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Child Abuse FAQs

What is child abuse?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), child abuse is defined as a type of family trauma in which one or more acts are committed by a parent or caregiver that results in any harm to a child. While federal law uses this definition, they allow states to create their own definition. At a minimum, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) requires states to define it as an act or failure to act by a parent or caregiver which results in imminent risk of serious harm (e.g., death, physical harm, emotional harm, sexual abuse, exploitation). Most states do include a lot more detail in their definitions.

Why does child abuse happen?

Numerous factors increase a person’s likelihood to perpetrate this form of family trauma, including:

  • They were neglected or abused as a child

  • Physical or mental illness (e.g., depression, PTSD)

  • Family crisis or stress (e.g., domestic violence, marital conflicts, single parenting)

  • A developmentally or physically disabled child

  • Financial stress (e.g., unemployment, poverty)

  • Social isolation

  • Extended family isolation

  • A poor understanding of child development

  • Poor parenting skills

  • Substance abuse (e.g., alcohol, drugs)

What are the signs of child abuse?

Unfortunately, children don’t always tell you when there’s family trauma or if they’re being abused, especially if the abuser has threatened them into maintaining silence. However, there are some red flags that are indicative of child abuse. If you notice any of the following happening with a child, it may be time to consider whether there’s child abuse involved. These red flags include:

  • Withdrawal from friends or usual activities

  • Rebellious or defiant behavior

  • Changes in behavior (e.g., hyperactivity, anger, aggression, hostility)

  • Depression, anxiety or unusual fears, or a sudden loss of self-confidence

  • Changes in school performance

  • Frequent absences from school

  • Reluctance to leave school activities

  • An apparent lack of supervision

  • Attempts at running away

  • Self-harm or attempts at suicide

What is the most common type of child abuse?

In the United States, 9 out of every 1,000 children are abused with the most common form of child abuse being neglect. This is the continued failure to meet a child’s basic needs. It includes leaving a child hungry, dirty, without proper clothing, unsheltered, unsupervised, and without healthcare. Not only does this type of family trauma put children in danger, but it also has long-term effects on both their physical and mental health.

Who are the most common victims of child abuse?

In the past year in the United States, 1 in 7 children has experienced child abuse. Most of these children were also living in poverty – something that causes family trauma because it places a lot of stress on families thus increasing the likelihood of child abuse. In fact, children who belong to poor families are 5 times more likely to be abused.

Do child abusers show any potential warning signs?

Sometimes you can look at a parent’s demeanor or behavior to see if child abuse may be occurring. Some of the signs of family trauma that you should watch for include:

  • Shows little concern for the child

  • Blaming the child for problems

  • Offers conflicting or unconvincing explanations for a child's injuries if one is even given

  • Demands an inappropriate level of physical or academic performance

  • Expects the child to provide attention and care to the parent

  • Appears unable to recognize the child’s physical or emotional distress

  • Appears jealous when other family members get attention from the child

  • Severely limits the child's contact with others

  • Consistently belittling or berating the child

  • Uses negative terms to describe the child (e.g., worthless, evil)

  • Uses harsh physical discipline

  • Repeatedly brings the child for medical evaluations or requests medical tests (e.g., X-rays, lab tests) for concerns that aren’t seen by the health care provider

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