What is Child Abuse?

In general, child abuse is any act of mistreatment that results - or could result - in the physical or emotional harm of a child under 18 years of age. Neglect is any omission of action that results - or could result - in the physical or emotional harm of a child under 18 years of age.

Child abuse and neglect not only hurt children at the time they are mistreated, but also throughout their lives. Researchers have found that children who have been abused or neglected often show low self-esteem, learning problems, social withdrawal, depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, aggression, self-destructive or reckless behaviors, alcohol and drug abuse, and other psychiatric problems that may continue into adulthood.(1)

The following are types of child abuse and neglect (two or more of these may be occurring at the same time):

Physical Abuse: any physical injury (i.e. bruises or broken bones) resulting from punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, or otherwise harming a child. These acts are intentional, although the parent or caretaker may not have intended to seriously hurt the child.

Sexual Abuse: any sexual act between an adult and child. This includes fondling, intercourse, oral sex, exploitation, exhibitionism, pornography, child prostitution, or forced observation of sexual acts. When such acts are committed by a person responsible for the care of the child (i.e. a parent, babysitter, day care provider, etc.), they are usually called sexual abuse, but such acts committed by a person not responsible for the child’s care are generally called sexual assault.

Emotional/Psychological Abuse: an attitude or a pattern of actions which interfere with a child’s mental health or social development by harming his or her sense of worth or self-confidence. This includes extreme forms of punishment, such as locking a child in a dark closet, as well as yelling, name-calling, intimidating, shaming or humiliating, exploiting, routinely making unreasonable demands on a child and/or negative comparisons to others, or telling a child that he or she is “bad,” “stupid,” or “a mistake.”

Physical Neglect: failure to meet a child’s physical needs, including refusal of or delay in seeking health care, lack of suitable clothing, abandonment, inadequate supervision, kicking a child out of the house, or refusing to allow a runaway to return home.

Emotional Neglect: failure to meet a child’s emotional needs, such as love, attention, or physical affection; it also includes such actions as spouse abuse in front of a child, permission of drug or alcohol use by the child, or failure to provide needed psychological care.

Educational Neglect: permitting a child to repeatedly miss school, failure to enroll a child of mandatory school age, or ignoring a special education need.

(These definitions have been adapted from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guide, “A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: A Basic Manual.”(1)


(1) National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse and Neglect Information. (1992). A Coordinated Response to Child Abuse and Neglect: A Basic Manual. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Last Updated: June 21, 2003
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