About Child Abuse

About Child Abuse

Child Abuse FAQ

Children deserve to grow up healthy and happy. But sadly, that is not always the case.

What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse is defined as doing or failing to do something that results in harm or risk of harm to a child. There are many forms of child maltreatment, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and child exploitation.

  • At least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, and this is likely an underestimate
  • A child is raped every two minutes in the United States
  • 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually molested before age 17
  • 90% of child victims are abused by a family member or someone they know or trust
  • About 60% of child abuse victims never tell anyone
  • In 2019, 1,840 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is when a caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child. This includes striking, kicking, burning, punching, biting, hair pulling, strangling, throwing, shoving, whipping, or any other action that injures a child. Even if the caregiver didn’t mean to inflict an injury, when a child is injured, it is abuse.

  • Unexplained changes in the child’s body or behavior, or regression to earlier developmental stages
  • Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury, etc.) that is unexplained or explained in a way that doesn’t make sense
  • Patterned or distinctly shaped bruises or burns
  • Bruises on the torso, ears, neck, or on children 4 months of age or younger are frequently indicative of abuse
  • Several injuries at different stages of healing
  • Watchful and “on alert” behavior, as if the child is waiting for something bad to happen
  • Shying away from touch, flinching at sudden movements, or seeming afraid to go home or to a certain place
  • Appears afraid of adults
  • Wears clothing inappropriate to the season or weather to cover injuries (i.e. long-sleeved shirts on hot days)
  • Sudden changes in school behavior or attendance
  • Nightmares, trouble sleeping, insomnia
  • Violent themes in fantasy, art, storytelling, etc.
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause
  • Shows aggression towards peers, pets, or other animals
  • Reports injury by a parent or another caregiver
  • Denies the existence of, or blames the child for, any of the child’s problems in school or at home
  • Can’t or won’t explain injury of a child, or explains it in a way that doesn’t make sense
  • Displays aggression toward the child or is overly anxious about the child’s behavior
  • Indicates the child is not trustworthy, a liar, evil, or a troublemaker. Expresses that the child is worthless or burdensome
  • Delays or prevents medical care for the child
  • Shows little concern for the child
  • Takes the child to different doctors or hospitals
  • Keeps the child from school, church, clubs, etc.
  • Has a history of violent and/or abusive behavior

Sexual Abuse

Child sexual abuse is any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer. This includes touching the victim or having the victim touch the offender on their genitals (over or under clothing), the exposure of genitals of either party, exposure of graphic context to the child, and the introduction of sexual material in person or online. Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors.

  • Touching behaviors may involve touching the vagina, penis, breasts, or buttocks, oral-genital contact, or sexual intercourse.
  • Non-touching behaviors can include voyeurism (trying to look at a child’s naked body), exhibitionism, or exposing the child to pornography.
  • Extreme sexual behavior that seems inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Sexual acting out or excessive masturbation
  • Unusual or repetitive soothing behaviors (i.e. pacing, rocking, hand-washing, etc.)
  • Genital pain, itching, swelling or bleeding, or a sexually transmitted disease
  • Frequent urinary tract or yeast infections
  • Torn, stained, or bloody undergarments
  • Refusal to change clothes for activities (i.e. gym class) or refusal to participate in physical activities
  • Withdrawn, depressed, anxious
  • Poor self-image, lack of confidence
  • Poor peer relationships
  • Increased aggression, reckless behavior, substance abuse, running away, suicide attempts
  • Failure in school, a significant decline in performance, increased absenteeism
  • Fear of being alone with adults, especially of a particular gender
  • Nightmares, bedwetting, or other frequent sleep disturbances
  • Sudden or significant changes in appetite, weight, hygiene
  • Fear of a particular person or family member

CSEC is a range of criminal activities involving child sexual abuse and/or the exploitation of a child for the financial benefit of any person. This also includes sexual abuse or exploitation in exchange for items of value (monetary or non-monetary) given or received by any person. Examples of crimes and acts that constitute CSEC include:

  • Child sex trafficking/the prostitution of children
  • Child sex tourism involving commercial sexual activity
  • Commercial production of child pornography
  • Online transmission of live video of a child engaged in sexual activity in exchange for anything of value

CSEC also includes situations where a child, whether or not at the direction of any other person, engages in sexual activity in exchange for anything of value, which includes non-monetary things such as food, shelter, drugs, or protection from any person.

