelter, clothing, hygiene, healthcare, positive attention, or supervision. Child neglect is not always easy to spot. Sometimes, a parent might become physically or mentally unable to care for a child, such as with a serious injury, untreated depression, or anxiety. Other times, alcohol or drug abuse may seriously impair judgment and the ability to keep a child safe.

Older children might not show outward signs of neglect, becoming used to presenting a competent face to the outside world, and even taking on the role of the parent. But at the end of the day, neglected children are not getting their physical and emotional needs met and are still experiencing abuse.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is when the child receives physical harm or injury from an adult or older sibling. It can be the result of purposefully hurting the child, letting the child place themselves in dangerous situations, or from a severe physical discipline. An example of severe discipline would be using a belt on a child, or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child’s age or physical condition. Many physically abusive parents and caregivers insist that their actions are simply forms of discipline—ways to make children learn to behave. But there is a big difference between using physical punishment to discipline and physical abuse. The point of disciplining children is to teach them right from wrong, not to make them live in fear.

The differences between physical abuse and discipline:

  • Not predictable. Physical abuse is not predictable while discipline is. This means that a child knows what punishment they will receive for breaking a rule will be the same, or on the same level, each time they don't follow the rule. This is not true for abuse. Physical abuse is when children feel unsure when, where, why, and how severe the physical punishment will be.
  • Lashing out in anger. Abusive caregivers use physical punishment in anger and out of desire to assert control over their child, not the motivation to lovingly teach the child. For abusive caregivers, the angrier the caregiver is the more severe the physical punishment, the abuse.
  • Using fear to control behavior. Parents who are physically abusive may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to “keep their child in line.” However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals.

Child Sexual Abuse

In 2010, 15.4% of children in Alaska report experiencing some form of sexual abuse, that makes Alaska in the top 5 states with the highest rate.*

Child sexual abuse is often hidden and not talked about in communities. Sexual abuse is prevalent in Alaska, with 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys experiencing sexual abuse. Those are only the reported numbers, due to the nature of the abuse, most child abuse is not reported to law enforcement. In our Alaska Native communities, 48.5% of reported child sexual abuse are Alaska Native children.

What makes child sexual abuse harder to spot and harder for children to report is the layers of guilt and shame that are part of child sexual abuse. The emotional damage caused by child sexual abuse is powerful and has many consequences. Many children feel guilty and ashamed about being sexually abused. It's important to remember that sexual child abuse occurs in both boys and girls, abusers are usually known by the caregivers or caregivers themselves, and that sexual abuse can occur without physical contact. Children may feel that they are responsible for the abuse or somehow brought it upon themselves. This can lead to self-loathing and sexual problems as they grow older—often either excessive promiscuity or an inability to have intimate relations.

While news stories of sexual predators are scary, what is even more frightening is that sexual abuse usually occurs at the hands of someone the child knows and should be able to trust—most often close relatives. And contrary to what many believe, it’s not just girls who are at risk. Boys and girls both suffer from sexual abuse. In fact, sexual abuse of boys may be underreported due to shame and stigma.  

The shame of sexual abuse makes it very difficult for children to come forward. They may worry that others won’t believe them, will be angry with them, or that it will split their family apart. Because of these difficulties, false accusations of sexual abuse are not common, so if a child confides in you, take him or her seriously. Don’t turn a blind eye! Hide this content.

MYTH #4: Most child abusers are strangers.

Not true! For 2010 in Alaska, 98% of reported child sexual abuse was from someone the child knew. From the total amount of reported cases for 2010 which was 4,137 child sexual abuse perpetrators were parents (90%), unmarried parent of partner (4%), other relative (3%), foster parent (0.75%), legal guardian (0.2%), or known other (1.7%). Only 11 cases (0.3%) of child sexual abuse cases in 2010 for the state of Alaska the perpetrator had no or unknown relationship to the child. For all types,

Warning signs of child abuse and neglect

The earlier child abuse is caught, the better the chance of recovery and appropriate treatment for the child. Child abuse is not always obvious, especially when the abusers may be friends, family members, caregivers, or ever yourself. By learning some of the common warning signs of child abuse and neglect, you can catch the problem as early as possible and get both the child and the abuser the help that they need.

