Child abuse is common. It is important to understand and reduce the risks of abuse for your child and familiarize yourself with the signs of abuse. The majority of cases reported to Children's Division involve neglect, followed by physical and sexual abuse. There is considerable overlap among children who are abused, with many suffering a combination of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and/or neglect.
Sexual abuse is any sexual activity that a child cannot understand or consent to. It includes acts such as fondling, oral-genital contact, and genital and anal intercourse. It also includes exposure to pornography. Studies have suggested that up to one in four girls and one in eight boys will be sexually abused before they are eighteen years old.
Physical abuse occurs when a child’s body is injured as a result of hitting, kicking, shaking, burning, or other show of force. One study suggests that about 1 in 20 children has been physically abused in their lifetime
Most child abuse occurs within the family. Risk factors include parental depression or other mental health issues, a parental history of childhood abuse, and domestic violence. Child neglect and other forms of maltreatment are also more common in families living in poverty and among teenage parents or who abuse drugs or alcohol. More children are abused by a caregiver or someone they know, than abused outside of the home by a stranger.
Child neglect can include physical neglect (failing to provide food, clothing, shelter, or other physical necessities), emotional neglect (failing to provide love, comfort, or affection), or medical neglect (failing to provide needed medical care). Psychological or emotional abuse results from all of the above, but also can be associated with verbal abuse, which can harm a child’s self-worth or emotional well-being.
Signs and Symptoms
It is not always easy to recognize when a child has been abused. Children who have been maltreated are often afraid to tell anyone, because they think they will be blamed or that no one will believe them. Sometimes they remain quiet because the person who abused them is someone they love very much, or because of fear, or both. It is not uncommon for the child's abuser to threaten harm to family members or loved ones for the child's silence.
Parents also tend to overlook signs and symptoms of abuse, because they don’t want to face the truth. This is a serious mistake that is sadly made all to often. A child who has been abused needs special support and treatment as early as possible. The longer the abuse continues or is left to deal with the situation on there own, the harder it is for children to be able to heal and develop optimally physically and mentally.
Here is a short list of physical signs and behavioral changes in children who may have experienced abuse or neglect:
- Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained
- Failure to gain weight (especially in infants) or sudden dramatic weight gain
- Genital pain or bleeding
- A sexually transmitted disease
Other Changes that Should Raise Concern
- Fearful behavior (nightmares, depression, unusual fears)
- Abdominal pain, bed-wetting (especially if the child has already been toilet trained)
- Attempts to run away
- Extreme sexual behavior that seems inappropriate for the child’s age
- Sudden change in self-confidence
- Headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause
- Abnormal fears, increased nightmares
- School failure
- Extremely passive or aggressive behavior
- Desperately affectionate behavior or social withdrawal
- Big appetite and stealing food
If you suspect your child has been abused, get help immediately through your pediatrician or a local child protective agency. Physicians are legally obligated, as a mandated reporter, to report any suggestions of child abuse. The doctor also may testify in court if necessary to obtain legal protection for the child or criminal prosecution of the person suspected of perpetrating the abuse or neglect.
If your child has been abused, you may be the only person who can help him. There is no good reason to delay reporting your suspicions of abuse. Denying the problem will only make the situation worse, allowing the abuse or neglect to continue unchecked and decreasing your child’s chance for optimal physical and mental health and well-being.
In any case of abuse or neglect, the child’s safety is of primary concern. The child needs to be in a safe environment free of the potential for continuing abuse and neglect.
Open, two-way communication with your child provides the best chance that you will know early when a problem occurs. Emphasize that he will not get in trouble if he tells you about abuse or other confusing events. Emphasize that you need to know this to be able to keep him safe and that he will be OK if he tells you. Instead of teaching him that he’s surrounded by danger, teach him that he is strong, capable, and can count on you to keep him safe, as long as he can tell you about it.