Child abuse is any emotional, sexual, or physical mistreatment, or neglect of a child. More specifically, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), child abuse is defined as any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential harm, or threat of harm to a child.
In some instances, abuse can be the result of a deliberate attempt to hurt the child. However, child physical abuse can also be the result of severe discipline or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child’s age or physical condition. In many cases abusive parents believe that their actions are just forms of discipline, but there is a huge difference between using physical punishment to discipline and physical abuse. What distinguishes child abuse from discipline includes the following:
- Unpredictability- child never knows what is going to set the parent off so they are constantly walking on eggshells to avoid a physical assault.
- Lashing out in anger- physically abusive parents act out of anger and the desire to assert control, not simply to discipline when the child has done something wrong.
- Using fear to control behavior- parents who are abusive may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave and so they use physical abuse to keep their child’s behavior in check.
It is important that, as a community, we learn to recognize the signs of child abuse and neglect because the earlier an abused child gets help, the better his or her chances are for a positive recovery.
Every year in the United States there are more than three million reports of child abuse. Additionally, more than four children die each day as a result of child abuse, and approximately 70% of children that die from child abuse are under the age of four.
Types of Child Abuse
While there are various forms of child abuse, the main element that brings all of them together is the emotional effect that it has on the child or adolescent. Children need a structured environment with clearly set boundaries, as well as the reassurance that their parents are looking out for their safety. Children who have been abused or neglected do not get this predictability from their parents. Instead, they are left feeling uncared for, unsafe, and completely alone in the world. The following are some forms of child abuse:
Emotional child abuse, which may include:
- Limiting physical contact with child (no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection)
- Ignoring or rejecting child as punishment (giving them the silent treatment)
- Constant belittling, shaming, or humiliating a child
- Telling a child he or she is bad, a mistake, or no good
- Calling the child names
- Frequently yelling, threatening, or bullying a child
- Exposing a child to violence or the abuse of others
Child neglect is a pattern of failure to provide for a child’s basic needs and may include:
- Not providing child with food, clothing, or supervision
- Child has taken on role of the parent
- Parent physically or mentally unable to care for child
- Alcohol or drug use impairs parent’s judgment and ability to keep child safe
Physical child abuse is a form of abuse that involves physical harm or injury to the child and may include:
- Burning or scalding
- Purposely inducing an illness in a child
Signs and Symptoms of Child Abuse or Neglect
Child abuse is not always easy to identify. However, learning some of the warning signs of child abuse and neglect can help someone be able to help identify a child who is being abused. By identifying these signs, the sooner child abusers can be caught and the child can get the help that they need. Some of the common warning signs for the different forms of abuse include:
Warning signs of emotional abuse in children:
- Excessively withdrawn
- Is afraid or anxious about doing something wrong
- Acts inappropriately for their age (either much older or younger than they actually are)
- Doesn’t seem to be attached to parents or caregiver
- Displays extremes in behavior (for example, extremely demanding or extremely compliant)
Warning signs of physical abuse in children:
- Frequent injuries
- Unexplained cuts, bruises, or scars
- Injuries appear to have a pattern (like that from a belt or hand)
- Seems to always be on alert or is always watchful
- Shies away from touch or flinches at sudden movement
- Often seems afraid to go home
- Wears inappropriate clothing to hide injuries (such as long sleeves on hot days)
Warning signs of neglect in children:
- Clothes don’t fit properly, are dirty, or inappropriate for weather
- Their hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted hair, noticeable body odor)
- Untreated illnesses or physical injuries
- Frequently late or missing from school
- Often left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations
Long-Term Effects of Child Abuse
All forms of child abuse or neglect, whether it is physical or emotional, leaves behinds some form of lasting scar. Victims of child abuse often feel that they are bad and deserve the abuse; often feeling guilty for causing the violence. While some of these scars may be physical, emotional scarring has lasting long-term effects that persist throughout a child’s life. Some of the long-term effects of child abuse include:
- Development of eating disorders
- Development of speech disorders or other developmental delays
- Engagement in self-destructive behavior
- Physical illnesses, such as ulcers, asthma, or recurring headaches
- Poor self-esteem
- Inability to trust others
- Difficulty with relationships
- Irrational and persistent fears
- Core feelings of being worthless
- Trouble regulating their emotions
- Substance abuse or addiction
- Not able to adequately function at work, home, or school
Treatment for Child Abuse and Neglect
Physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect are all extremely traumatic for the victim and can lead to irreversible psychological and emotional consequences if not properly treated. The earlier treatment is sought, the better chance a child who has been abused or neglected has for recovery. The first step when treating any victim of abuse or neglect is to provide that child with a safe environment so that he or she will be out of harm’s way. Depending upon the seriousness of physical injuries, the child may need to get treatment at a hospital or doctor’s office where he or she can get a thorough examination and the medical attention he or she needs. Only after the child’s physical concerns have been addressed can long-term treatment be implemented.
In many cases, the most beneficial form of treatment, for any victim of abuse, is a residential treatment center that specializes in treating children who have been through such traumatic experiences. By entering a residential treatment program these children are immediately placed in a safe, supportive environment where they can begin the healing process and learn to trust once more. Through a variety of different therapeutic methods, such as individual, group, and family therapy, children can work through their feelings about the abuse, learn how to manage their emotions, and eventually accept the fact that they are not to blame for what has occurred.