Of course, just because you see a warning sign doesn’t automatically mean a child is being abused. It’s important to dig deeper, looking for a pattern of abusive behavior and warning signs, if you notice something off. There are many organizations out there to help you if you suspect child abuse. Please check out our resource page for child advocacy centers.Show more

Warning signs of emotional abuse in children

  • Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong.
  • Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant or extremely demanding; extremely passive or extremely aggressive).
  • Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver.
  • Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums).

Warning signs of physical abuse in children

  • Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts.
  • Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen.
  • Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt.
  • Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home.
  • Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days.

Warning signs of neglect in children

  • Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather.
  • Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor).
  • Untreated illnesses and physical injuries.
  • Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations and environments.
  • Is frequently late or missing from school.

Warning signs of sexual abuse in children

  • Trouble walking or sitting.
  • Displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior.
  • Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason.
  • Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities.
  • An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14.
  • Runs away from home.

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Risk factors for child abuse and neglect

While child abuse and neglect occurs in all types of families—even in those that look happy from the outside—children are at a much greater risk in certain situations.Show more

  • Domestic violence. Witnessing domestic violence is terrifying to children and emotionally abusive. Even if the mother does her best to protect her children and keeps them from being physically abused, the situation is still extremely damaging. If you or a loved one is in an abusive relationships, getting out is the best thing for protecting the children.
  • Alcohol and drug abuse. Living with an alcoholic or addict is very difficult for children and can easily lead to abuse and neglect. Parents who are drunk or high are unable to care for their children, make good parenting decisions, and control often-dangerous impulses. Substance abuse also commonly leads to physical abuse.
  • Untreated mental illness. Parents who suffering from depression, an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness have trouble taking care of themselves, much less their children. A mentally ill or traumatized parent may be distant and withdrawn from his or her children, or quick to anger without understanding why. Treatment for the caregiver means better care for the children.
  • Lack of parenting skills. Some caregivers never learned the skills necessary for good parenting. Teen parents, for example, might have unrealistic expectations about how much care babies and small children need. Or parents who were themselves victims of child abuse may only know how to raise their children the way they were raised. In such cases, parenting classes, therapy, and caregiver support groups are great resources for learning better parenting skills.
  • Stress and lack of support. Parenting can be a very time-intensive, difficult job, especially if you’re raising children without support from family, friends, or the community or you’re dealing with relationship problems or financial difficulties. Caring for a child with a disability, special needs, or difficult behaviors is also a challenge. It’s important to get the support you need, so you are emotionally and physically able to support your child.

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Recognizing abusive behavior in yourself

If you need professional help...

Do you feel angry and frustrated and don’t know where to turn? In the U.S., call 1-800-4-A-CHILD to find support and resources in your community that can help you break the cycle of abuse. Show more

Do you see yourself in some of these descriptions, painful as it may be? Do you feel angry and frustrated and don’t know where to turn? Raising children is one of life’s greatest challenges and can trigger anger and frustration in the most even tempered. If you grew up in a household where screaming and shouting or violence was the norm, you may not know any other way to raise your kids.

Recognizing that you have a problem is the biggest step to getting help. If you yourself were raised in an abusive situation, that can be extremely difficult. Children experience their world as normal. It may have been normal in your family to be slapped or pushed for little to no reason, or that mother was too drunk to cook dinner. It may have been normal for your parents to call you stupid, clumsy, or worthless. Or it may have been normal to watch your mother get beaten up by your father.

It is only as adults that we have the perspective to step back and take a hard look at what is normal and what is abusive. Read the above sections on the types of abuse and warning signs. Do any of those ring a bell for you now? Or from when you were a child? The following is a list of warning signs that you may be crossing the line into abuse:

How do you know when you’ve crossed the line?

  • You can’t stop the anger. What starts as a swat on the backside may turn into multiple hits getting harder and harder. You may shake your child harder and harder and finally throw him or her down. You find yourself screaming louder and louder and can’t stop yourself.
  • You feel emotionally disconnected from your child. You may feel so overwhelmed that you don’t want anything to do with your child. Day after day, you just want to be left alone and for your child to be quiet.
  • Meeting the daily needs of your child seems impossible. While everyone struggles with balancing dressing, feeding, and getting kids to school or other activities, if you continually can’t manage to do it, it’s a sign that something might be wrong.
  • Other people have expressed concern. It may be easy to bristle at other people expressing concern. However, consider carefully what they have to say. Are the words coming from someone you normally respect and trust? Denial is not an uncommon reaction.