Risk Factors: While any child can be targeted by a trafficker, research has shown that traffickers often target children with increased vulnerabilities, including:

  • Children who are chronically missing or who frequently run away (especially 3+ incidents)
  • Children who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, especially if the abuse was unreported, unaddressed, or resulted in the child being removed from the home
  • Children who have experienced prior sexual assault or rape
  • Children with significant substance abuse issues or who live with someone who has significant substance abuse issues
  • Children who identify as LGBTQ and have been kicked out or stigmatized by their family

While no single indicator confirms the existence of commercial sexual exploitation, several indicators combined can mean it is more likely that a child is being exploited or is actively being targeted and recruited. This is why being aware of the following indicators is so important. (Source: NCMEC, www.missingkids.org)

Behavioral Indicators

  • Child has a significant change in behavior, including increased online (virtual) behavior or associating with a new group of friends
  • Child avoids answering questions, lets others speak for them, or looks to others before answering questions
  • Child appears frightened, resistant, or belligerent to law enforcement
  • Child lies about their age and identity
  • Child does not ask for help or resists offers to get out of the situation (child does not self-identify as a victim)
  • Child seems coached in talking to law enforcement
  • Child uses trafficking-related terms like “trick,” “the life,” or “the game”
  • Child is preoccupied with “getting money” (displaying photos of cash, for example)

Physical Indicators

  • Child has multiple cell phones and/or electronic devices
  • Child has large amounts of cash or pre-paid credit cards
  • Child has no ID, or ID is held by another person
  • Multiple children are present with an unrelated male or female
  • Child has unusual/unexplained sexual paraphernalia (such as bulk condoms or lubrication, etc.)

Also called child pornography. Increasingly, child predators lure children via social media and engage in child sexual abuse and exploitation online. Not only do these images and videos document victims’ exploitation and abuse, but when these files, photos, and recordings are shared across the internet, child victims suffer re-victimization each time an image of their sexual abuse is viewed. CSAM consists of much more than images and video files. While CSAM is seen and transmitted on computers and through other technology, these images and videos depict actual crimes being committed against children. (Source: NCMEC, www.missingkids.org)

  • Girls appear in an overwhelming majority of CSAM
  • Children younger than 10 are at the greatest risk of being depicted in CSAM
  • Male victims are much more likely to be subjected to very explicit and egregious abuse than female victims
  • On average, boys depicted in CSAM are younger than girls and are more likely to have not yet reached puberty
  • Since 1998, the NCMEC Cyber Tipline has received over 82 million reports of CSAM

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is defined as inflicting and/or allowing a mental or emotional injury to a child that results in an observable and tangible impairment of the child’s growth and/or development of psychological functioning. This includes being ignored, rejected, isolated, exploited, verbally assaulted, or terrorized.

  • Behavior changes or regression in behaviors to earlier developmental stages
  • Speech disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Developmental delays
  • Lack of attachment to the parent or primary caregiver
  • Excessively withdrawn, fearful, or anxious about doing something wrong
  • Acts inappropriately adult-like (taking care of other children) or inappropriately infantile (rocking, thumb-sucking, tantrums)
  • Extremely passive or aggressive behavior
  • Anxieties, phobias, or sleep disorders
  • Destructive or anti-social behaviors (violence, cruelty, vandalism, stealing, cheating, lying)
  • Suicidal
  • Routinely ignores, criticizes, yells at, or blames child
  • Plays favorites with one child over another
  • Overtly rejects the child
  • Shows poor anger management or emotional self-regulation
  • Tumultuous relationships with other adults
  • Disrespect for authority
  • History of violent or abusive behavior
  • Untreated mental illness, alcoholism, or substance abuse


Neglect is defined as leaving a child in a situation that would expose the child to a substantial risk of physical or mental harm or failing to arrange the necessary care for the child. Neglect generally includes the following categories:

  • Physical: failure to provide necessary food or shelter; lack of appropriate supervision
  • Medical: failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment; withholding medically indicated treatment from children with life-threatening conditions
  • Educational: failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs
  • Emotional: inattention to a child’s emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, permitting a child to use alcohol or other drugs
  • Deserting a child or refusing to take custody of a child who is under your care
  • Repeatedly leaving a child in another’s custody for days or weeks at a time
  • Failing to provide adequate food, drink, clothing, or shelter
  • Failing to ensure appropriate personal hygiene
  • Not appropriately supervising the child
  • Leaving the child with an unqualified caregiver
  • Exposing a child to unsafe/unsanitary environments or situations
  • Ignoring a child’s need for attention, affection, and emotional support
  • Exposing a child to extreme or frequent violence, especially domestic violence
  • Permitting a child to use drugs, alcohol, or engage in crime
  • Keeping a child isolated from friends or loved ones
  • Not providing adequate treatment or preventative care for medical or dental needs
  • Frequently absent from school, incomplete work, or changing of schools
  • Theft of food or money, frequently complaining of hunger
  • Consistently poor hygiene, body odor
  • Lack of appropriate clothing for weather or clothing that is the incorrect size, worn out, or dirty
  • Frequently unsupervised, left alone, or allowed to play in unsafe environments
  • Talks about caring for the needs of their younger siblings
  • Lacks needed medical or dental care
  • Low body weight, height for their age
  • Displays frequent exhaustion
  • Displays indifference or lack of care toward the child
  • Apathetic or depressed
  • Behaves irrationally or in a bizarre manner
  • Abuses alcohol or other drugs
  • Denies problems or blames problems on the child
  • Relies on the child for their own emotional or physical needs

Who is Affected by Abuse?

