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Child abuse and neglect is a national problem which has increased to epidemic proportions in the United States. More than 2.5 million reports of child abuse are made in the United States annually with hundreds of deaths related to child abuse reported each year.

Most runaways, adolescent prostitutes and teenage delinquent’s report having been victims of some form of child abuse, and it is reported that a majority of violent criminals suffered abuse, either physical and/or sexual as children.

Abuse robs children of the opportunity to develop healthy, trusting relationships with adults, contributes to low self-esteem, and impairs healthy psycho-social development. Indeed, the effects of childhood abuse often last a lifetime.

What is child abuse?

The term "child abuse" can be defined as any behavior directed toward a child by a parent, guardian, care giver, other family member, or other adult, that endangers or impairs a child’s physical or emotional health and development.

While child abuse and neglect affect all segments of society and know no socioeconomic, cultural, ethnic, or religious boundaries, included among the factors which often contribute to child abuse are alcohol and substance abuse, lack of parenting skills, economic difficulties or poverty, domestic violence and previous victimization.

Child abuse includes four major categories: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.


Physical Abuse

What are signs of possible physical abuse?

Physical child abuse involves external injuries and is more easily detected than other forms of abuse. The following signs may indicate physical abuse:

  • Unexplained injuries, especially those located on parts of the body not usually affected by normal childhood activities, (e.g., eyes, mouth, back, thighs, buttocks, genital areas, etc.).

  • Repeated injuries such as bruises, welts or burns, especially those where the shape of an object is visible, (e.g., an electric cord, hair brush, belt, buckle, board, cigarette, etc.).

  • Abrasions or lacerations appearing on the body for no apparent reason. Injuries in various stages of healing which appear in a regular pattern or are grouped together.

  • Small circular burns which may have been inflicted by a cigarette or cigar, often found on forearms, hands, buttocks, or soles of the feet.

  • Burns with a "doughnut" shape on the buttocks which may indicate a child was dipped or forced to sit in scalding liquid. Any burn which shows the pattern of the object used to inflict the injury (e.g., an iron, fireplace tool, heaters, etc.).

  • Burns caused by friction, usually found on arms, neck, legs, or torso indicating a rope or cord may have been used to tie up the victim.

  • Unexplained fractures, (e.g., nose, face, ribs, legs, arms, etc.).

  • Behavior by the child which may be hyperactive, disruptive, and aggressive, or complacent, compliant, shy, withdrawn or uncommunicative.

  • Denial by parents that anything is wrong, unlikely explanation for the child’s injuries, delays in obtaining medical care, or inadequate care given and injuries which occur with increasing frequency or severity.



What about neglect?

Child neglect is the continued failure to provide a child with necessary care and protection including adequate shelter, food, clothing, medical care, etc. Lack of appropriate supervision, especially for young children, for extended periods of time is also considered child neglect. Signs of possible neglect include:

  • Appears poorly nourished or inadequately clothed;

  • Appears consistently tired or listless;

  • Inconsistent attendance at school; 

  • Lack of good hygiene, or an obsession with cleanliness;

  • Is regularly left alone in dangerous situations, or over long periods of time;

  • Exhibits evidence that medical needs are not being met;

  • Unable to relate well to adults or has trouble forming close friendships.

Why are children physically abused and/or neglected?

Parents who abuse their children may love them very much but not very well. The most prevalent reasons for child abuse and neglect are:

  • The parents were abused as children and lacked a successful model of parenting and family life.

  • Immaturity, the absence of parenting preparation skills, and a lack of understanding of child development often result in the creation of unrealistic expectations for a child’s behavior. When the child fails to meet these expectations, frustration on the part of the parent may erupt in anger toward the child.

  • Abusing parents often feel isolated or keep themselves isolated from others. They may expect the child to satisfy their unmet emotional needs.

  • Financial pressures, poor housing conditions, loss of a job and the inability to provide for the needs of the family can cause parents to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.

  • Alcohol and substance abuse compound the chances for loss of control and eruption of violent behavior.

Emotional Abuse


What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is the most difficult form of child abuse to verify. It includes both verbal assaults and the withholding of positive emotional support. Although the scars may not be visible to the naked eye, emotional abuse wounds the spirit, frequently leaving its marks for a lifetime.

Victims of emotional abuse are "hit" every day with the power of words which are demeaning, shaming, threatening, blaming, intimidating, unfairly critical or sarcastic in nature.

This form of abuse is destructive to a child’s self-confidence and self-esteem. It can affect a child’s emotional development, resulting in a sense of worthlessness and inadequacy. Some indicators of potential emotional abuse include:

  • Patterned behavior that is extreme (e.g., lying, stealing, fighting) or is overly aggressive and acts out inappropriately;

  • Appears defensive, shy or overly dependent;

  • Is verbally abusive to others, using the same language and demeaning terms she/he has experienced.

