HelpGuide Logo

HELPGUIDE.ORG

Trusted guide to mental, emotional & social health

Child Abuse and Neglect

How to Spot the Signs and Make a Difference

Domestic violence

Child abuse is more than bruises and broken bones. While physical abuse might be the most visible, other types of abuse, such as emotional abuse and neglect, also leave deep, lasting scars. The earlier abused children get help, the greater chance they have to heal and break the cycle—rather than perpetuate it. By learning about common signs of abuse and what you can do to intervene, you can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

Understanding child abuse and neglect

Child abuse isn’t just about black eyes. While physical abuse is shocking due to the marks it leaves, not all child abuse is as obvious. Ignoring children’s needs, putting them in unsupervised, dangerous situations, or making a child feel worthless or stupid are also child abuse. Regardless of the type of child abuse, the result is serious emotional harm. But there is help available. If you suspect a child is being abused, it’s important to speak out. By catching the problem as early as possible, both the child and the abuser can get the help they need.

Myths and facts about child abuse and neglect

Myth: It's only abuse if it's violent.

Fact: Physical abuse is just one type of child abuse. Neglect and emotional abuse can be just as damaging, and since they are more subtle, others are less likely to intervene.

Myth: Only bad people abuse their children.

Fact: Not all abusers are intentionally harming their children. Many have been victims of abuse themselves, and don’t know any other way to parent. Others may be struggling with mental health issues or a substance abuse problem.

Myth: Child abuse doesn't happen in “good” families.

Fact: Child abuse doesn't only happen in poor families or bad neighborhoods. It crosses all racial, economic, and cultural lines. Sometimes, families who seem to have it all from the outside are hiding a different story behind closed doors.

Myth: Most child abusers are strangers.

Fact: While abuse by strangers does happen, most abusers are family members or others close to the family.

Myth: Abused children always grow up to be abusers.

Fact: It is true that abused children are more likely to repeat the cycle as adults, unconsciously repeating what they experienced as children. On the other hand, many adult survivors of child abuse have a strong motivation to protect their children against what they went through and become excellent parents.

Effects of child abuse and neglect

All types of child abuse and neglect leave lasting scars. Some of these scars might be physical, but emotional scarring has long lasting effects throughout life, damaging a child’s sense of self, their future relationships, and ability to function at home, at work and at school. Some effects include:

Lack of trust and relationship difficulties. If you can’t trust your parents, who can you trust? Without this base, it is very difficult to learn to trust people or know who is trustworthy. This can lead to difficulty maintaining relationships in adulthood. It can also lead to unhealthy relationships because the adult doesn’t know what a good relationship is.

Core feelings of being “worthless”. If you’ve been told over and over again as a child that you are stupid or no good, it is very difficult to overcome these core feelings. As they grow up, abused kids may neglect their education, or settle for low-paying jobs, because they don’t believe they are worth more. Sexual abuse survivors, with the stigma and shame surrounding the abuse, often struggle with a feeling of being damaged.

Trouble regulating emotions. Abused children cannot express emotions safely. As a result, the emotions get stuffed down, coming out in unexpected ways. Adult survivors of child abuse can struggle with unexplained anxiety, depression, or anger. They may turn to alcohol or drugs to numb out the painful feelings.

Recognizing the different types of child abuse

Abusive behavior comes in many forms, but the common denominator is the emotional effect on the child. Whether the abuse is a slap, a harsh comment, stony silence, or not knowing if there will be dinner on the table, the end result is a child that feel unsafe, uncared for, and alone.

