Understanding Child Abuse

Childhood can be a time of joy, laughter, and play. Many children learn to depend on others for safety, comfort, and love, but unfortunately, many others learn that the world is a dangerous place where no one can be trusted. Children are especially vulnerable to abuse because of their physical size, their limited understanding of the world, and the fact that they depend on others to provide a safe environment for them.

What is Child Abuse?

Child Abuse has no boundaries. It spans across all social and economic levels, races, religions, and cultures. Child abuse can take place anywhere—at home, school, public places—wherever a child goes or interacts with others. It can take several forms, and can have both an immediate and long-lasting negative impact on children’s development and physical and psychological wellbeing.

Physical Abuse​

Physical abuse occurs when a parent or caregiver commits an act that results in physical injury to a child or adolescent, such as red marks, cuts, welts, bruises, muscle sprains, or broken bones, even if the injury was unintentional.

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. Sexual abuse can include both touching and non-touching behaviors. Non-touching behaviors can include voyeurism (trying to look at a child’s naked body), exhibitionism, or exposing the child to pornography.


Neglect is when a caregiver fails to provide for the child’s basic needs, including adequate health care, supervision, clothing, nutrition, housing as well as their physical, emotional, social, educational and safety needs.

Psychological Maltreatment​

Psychological maltreatment occurs when behaviors, speech, and actions of parents, caregivers, or other significant figures in a child’s life have a negative impact on a child’s mental or social development, or causes severe emotional harm. While a single incident may not be abuse, most often psychological maltreatment is a pattern of behavior that causes damage over time.

Domestic Violence​

Domestic violence is a behavior, or pattern of behaviors, that occurs between intimate partners with the aim of one partner exerting control over the other. Domestic violence may include psychological threats, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, and physical violence. Children are exposed to or experience domestic violence in many ways, such as hearing one parent/caregiver threaten the other, observing a parent who is out of control or reckless with anger, seeing a parent assault the other, or living with the aftermath of a violent assault. Many children are affected by hearing threats to the safety of their caregivers, regardless of whether it results in physical injury.

Signs of Child Abuse

Child abuse can be very subtle and you may not even see signs. While the following signs are not always indicative of child abuse, and are most typically seen in sexual abuse, remaining vigilant may help you see signs faster.

Unexplained Injuries

Visible signs of physical abuse may include unexplained burns or bruises in the shape of objects. You may also hear unconvincing explanations of a child’s injuries.

Changes in behavior​

Abuse can lead to many changes in a child’s behavior. Children who have been abused often appear scared, anxious, depressed, withdrawn or more aggressive.

Changes in eating

The stress, fear and anxiety caused by abuse can lead to changes in a child’s eating behaviors, which may result in weight gain or loss.

Risk-taking behaviors​

Young people who are being abused may engage in high-risk activities such as using drugs or alcohol or carrying a weapon.

Inappropriate sexual behaviors​

Children who have been sexually abused may exhibit overly sexualized behavior or use explicit sexual language.

Changes in sleeping

Children who have been abused may have frequent nightmares or have difficulty falling asleep, and as a result may appear tired or fatigued.

Fear of going home​

Children who have been abused may express apprehension or anxiety about leaving school or about going places with the person who is abusing them.

Returning to earlier behaviors​

Children may display behaviors shown at earlier ages, such as thumb-sucking, bed-wetting, fear of the dark or strangers. For some children, even loss of acquired language or memory problems may be an issue.

Changes in school performance and attendance​

Children who have been abused may have difficulty concentrating in school or have excessive absences, sometimes due to adults trying to hide the child’s injuries from authorities.

Lack of personal care or hygiene​

Abused and neglected children may appear uncared for. They may present as consistently dirty and have severe body odor, or they may lack sufficient clothing for the weather.

How to Respond

Disclosure is a complex process and it is very difficult for children to disclose abuse. It is estimated that only around 38% of child victims disclose that they have been abused. Of these, 40% tell a close friend rather than an adult or authority, which does not always result in a formal report. A child who discloses to you has sought you out and has placed trust in you to listen and take action. Reassure the child that he or she is brave to share this information with you and that you will do everything you can to help.