Children who suffer emotional abuse often grow into adults who see themselves through the eyes of their abuser. They carry a sense of inadequacy and worthlessness with them into their jobs and relationships. Frequently, those who have experienced emotional abuse in childhood find it difficult to develop healthy, intimate relationships as adults. They may even develop antisocial behaviors which isolate them further.

It is important to recognize that emotional/verbal abuse has a powerful negative effect on children. Physical abuse is almost always accompanied by emotional abuse. We must be alert to the ways children are portrayed in the media and words we hear being directed at them. Breaking the cycle of emotional abuse is a responsibility we all must share.

Sexual Abuse


What is the impact of sexual abuse on children?

Incest, sexual molestation, rape, sodomy, child pornography, exhibitionism and exploitation are terms most often used when describing child sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can be physical -- including genital or oral stimulation, fondling and intercourse; non-physical -- including indecent exposure, obscene phone calls or "peeping toms"; and/ or violent -- as in rape or other forms of sexually violent behavior.

Incidents of child sexual abuse are damaging whether they occur only once, are repeated many times, or last over a number of years. A single, seemingly minor incident, (e.g. indecent exposure, fondling or an obscene phone call), may cause temporary emotional disturbances such as embarrassment, fear, confusion, guilt, anxiety, and a distrust of adults or strangers.

More severe incidents of sexual abuse, such as incest, rape, sodomy, exposure to pornographic activity or other forms of sexual violence may have a lasting effect on the child. Behavioral problems may include withdrawal, difficulty at school, aggression, running away, nightmares, and extreme anxiety or depression. In some cases symptoms of childhood sexual abuse may not appear until adulthood.

Why are children sexually abused and who are the abusers?

Those who sexually victimize children often suffer from an emotional or psychological dysfunction, usually as a result of their own previous sexual victimization. They often have severe sexual problems and difficulty relating to adults. Most are adults with whom the child is familiar, and they may repeatedly abuse the same child. An adult who is a stranger to the child will often abuse that child only once but may continue to abuse other children. Factors to be aware of include:

  • The majority of child molesters are men who abuse both boys and girls. Women make up a small percentage o those who sexually abuse children.

  • A large percentage of those who sexually abuse children were themselves victims of sexual abuse as children.

  • The majority of all sexual molestation is committed by someone the child knows or trusts, e.g., a family member, relative, baby-sitter, neighbor or authority figure.

  • Studies indicate that half of all child molesters are under the age of 31 and only about 10% are more than 50 years of age

What to do if you discover a child has been sexually abused?

First and foremost, DO NOT DENY THE PROBLEM. Believe what the child tells you no matter how unbelievable the information sounds.

  • Control your emotions. Fear and anger on your part are natural reactions but may be frightening to the child. Let the child know that your feelings are not directed at her or him.

  • NEVER blame, punish or embarrass the child.

  • Reassure the child that she/he is safe and that it was right to tell you. Let the child ask questions, and then provide answers that can be understood.

  • Find out as much as possible about the events leading up to, during and after the incident. so delicately. if the molester was a stranger, carefully get a description of the face, clothes, location, car, etc.

  • Immediately contact a physician for treatment of physical injuries and file a police report of the abuse. Provide the police with as much information as possible to better ensure their appropriate intervention.

  • Seek counseling for both the child and yourself as soon as possible. Immediate intervention can help prevent long term lingering effects.

What can be done to prevent sexual abuse?

For parents, the following suggestions are meant to give you some guidelines as you seek to teach your child/children how to protect themselves from sexual abuse. Each parent must decide how best to handle the topic of child sexual abuse with his/her own child. The important thing is to not leave children defenseless in the face of this potential danger.

  • Know where your child is at all times, who she/he is with, and what she/he is doing. Take responsibility for her/his safety.

  • Ask your child what happens when she/he is alone with baby-sitters, friends, etc.

  • Encourage your child not to keep secrets, but to tell you about any problems or questions she/he may have.

  • Discuss child sexual abuse with your child giving him/her clear and accurate information.

  • Teach your child to be alert, to avoid dangerous situations, and to discuss with you problems she/he encounters.

  • Teach your child to say "no" to anyone who attempts to touch the private parts of her/his body or asks them to do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, strange or fearful.

  • Instruct her/him to tell an adult as soon as possible.

  • Tell her/him to remember where and when the incident happened.


  • Take time to be an understanding listener. 

NCCAFV’s American Campaign for Prevention of Child Abuse and Family Violence

In keeping with its commitment to the prevention of child abuse and all forms of intergenerational family violence, NCCAFV has prepared this information to help you better understand all forms of child abuse and neglect. Prevention can only occur when we understand the problem and commit ourselves to sharing this information with others in our community.

We hope you will find this important information helpful and will join with NCCAFV in helping to prevent child abuse and neglect.

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