Child Abuse

Child abuse is the term for an act of harming children by neglect, physical force, violence, sexual attack, or by inflicting psychological or emotional distress.

Child abuse victimization by age, 2013

Child abuse victimization by age, 2013
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Y outh and Families, Children's Bureau, Child Maltreatment 2008 (2013). Available online at: (accessed September 10, 2015).

For much of history, children were considered the property of parents. People rarely, if ever, intervened on another family, including in cases of abuse, which largely went unnoticed or ignored. That changed during the twentieth century. As of 2015, child welfare was understood as the business of designated officials. Many books and research articles have been written on the topic, and numerous hotlines are available for individuals to use for reporting potential cases of abuse.

Child abuse victimization by maltreatment type, 2013

Child abuse victimization by maltreatment type, 2013
Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Children's Bureau, Child Maltreatment 2008 (2013). Available online :at: (accessed September 10, 2015).

Additionally, abuse is often categorized as the following:

These categories are not mutually exclusive. In other words, any given child can experience one or all, and all types of abuse are forms of emotional maltreatment.

It is difficult to find reliable national statistics for instances of child abuse because each state keeps its own records and has its own definitions of what constitutes abuse. Nonetheless, several organizations do compile national estimates of abuse and neglect. One is the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System (NCANDS). Its report, “Child Treatment 2013” noted 679,000 cases of abuse and neglect, which equated to 9.1 per 1,000 children. Of that total, 79.5% were neglected, 18.0% were physically abused, 9.0% were sexually abused, and 8.7% were psychologically maltreated. Overall in 2013, the report stated that an estimated 1,520 children died of abuse and neglect (2.04 children per 100,000 children).

Despite myths about its prevalence among lower-income populations, child abuse occurs throughout all strata of society. Physical abuse is, however, recorded more frequently in poor families versus other families. Since middle-class and wealthy families are more likely to have their children treated by a sympathetic personal physician who may be less likely to diagnose and report injuries as child abuse, numbers reported may be inaccurate. Even with such reporting bias, however, poverty seems strongly linked to abuse, and numerous factors may be involved, including those directly and indirectly related to financial difficulties.

Child abuse is also linked to parental use of alcohol or other drugs. In many cases, the parent's use of alcohol or drugs can interfere with normal behavior, reduce self-control, and lead to violence toward the child. In addition, alcohol and drug use can inhibit the parent from giving the child adequate attention and care, and the money used for alcohol and drugs can reduce the money available to meet the child's needs.

Anger frequently triggers abuse by parents. Abusive parents appear to have a lower threshold for childish behaviors than non-abusive parents, and they become upset more readily. Abusers are much more likely to have been abused themselves and generally resort to violence to cope with stressors. Their abusive actions can be seen as subconscious reactions to an array of stressful aspects of parenting, including disappointment in the gender or appearance of a child; a jealous reaction to the attention a child diverts from themselves; an attempt by the abuser to hurt the other parent; or a reaction against the child for failing to meet expectations.

The major physical injuries inflicted by caregivers often occur in infants and children up to four years of age. Commonly, abused children show developmental delays by preschool age. It is unclear whether these delays occur due to cumulative neurological damage or inadequate stimulation and uncertainty in the child about the learning environment and the absence of positive parental interactions that would stimulate language and motor processes. These delays, in concert with their parents’ higher-than-normal expectations for their children's self-care and self-control abilities, may provoke additional abuse. Abused preschoolers respond to peers and other adults with more aggression and anger than do non-abused children. A coercive cycle frequently develops in which parents and children mutually control one another with threats of negative behavior.

School-aged children who are abused typically have problems academically with poorer grades and performance on standardized achievement tests. Studies of abused children's intellectual performance find lower scores in both verbal and performance (e.g., math, visual-spatial) areas. Abused children are prone to increased distractibility and overactivity, making school a difficult environment for them. With their peers, abused children are often more aggressive toward others and also more likely to be socially rejected than are non-abused children. Less mature socially, abused children show difficulty in developing trusting relationships with others.