Emotional abuse

Contrary to some people’s beliefs, words can hurt and emotional abuse can severely damage a child’s mental health or social development. Examples of emotional child abuse include:

  1. Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating
  2. Calling names and making negative comparisons to others
  3. Telling a child they“re no good," "worthless," "bad," or "a mistake"
  4. Frequent yelling, threatening, or bullying
  5. Ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment, giving them or her the silent treatment
  6. Limiting physical contact with a child—no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection
  7. Exposing a child to violence against others, whether it is against the other parent, a sibling, or even a pet

Neglect

Child neglect—a very common type of child abuse—is a pattern of failing to provide for a child's basic needs, whether it be adequate food, clothing, hygiene, or supervision. Child neglect is not always easy to spot. Sometimes, a parent might become physically or mentally unable to care for a child, such as with a serious injury, untreated depression, or anxiety. Other times, alcohol or drug abuse may seriously impair judgment and the ability to keep a child safe.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse involves physical harm or injury to the child. It may be the result of a deliberate attempt to hurt the child or excessive physical punishment. Many physically abusive parents insist that their actions are simply forms of discipline—ways to make children learn to behave. But there is a big difference between using physical punishment to discipline and physical abuse.

In physical abuse, the following elements are present:

Unpredictability. The child never knows what is going to set the parent off. There are no clear boundaries or rules. The child is constantly walking on eggshells, never sure what behavior will trigger a physical assault.

Lashing out in anger. Physically abusive parents act out of anger and the desire to assert control, not the motivation to lovingly teach the child. The angrier the parent, the more intense the abuse.

Using fear to control behavior. Parents who are physically abusive may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to “keep their child in line.” However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals.

Sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse is an especially complicated form of abuse because of its layers of guilt and shame. It's important to recognize that sexual abuse doesn't always involve body contact. Exposing a child to sexual situations or material is sexually abusive, whether or not touching is involved.

Sexually abused children are often tormented by shame and guilt. They may feel that they are responsible for the abuse or somehow brought it upon themselves. This can lead to self-loathing and sexual and relationship problems as they grow older.

The shame of sexual abuse makes it very difficult for children to come forward. They may worry that others won’t believe them, will be angry with them, or that it will split their family apart. Because of these difficulties, false accusations of sexual abuse are not common, so if a child confides in you, take them seriously.

Warning signs of child abuse and neglect

Warning signs of emotional abuse

  • Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong
  • Shows extremes in behavior (extremely compliant, demanding, passive, aggressive)
  • Doesn’t seem to be attached to the parent or caregiver
  • Acts either inappropriately adult (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (thumb-sucking, throwing tantrums)

Warning signs of physical abuse

  • Frequent injuries or unexplained bruises, welts, or cuts
  • Is always watchful and “on alert,” as if waiting for something bad to happen
  • Injuries appear to have a pattern such as marks from a hand or belt
  • Shies away from touch, flinches at sudden movements, or seems afraid to go home
  • Wears inappropriate clothing to cover up injuries, such as long-sleeved shirts on hot days

Warning signs of neglect

  • Clothes are ill-fitting, filthy, or inappropriate for the weather
  • Hygiene is consistently bad (unbathed, matted and unwashed hair, noticeable body odor)
  • Untreated illnesses and physical injuries
  • Is frequently unsupervised or left alone or allowed to play in unsafe situations
  • Is frequently late or missing from school

Warning signs of sexual abuse in children

  • Trouble walking or sitting
  • Displays knowledge in sexual acts inappropriate to their age, or even seductive behavior
  • Makes strong efforts to avoid a specific person, without an obvious reason
  • Doesn’t want to change clothes in front of others or participate in physical activities
  • An STD or pregnancy, especially under the age of 14
  • Runs away from home

Risk factors for child abuse and neglect

While child abuse and neglect occurs in all types of families, children are at a much greater risk in certain situations.

Domestic violence. Even if the abused parent does their best to protect their children, the situation is still extremely damaging. Getting out is the best thing for protecting the children.

Alcohol and drug abuse. Parents who are drunk or high are unable to care for their children, make good parenting decisions, and control often-dangerous impulses. Substance abuse can also lead to physical abuse.

Untreated mental illness. Parents who are suffering from depression, an anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness have trouble taking care of themselves, much less their children. A mentally ill or traumatized parent may be distant and withdrawn from their children, or quick to anger without understanding why. Treatment for the caregiver means better care for the children.

Lack of parenting skills. Some caregivers never learned the skills necessary for good parenting. Teen parents, for example, might have unrealistic expectations about how much care babies and small children need. Or parents who were themselves victims of child abuse may only know how to raise their children the way they were raised. Parenting classes, therapy, and caregiver support groups are great resources for learning better parenting skills.

