Child abuse occurs across different socioeconomic levels and in families of all types. While there are certain factors that put families as risk, there is no one predicting factor that allows us to identify who will become perpetrators or victims of abuse. Because abuse is often hidden and difficult to detect, it is imperative that those working with children and adolescents be educated on the signs of abuse and what course of action to take if abuse is suspected.
What is child abuse?
Child abuse includes child neglect and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Child neglect occurs when a caregiver ignores or rejects a child’s physical or emotional needs. This includes failing to provide food, shelter, appropriate clothing and/or academic and social involvement. Children need affection and affirmation in order to achieve optimal psychological and physical development. If a caregiver is distant and dismissive, the child will likely internalize this rejection, which can have long-term implications for the child’s mental health.
Signs of physical abuse can include burns, bruises, and fractured or broken bones. There may be repetitive injuries, and often, the child’s explanation for how the injuries occurred will not coincide with the severity of the injury. Children may attempt to hide or explain injuries that result from physical abuse, and the bruises can be on parts of the body that are not visible while wearing clothing (i.e., back and stomach areas).
Emotional abuse includes verbal assaults and threats to harm a child. In addition, caregivers are engaging in emotional abuse when they continually bully or dismiss a child. Although emotional abuse is more difficult to identify, it can be equally as damaging as physical abuse to a child’s self-esteem and well-being.
Sexual abuse can include physically touching a child for the purpose of sexual stimulation, but also includes exposing a child to sexual acts or using a child for pornographic purposes. Contrary to popular belief, sexual abuse is most often committed by someone the child knows. Children may be groomed by a caregiver or other perpetrator, and the abuse may be a gradual process that occurs multiple times. Due to puberty and the changing of the body, adolescents are especially at risk for becoming sexual abuse victims.
What are the long-term effects of the abuse?
The developmental periods of childhood and adolescence are critical times for cultivating self-esteem and mental health. Failure to meet children’s emotional and physical needs can lead to slowed physical and cognitive development and psychiatric illness and symptoms including post-traumatic stress, depression and suicide, substance use problems, and violence.
Why do caregivers abuse children?
Raising children is a difficult and stressful job for all caregivers. Some caregivers have additional stressors and lack the appropriate coping skills to mitigate that stress. Often, caregivers were abused themselves and, when stressed, repeat the abuse that they themselves endured.
The American Psychological Association delineates 4 areas of risk factors for child abuse:
Caregiver Risk Factors:
low self esteem, anxiety/depression, lack of impulse control, antisocial behavior
having been the victim of abuse as a child
insufficient knowledge about child development and healthy discipline, leading to unrealistic expectations
Family Risk Factors:
living in poverty, lack of social support
domestic violence in the home
stressful life events (financial stress, death in the family, marital conflict)
Use of harsh discipline and verbal aggression as opposed to positive parenting techniques such as time outs and positive reinforcement for a child’s positive behavior
Child Risk Factors:
Babies and young children (due to more demands and crying occurring at these stages)
Adolescents (more at risk for sexual abuse)
Children with disabilities
Children with behavior problems, aggression, and/or attention deficits
Environmental Risk Factors
Living in a dangerous neighborhood
Parents who lack emotional support and peers with healthy parenting styles
How do we stop child abuse?
Often, when adults see signs or suspect that there is cause for concern, they feel reluctant to report abuse. Common fears include the fear of breaking up a family, making a mistake and reporting something that was truly an accident, and fear of getting involved in another family’s issues. However, because children are extremely vulnerable and often hide their abuse in an attempt to protect the abuser, it is imperative to report any suspicion of child abuse. In the state of Tennessee, every resident is a mandated reporter meaning that, under state law, any suspicion of child abuse must be reported. Suspicions of abuse can be reported the Tennessee Child Protection Agency who has trained professionals that will assess the situation and determin