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Breaking the cycle of child abuse

If you have a history of child abuse, having your own children can trigger strong memories and feelings that you may have repressed. This may happen when a child is born, or at later ages when you remember specific abuse to you. You may be shocked and overwhelmed by your anger, and feel like you can’t control it. But you can learn new ways to manage your emotions and break your old patterns. Show more

Remember, you are the most important person in your child’s world. It’s worth the effort to make a change, and you don’t have to go it alone. Help and support are available.

Tips for changing your reactions

  • Learn what is age appropriate and what is not. Having realistic expectations of what children can handle at certain ages will help you avoid frustration and anger at normal child behavior. For example, newborns are not going to sleep through the night without a peep, and toddlers are not going to be able to sit quietly for extended periods of time.
  • Develop new parenting skills. While learning to control your emotions is critical, you also need a game plan of what you are going to do instead. Start by learning appropriate discipline techniques and how to set clear boundaries for your children. Parenting classes, books, and seminars are a way to get this information. You can also turn to other parents for tips and advice.
  • Take care of yourself. If you are not getting enough rest and support or you’re feeling overwhelmed, you are much more likely to succumb to anger. Sleep deprivation, common in parents of young children, adds to moodiness and irritability—exactly what you are trying to avoid.
  • Get professional help. Breaking the cycle of abuse can be very difficult if the patterns are strongly entrenched. If you can’t seem to stop yourself no matter how hard you try, it’s time to get help, be it therapy, parenting classes, or other interventions. Your children will thank you for it.
  • Learn how you can get your emotions under control. The first step to getting your emotions under control is realizing that they are there. If you were abused as a child, you may have an especially difficult time getting in touch with your range of emotions. You may have had to deny or repress them as a child, and now they spill out without your control.

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Helping an abused or neglected child

What should you do if you suspect that a child has been abused? How do you approach him or her? Or what if a child comes to you? It’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed and confused in this situation. Child abuse is a difficult subject that can be hard to accept and even harder to talk about. Show more

Just remember, you can make a tremendous difference in the life of an abused child, especially if you take steps to stop the abuse early. When talking with an abused child, the best thing you can provide is calm reassurance and unconditional support. Let your actions speak for you if you’re having trouble finding the words. Remember that talking about the abuse may be very difficult for the child. It’s your job to reassure the child and provide whatever help you can.

Tips for talking to an abused child

  • Avoid denial and remain calm. A common reaction to news as unpleasant and shocking as child abuse is denial. However, if you display denial to a child, or show shock or disgust at what they are saying, the child may be afraid to continue and will shut down. As hard as it may be, remain as calm and reassuring as you can.
  • Don’t interrogate. Let the child explain to you in his or her own words what happened, but don’t interrogate the child or ask leading questions. This may confuse and fluster the child and make it harder for them to continue their story.
  • Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong. It takes a lot for a child to come forward about abuse. Reassure him or her that you take what is said seriously, and that it is not the child’s fault.
  • Safety comes first. If you feel that your safety or the safety of the child would be threatened if you try to intervene, leave it to the professionals. You may be able to provide more support later after the initial professional intervention.

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Reporting child abuse and neglect

If you suspect a child is being abused, it’s critical to get them the help he or she needs. Reporting child abuse seems so official. Many people are reluctant to get involved in other families’ lives. Show more

Understanding some of the myths behind reporting may help put your mind at ease if you need to report child abuse

  • I don’t want to interfere in someone else’s family. The effects of child abuse are lifelong, affecting future relationships, self-esteem, and sadly putting even more children at risk of abuse as the cycle continues. Help break the cycle of child abuse.
  • What if I break up someone’s home? The priority in child protective services is keeping children in the home. A child abuse report does not mean a child is automatically removed from the home - unless the child is clearly in danger. Support such as parenting classes, anger management or other resources may be offered first to parents if safe for the child.
  • They will know it was me who called. Reporting is anonymous. In most states, you do not have to give your name when you report child abuse. The child abuser cannot find out who made the report of child abuse.
  • It won’t make a difference what I have to say. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it is better to be safe than sorry. Even if you don’t see the whole picture, others may have noticed as well, and a pattern can help identify child abuse that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks.

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This page was informed by the Helpguide.org article "Child Abuse and Neglect" ©Helpguide.org. All rights reserved. Visit WWW.HELPGUIDE.ORG for more information and related articles.

* Statistics from the Reported Maltreatment Types of Victims, 2010 (PDF - 4140 KB) Children's Bureau, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011) In Child Maltreatment 2010