Evidence that a child has been abused is not always obvious, and many children do not report that they have been abused. Only around 38% of child victims disclose the fact that they have been abused. Of these, 40% tell a close friend rather than an adult or authority, which does not always result in a formal report.

Fabricated abuse reports constitute only 4% to 8% of all reported cases. Most fabricated reports are made by adults involved in custody disputes or by adolescents. (Source: Darkness to Light)


Do not fill in words for the child and do not ask probing questions. If the child is having a difficult time talking, don’t help the child with words that you think the child is going to say. Allow the child to tell you in their words or in the normal ways that he or she communicates.


Tell the child you are glad they told you and that you believe him or her. Let him/her know that was not their fault and reassure the child that they are not in trouble. If the child asks you not to tell anyone, remind the child that it is your job to help keep him or her safe and you will do whatever you may need to do to keep him or her safe.


Don’t express panic or shock or be overly critical of the offender. Children are protective of people they care about, even if they are being abused.


Contact your local law enforcement and or social services to report the abuse.

How to Help

Abuse can be overwhelming to children. Most children are taught to trust adults. An overwhelming majority of abuse occurs by someone known and trusted by the child and family. Children tend to believe what adults tell them is true rather than rely on their own feelings.

If the offender tells them that what is being done is okay, they may doubt their own feelings that it is not. If the non-offending caregiver’s initial reaction when they hear the child’s abuse report is “This can’t be true,” the child may wonder if his or her own feelings are mistaken. Children rarely lie about being abused. More often they fear that telling will make people angry with them. It is extremely difficult for children to report abuse.

It is important to provide your child with safety, love and support. Let them know it is okay to cry or be angry. It is important for your child to know that the abuse was not their fault. Some children are concerned about how the disclosure will affect their family and loved ones, so it is important to be supportive.

Disclosure can be overwhelming and scary for children, so it is best not to ask a lot of questions. Let your child know that if they need to talk, that you will be there to listen and answer any of their questions.
The chances of recovery for your child are much greater if you do all you can to support them. If you feel torn between loyalty to your child and loyalty to the offender, find a professional to help you sort out those feelings.
Adapted from: When Your Child Has Been Molested by Kathryn B. Hagan

What You Can Say

  • I believe you.
  • It’s not your fault.
  • I’m glad you told me.
  • I’m sorry this happened to you.
  • I will take care of you.
  • Nothing about YOU made this happen.
  • I am upset, but not with you.
  • I’m sad too. You may see me cry. That’s alright. I will be able to take care of you. You don’t need to take care of me.
  • You can still love someone but hate what they did to you.
    I am proud of you.

What You Can Do

  • Return to a normal routine as soon as possible.
  • Children often find comfort in the predictability that a routine offers.
  • Ensure that your child is assessed and receives appropriate mental health services. Find services for yourself if needed.
  • You don’t have to do it all on your own.
  • Teach your child the rules of personal safety. Tell them what to do if someone tries to touch them or treat them in an uncomfortable or hurtful way.
  • Be careful not to question your child about the abuse. If your child wants to talk about it, listen supportively, but do not probe. Specially trained professionals at the CAC will interview your child to obtain the necessary information without harming the case or further traumatizing him/her.
  • Keep yourself and your child away from the person suspected of the abuse. This is to protect your child’s welfare, yourself, and that person.
    Avoid discussing the case with other victims or the families.
  • Never coach or advise your child on how to act or what to say to professionals or investigators.
  • Your child may need an extra sense of physical security. Stay close, and assure your child you will keep him/her safe.
  • Remember to give attention to your other children.
  • Follow the recommendations from your team at the CAC. They are specially trained in working with abuse and will be able to offer recommendations specific to your family and case.

Prevention Matters

The Stand To Protect is a community movement engaging every citizen in prevention. We will raise awareness, reduce risk, and create a safer and healthier future for our children. Learn about the Stand To Protect Training.