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Child Abuse and Neglect

What is child abuse and what is child neglect?

Child abuse is defined as any intentional, emotional, physical, or sexual injury to a child.

Child neglect is the most prevalent kind of abuse and can be either physical, emotional, or educational. Child neglect can be intentional or unintentional.

What are some of the behaviors associated with abuse and what injuries do they cause a child?

Physical abuse:

  • Bruises, such as those caused by hands, fists, electrical cords, clothes hangers, and belts;
  • Internal organ injury which can be difficult to detect but may lead to internal bleeding;
  • Bone fractures, especially arms, legs, and skull;
  • Burns from such things as cigarettes, lighters, and stove burners;
  • Lacerations caused by knives, razor blades, or other sharp objects.

Sexual abuse:

  • Inappropriate sexual touching;
  • Fondling;
  • Rape;
  • Prostitution;
  • Pornography;
  • Sexual abuse of a child includes forcing the child to perform or help to perform any sexual behavior.

Emotional abuse:

  • Ridicule;
  • Belittling.


  • Physical neglect involves a spectrum of behavior. It ranges from refusing to provide basic nutrition or necessary health care for the child to total abandonment of the child.
  • Emotional neglect has a wide spectrum of behavior starting with the absence of adequate adult affection toward the child. It includes exposing the child to physical violence within the family.
  • Educational neglect occurs when the child's caretakers fail to provide the child with an adequate educational experience.

What are some of the statistics associated with child abuse and neglect?

Neglect is the most prevalent form of abuse. Physical abuse is the second most prevalent form followed by sexual abuse.

About 5 percent of children in the United States are thought to be victims of some form of reported abuse.

According to child abuse surveys, more than 3,000,000 children are reported to child protective services in the United States each year. That means that there are more than 8,000 people every day who are reported to authorities for allegedly abusing a child.

Between 1000 and 1500 children die of abuse and/or neglect in the United States every year.

What leads to child abuse or neglect?

Ignorance can often cause parents or caregivers to neglect a child. For instance, parents who don't understand the special needs of their children or who themselves have not grown up in nurturing environments are more likely to neglect a child by failing to give the child adequate nurturing or important emotional support.

Severe stress can lead an adult to abuse a child. Young, single parents without sufficient emotional support for themselves are more vulnerable to neglect and abuse their children.

Sexual abuse of a child often starts with inappropriate touching or fondling. If the abuse is not stopped, the perpetrator may proceed to full sexual intercourse with the child.

Do men or women abuse or neglect children?

Both men and women can be neglectful or abusive toward children.

At what age are children abused?

Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse can begin in infancy and may continue through adolescence.

How is child abuse discovered or diagnosed?

Abuse can be difficult to detect and diagnose. Abuse of a child is usually reported by someone other than the child's parents. Relatives, neighbors, child care workers, school authorities, or health care providers may become suspicious that a child is being abused and call the authorities. Anyone can report suspected child abuse: teachers, counselors and medical personnel are obligated to report suspected abuse to child protective services. Because abusive adults often threaten their victims, the victim may fear telling anyone, and, therefore, the abuse may continue over a long period of time. Many adults have never talked about the abuse they received as a child. However, today, children are often taught by their parents, other caregivers, and teachers to report any inappropriate adult behavior.

How is child abuse treated?

The most important aspect in treating the child who is physically or sexually abused is to make sure that the child is safe. To insure safety, the child may have to be removed from his/her abusive family. In order to help the child heal from his/her trauma, the child should receive psychotherapy. Therapy helps abused children rebuild their self-esteem, reduce their fears, and regain a trusting relationship with an adult. Parents are almost always strongly encouraged to be involved in the child's therapy.

What happens to children who have been abused?

With proper psychological treatment, children can heal from abuse. However, many children never receive adequate treatment, and these children can carry the scars of abuse into their adult lives. Many adults who were abused as children have never dealt with this trauma in their own lives and, therefore, may themselves become abusive toward their children. Thus, the cycle can repeat itself.

What can people do if they need help?

If you, a friend, or a family member would like more information and you have a therapist or a physician, please discuss your concerns with that person.

Page last modified or reviewed by athealth on February 1, 2014