What is child abuse?
Child abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver acts in a way that causes a child to be hurt physically or harmed emotionally, or fails to act to prevent such harm. When a person is abused as a child, the harm inflicted can last a lifetime. Research from the Child Welfare Gateway in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shows that children who are abused can have trouble developing mentally and emotionally, and be at higher risk to abuse drugs and alcohol as adults.
How does abuse happen?
Child abuse can take many different forms. Here are a few examples:
Physical abuse. According to Child Welfare Gateway, physical abuse is any physical injury to a child or young person under 18 that does not occur by accident. Physical abuse can include hitting, beating, shaking, punching, biting, burning or strangling. Under many state laws, physical abuse also includes making threats to harm a child or young person, or putting that young person in a situation that could cause serious harm.
Sexual abuse. Sexual abuse occurs when an adult forces a child or young person to engage in sexual acts-including sexual intercourse, penetration, masturbation, voyeurism (like taking sexual photographs or videos), or incest. Sexual abuse can also include forcing a young person to enter into prostitution. To learn more about sexual abuse, including how it can affect you emotionally and how to get help, check out the Sexual Violence fact sheet for more information.
Emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is a form of abuse that causes a child or young person to feel like they are worthless, flawed, and unloved. Someone can emotionally abuse another by belittling, threatening, bullying, ignoring, or isolating that person from others.
Neglect. Neglect is the failure of a parent or caregiver to provide food, shelter, clothing, medical care, education or supervision.
Why does abuse happen?
There’s no easy answer to this question. Several factors can contribute to a greater chance for child abuse within a family. For example, parents or caregivers who were abused as children, abuse alcohol or drugs, or have mental disorders like depression and anxiety might be more likely to abuse their children. Child abuse happens in every state, and among families of all religions and backgrounds, but in every situation, it is never O.K. to harm someone else.
The effects of abuse
Abuse is often confusing. It’s hard to understand that the same person that you rely on for survival and who is supposed to look after you can also harm you. Even if the abuse happened a long time ago, it can cause you to feel emotions that might stay with you for years. There’s often a spectrum of feelings that you may have to work through in order to begin healing. Here are a few things you might experienced:
Fear. For obvious reasons, many survivors of abuse are afraid of the people who abused them. They might also be scared of what will happen if they tell someone else that they’ve been abused. Fear can prevent victims of abuse from getting the help they need to stay safe or help with deal with the abuse. Sometimes abuse can make survivors more fearful of people or situations in general and keep survivors from having meaningful relationships with others.
Nightmares and flashbacks. Some events that happen in your life can trigger memories of past abuse. For example, going back to the house you lived in when you were young, or a certain smell or food, might cause you to remember times when you were abused. You might also experience nightmares or flashbacks, which can almost be like reliving the abuse.
Anger. You might feel angry at the person who abused you, the other people in your life who might not have kept you safe, and even yourself. It’s normal to feel angry.
Guilt. You might feel as though you’re to blame for the abuse. For example, you might think that if you had done something differently-like had you gotten better grades or behaved better-the abuse wouldn’t have happened. But this is not the case. You are never to blame for abuse.
Low self-esteem. Abuse might cause you to doubt yourself or feel like you’re undeserving or unworthy. However, no matter what your abuser says, you are or were not worthless or a bad person. For tips on how to build and maintain self-esteem, check out the Self-esteem fact sheet.
Denial. You might try to convince yourself that the abuse didn’t happen in order to bury your feelings. However, acknowledging the fact that you’ve been abused is the first step toward repairing the emotional damage it has done.
Taking the next step
Recovering from abuse can be a long process. It’s important that you have support-from people who love you as well as trained professionals-to work through your feelings. Here are a few suggestions of where you can go to get help.
Call the police. If at any time you’re in an unsafe or potentially abusive situation, call 911 or your local police immediately.
Talk to someone. Although it might be difficult at first, it’s important to tell someone you trust if you are being abused or have been abused. People close to you, like trusted friends, family members, and teachers can support you and help you find professionals to talk to-like a counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone in person, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. This hotline is free, anonymous, and available 365 days a year. Trained volunteers can connect you to people in your area who can help.
Join a support group. This can be really helpful, as it gives you a place to share your experiences and feelings with people who understand and have been through similar experiences. A counselor or medical doctor can help you find a support group in your area.
The definitions of child abuse vary from state to state, but at a minimum, state laws must protect young people under 18 from physical, emotional and sexual harm and neglect. People who abuse children-and people who fail to report child abuse if they know it is happening-can face jail time and penalties. Parents and caregivers who abuse children can also lose custody and even, parental rights to their children.
Information in this fact sheet was provided by:
- The Department of Health and Human Services Child Welfare Information Gateway
Last reviewed: April 26, 2012