Within the home, abused children are more disruptive and aggressive, frequently viewed by their parents as defiant and noncompliant. Although observational measures confirm higher levels of disruptiveness, the number and intensity of the problem behaviors seen by abusive parents in their children may be partially a function of the parents’ lower threshold of tolerance for children's noncompliance.

As adolescents, abused children are more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system than nonabused children of comparable family constellation and income level. Many of these children are labeled ungovernable for committing offenses such as running away and truancy. A higher proportion of abused than non-abused delinquent youth are also involved in crimes of assault.

Follow-up studies on abused children in later adolescence show that in addition to having problems with the law, they are more likely than non-abused children to be substance abusers or to have emotional disturbances such as depression.

Sexual abuse is known to occur and takes a devastating toll on abused individuals. Sexually abused children may still be preoccupied in adulthood with events, trying to understand and repair the damage. Frequently, sexual abuse is a cited cause, for instance, of dissociative identity disorder (two or more split identities). Sexual abuse, like severe physical and emotional abuse, can lead to other psychological disorders as well, such as depression, mood disorders, anxiety and panic disorders, and substance abuse.

See also Parent-child relationships; Pedophilia .



Crosson-Tower, Cynthia. Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect, 9th ed. New York: Pearson, 2013.

Daly, Evin M. Child Abuse: What You Need to Know. Miami, FL: Parker, 2014.

McCoy, Monica L., and Stefanie M. Keen. Child Abuse and Neglect, 2nd ed. New York: Psychology Press, 2014.


Freisthlera, Bridget, et al. “The Dark Side of Social Support: Understanding the Role of Social Support, Drinking Behaviors and Alcohol Outlets for Child Physical Abuse.” Child Abuse & Neglect 38, no. 6 (June 2014): 1106–19.

Milaniak, Izabela, and Cathy Spatz-Widom. “Does Child Abuse and Neglect Increase Risk for Perpetration of Violence Inside and Outside the Home?” Psychology of Violence 5, no. 3 (July, 2015): 246–55.


Child Help. “The Issue of Child Abuse.” (accessed August 25, 2015).

Child Welfare Information Gateway, Children's Bureau/ Administration on Children, Youth, and Families. “Parental Drug Use as Child Abuse.” (accessed August 25, 2015).

Mayo Clinic. “Child Abuse.” (accessed August 25, 2015).

Mayo Clinic. “Child Abuse Facts and Resources.” (accessed August 25, 2015).

Prevent Child Abuse America. “Fact Sheet: Emotional Child Abuse.” (accessed August 25, 2015).

Prevent Child Abuse America. “Fact Sheet: Sexual Abuse of Children.” (accessed August 25, 2015).

Prevent Child Abuse America, “Preventing Child Neglect Fact Sheet.” (accessed August 23, 2015).

U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, and Children's Bureau. “Child Maltreatment 2013.” (accessed August 23, 2015).

World Health Organization. “Child Maltreatment and Alcohol.” (accessed August 25, 2015).


American Humane Association for Positive Behavior Support, 1400 16th St. NW, Ste. 360, Washington, DC, 20036, (800) 227-4645,, .

American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, 1706 E. Broad St., Columbus, OH, 43203, (614) 8271321, (877) 402-7722,, .

Child Help, 4350 E. Camelback Rd., Bldg. F250, Phoenix, AZ, 85018, (480) 922-8212, (800) 244-5373, .

Child Welfare Information Gateway, Children's Bureau/ Administration on Children, Youth, and Families, 1250 Maryland Ave. SW, 8th Fl., Washington, DC, 20024, (800) 394-3366, .

Prevent Child Abuse America, 228 South Wabash Ave., 10th Fl., Chicago, IL, 60604, (312) 663-3520, (800) 244-5373,, .

Child Development