Stress and lack of support. Parenting can be a very time-intensive, difficult job, especially if you’re raising children without support from family and friends, or you’re dealing with relationship problems or financial difficulties. Caring for a child with a disability, special needs, or difficult behaviors is also a challenge. It’s important to get the support you need, so you are emotionally and physically able to support your child.

Recognizing abusive behavior in yourself

Do you see yourself in some of these descriptions, painful as it may be? Raising children is one of life’s greatest challenges and can trigger anger and frustration in the most even tempered. If you grew up in a household where screaming and shouting or violence was the norm, you may not know any other way to raise your kids.

Recognizing that you have a problem is the biggest step to getting help. The following are warning signs that you may be crossing the line into abuse:

You can’t stop the anger. What starts as a swat on the backside may turn into multiple hits getting harder and harder. You may shake your child more and more and finally throw them or her down. You find yourself screaming louder and louder and can’t stop yourself.

You feel emotionally disconnected from your child. You may feel so overwhelmed that you don’t want anything to do with your child. You just want to be left alone and for your child to be quiet.

Meeting the daily needs of your child seems impossible. While everyone struggles with balancing dressing, feeding, and getting kids to school or other activities, if you continually can’t manage to do it, it’s a sign that something might be wrong.

Other people have expressed concern. It may be easy to bristle at other people expressing concern. However, consider carefully what they have to say. Are the words coming from someone you normally respect and trust?

Breaking the cycle of child abuse

If you have a history of child abuse, having your own children can trigger strong memories and feelings that you may have repressed. You may be shocked and overwhelmed by your anger, and feel like you can’t control it. But you can learn new ways to manage your emotions and break your old patterns.

Remember, you are the most important person in your child’s world – and you don’t have to go it alone. Help and support are available.

Tips for changing your reactions

Learn what is age appropriate and what is not. Having realistic expectations of what children can handle at certain ages will help you avoid frustration and anger at normal child behavior. For example, newborns are not going to sleep through the night without a peep, and toddlers are not going to be able to sit quietly for extended periods of time.

Develop new parenting skills. Start by learning appropriate discipline techniques and how to set clear boundaries for your children. Parenting classes, books, and seminars are a way to get this information. You can also turn to other parents for tips and advice.

Take care of yourself. If you are not getting enough rest and support or you’re feeling overwhelmed, you are much more likely to succumb to anger. Sleep deprivation, common in parents of young children, adds to moodiness and irritability—exactly what you are trying to avoid.

Get professional help. Breaking the cycle of abuse can be very difficult if the patterns are strongly entrenched. If you can’t seem to stop yourself no matter how hard you try, it’s time to get help, be it therapy, parenting classes, or other interventions. Your children will thank you for it.

Learn how you can get your emotions under control. The first step to getting your emotions under control is realizing that they are there. If you were abused as a child, you may have an especially difficult time getting in touch with your range of emotions. You may have had to deny or repress them as a child, and now they spill out without your control.

Helping an abused or neglected child

What should you do if you suspect that a child has been abused? What if a child comes to you? It’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed and confused in this situation. Child abuse is a difficult subject that can be hard to accept and even harder to talk about.

When talking with an abused child, the best thing you can provide is calm reassurance and unconditional support. Let your actions speak for you if you’re having trouble finding the words. Remember that talking about the abuse may be very difficult for the child. It’s your job to reassure the child and provide whatever help you can.

Tips for talking to an abused child

Avoid denial and remain calm. A common reaction to news as unpleasant and shocking as child abuse is denial. However, if you display denial to a child, or show shock or disgust at what they are saying, the child may be afraid to continue and will shut down. As hard as it may be, remain as calm and reassuring as you can.

Don’t interrogate. Let the child explain to you in his or her own words what happened, but don’t interrogate the child or ask leading questions. This may confuse and fluster the child and make it harder for them to continue their story.

Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong. It takes a lot for a child to come forward about abuse. Reassure him or her that you take what is said seriously, and that it is not the child’s fault.