Child abuse knows no boundaries. Children of all ages, races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds are vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Child abuse affects all genders in all kinds of neighborhoods, communities, and countries around the world.

Children living in poverty experience more abuse and neglect. Experiencing poverty can place a lot of stress on families, which may increase the risk for child abuse and neglect. Rates of child abuse and neglect are 5 times higher for children in families with low socioeconomic status compared to children in families with higher socioeconomic status.

Family members are also affected by child abuse within their family. The non-offending parents and caregivers of child abuse victims often experience feelings of guilt and shame that are intensified by the real and perceived judgments of others, as well as the stigma surrounding child abuse, especially sexual abuse. For example, parents/caregivers may be:

  • Dealing with the loss of a partner and experiencing financial hardship if the abuser was in the home
  • Struggling with their own experiences of abuse
  • Trying to care for other children in the home and keep up with the family’s day-to-day needs
  • Navigating child welfare and/or legal processes

Siblings and other children in the home may feel unsafe or anxious and may not understand what has happened or why things at home have changed. They may feel tensions and witness crises or conflicts within the home, but lack the knowledge to understand why.

However, it is very important to understand that a caregiver’s response to their child following disclosure of abuse is one of the most significant factors influencing the impact of the abuse on the child.

Who Are Perpetrators of Child Abuse?

Child abuse perpetrators can be anybody. The majority of child abusers are someone the child knows or trusts. They can be any gender, race, or economic status. They are usually child-friendly, likable, well-dressed, and good with children. They may seek out opportunities to work directly with children.

Often perpetrators will tell the child not to tell anyone about what they are doing.  They may threaten the child with violence towards the child or the child’s loved ones or tell the child that no one will believe them if they tell. 

Sexual abuse perpetrators often do not use physical force, but may use play, deception, threats, or other forms of coercion to engage children and maintain their silence. These tactics—called “grooming” —may include buying gifts, gifting money, or arranging special activities and may further confuse the victim. More often, sexual abusers find their victims online through social media.

What Do I Do if I Suspect a Child is Being Abused or Neglected?

If you suspect child abuse or neglect, report it immediately by calling the statewide child abuse hotline, ChildLine: 1-800-932-0313. Agents are available 24/7.  All reports are anonymous, so you do not have to worry about your identity being revealed to the child, their family, or the alleged perpetrator. Suspicion is enough—you do not need proof. Learn the Signs

What Should I Do If a Child Discloses Abuse to Me?

When a child discloses abuse to you, it means that the child has chosen you as the person they trust enough to tell. The child has broken through secrecy, fear, and shame, even if only for a moment. This is a big achievement. It shows the child’s deep resiliency. React responsibly.

  • Understand that the child has taken a big risk in telling you
  • Give attention, compassion, and belief
  • Offer support
  • Don’t overreact
  • Thank the child for being so brave and telling you
  • Let the child know that you will be getting help but be sure not to make promises you cannot keep (for example: “you will never have to see that person again”)
  • Ensure the child is emotionally and physically safe (for example: if the perpetrator lives in the same home or if there is a chance the child is at immediate risk of re-victimization, call 911 immediately)
  • Make the report to ChildLine immediately

How Can I Prevent Child Abuse?

Everyone deserves to live in a community where children are safe. The impact of child abuse can have life-long traumatic consequences for its survivors. But we, as adults, can prevent child abuse. Learn about our abuse prevention education programs.

Experts believe that when 5% of a community’s adults learn about child abuse prevention, that is the tipping point in reducing child abuse in our community.

Five Steps to Protect Our Children

  1. Learn the Facts
    • Our choices about children’s safety should be guided by reality rather than passive trust. Recognize the prevalence of child abuse and understand how it occurs.  
  2. Minimize Opportunity
    • Eliminate or reduce isolated one-on-one situations and carefully screen those who care for children in youth-serving settings.
    • Be aware of who your children are spending time with. People who sexually abuse children often become friendly with potential victims and their families. They participate in family activities, earn trust, and gain time alone with children. 
    • Monitor internet and smartphone use. The internet is an unsafe one-on-one environment for youth because offenders often lure children there. Create rules and engage kids in making it safer.
    • Screen out people who may abuse children via background checks, in-person interviews that focus on boundaries with children, personal and professional references, and obtain prevention training. Learn about Prevention Education.
  3. Talk About It
    • Discuss with your children what abuse is, the signs they should look for when interacting with others, and who they can talk to as trusted adults.
    • Talking about abuse with children not only increases their knowledge but also decreases the stigma of them telling you something has happened.
  4. Recognize the Signs
  5. React Responsibly
    • While it can be very upsetting to hear a child tell you they have been abused, one of the most important factors in their healing is the reaction of the adults they tell.
    • Do your best to remain calm while talking with the child.
    • Do not press them for more information than they are willing to openly tell you.
    • Thank them for being brave and telling you.
    • Assess for their safety: are they in immediate danger and/or does the alleged perpetrator live in their home? If so, call 911.
    • Make a report to the ChildLine hotline: 1-800-932-0313.

Get tips on how to talk to your child about abuse