Safety comes first. If you feel that your safety or the safety of the child would be threatened if you try to intervene, leave it to the professionals. You may be able to provide more support later.

Reporting child abuse

If you suspect a child is being abused, it's critical to speak up.

If you see future incidences, continue to call and report them. Each child abuse report is a snapshot of what is going on in the family. The more information that you can provide, the better the chance of getting the best care for the child.

Common worries about reporting child abuse

  • I don’t want to interfere in someone else’s family. Child abuse and neglect is NOT merely a family matter, and the consequences of staying silent can be devastating for the child.
  • What if I break up someone’s home? A child abuse report does not mean a child is automatically removed from the home—unless the child is clearly in danger. Support such as parenting classes, anger management or other resources may be offered to parents first.
  • They will know it was me who called. Reporting is anonymous. In most places, you do not have to give your name when you report child abuse.
  • It won’t make a difference what I have to say. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it's better to be safe than sorry. Even if you don’t see the whole picture, others may have noticed as well, and a pattern can help identify child abuse that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks.

Where to turn for help

Child Abuse Hotlines:

Help for child sexual abuse:

If you need professional help...

Do you feel angry and frustrated and don’t know where to turn? In the U.S., call 1-800-4-A-CHILD to find support and resources in your community that can help you break the cycle of abuse. In other countries, visit Chiworld.org for helplines.

More help for abuse

Resources and references

Warning signs of child abuse

Recognizing Child Abuse: What Parents Should Know (PDF) – Lists signs and symptoms of child abuse in children and in their parents. Covering physical abuse, emotional maltreatment, neglect, and sexual abuse, this outline is useful for teachers, family friends, and relatives. (Prevent Child Abuse America)

Understanding and Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect – A clear, objective explanation of the effects of child sexual abuse, the chances of recovery, and strategies for prevention. (American Psychological Association)

Physical child abuse

Identification of Physical Abuse – Reviews the definition of physical abuse and signs of abuse, including shaken baby syndrome (Child Welfare Information Gateway)

Shaken Baby Syndrome – Clear, comprehensive description of what SBS is, how it causes brain damage and death, its signs and symptoms, and strategies for soothing a baby before the caregiver’s frustration mounts. (Nemours Foundation)

Sexual child abuse

Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: Facts About Those Who Might Commit It (PDF) – Offers warning signs of sexual abuse in children and in their adult abusers, along with tips on how to prevent and stop it. (Stop It Now!)

Emotional child abuse

Emotional abuse – See the “Answers to common questions” on this British site for good advice about recognizing and responding to emotional child abuse. (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children)

Fact Sheet: Emotional child abuse – Information on what emotional abuse is, how it is identified, what its effects are, and what can be done to prevent it. (Prevent Child Abuse America)

Child neglect

Child Neglect: A Guide for Prevention, Assessment, and Intervention (PDF) –  Pamphlet on what constitutes child neglect, how it affects children, what causes it, and how the community can intervene. (Child Welfare Information Gateway)

Recognizing Child Neglect – Succinct lists of physical and behavioral indicators suggesting that a child is being neglected. (Coalition for Children)

Reporting and stopping child abuse

Toll-Free Crisis Hotline Numbers – (Child Welfare Information Gateway)

What to Do if a Child Speaks Out About Abuse – Discusses what to do if either a child or a caregiver approaches you about abuse. (NSPCC)

Reporting Child Abuse – Guidance on how to find out what your responsibilities are and where to get more information. (Darkness to Light)

Child Helpline International – A global portal for children with a list of crisis lines and web resources around the world. (ChiWorld.org)

How the Child Welfare System Works – Information on the services available in the U.S. to protect the well-being of children. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Preventing child abuse

Talking to Your Child About Sexual Abuse – Helps parents talk to their children and teach them how to protect themselves against abuse, including learning about touch, and that they should never keep secrets. (U.S. Department of Justice)

Tip Sheet: Talking to Children and Teens – Discusses concrete tips on how to protect children against abuse, including talking to family members and avoiding tricks. (Stop it Now)

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: May 2017.