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.

Who is affected by child abuse?

Child abuse knows no boundaries, and occurs in every zip code, race, and ethnicity. Children of all ages, races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds are vulnerable to abuse. Child abuse affects both girls and boys in all kinds of neighborhoods and communities, and in countries around the world.

Forms of Child Abuse

There are many forms of child maltreatment, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, and child exploitation.


Physical Abuse

Physical abuse of a child is when a parent or caregiver causes any non-accidental physical injury to a child.

This includes striking, kicking, burning, 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 the child is injured, it is abuse.

Signs of Physical Abuse in a Child:

  • Unexplained changes in the child’s body, behavior, or regression to earlier developmental stages
  • Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal, 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 four months old or younger are frequently indicative of abuse
  • Injuries appearing after the child has not been seen for several days
  • Several injuries in 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 stomach aches with no medical cause
  • Shows aggression towards peers, pets, or other animals
  • Reports injury by a parent or another caregiver

Concerning Parent or Caregiver Behaviors:

  • 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 to child or is overly anxious about child’s behavior
  • Asks other caregivers to use physical discipline if the child is misbehaving
  • Indicates 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 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 victim touch offender on their private parts over or under clothing, exposure of private parts of either party, exposure of graphic content 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 of 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.

Abusers often do not use physical force, but may use play, deception, threats, or other forms of coercion to engage children and maintain their silence. Abusers frequently employ persuasive and manipulative tactics to keep the child engaged. These tactics—referred to as “grooming”—may include buying gifts or arranging special activities, which can further confuse the victim.

Signs of Sexual Abuse in a Child:

  • 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. P.E. 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, significant decline in performance, or 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
  • Reports sexual abuse

Concerning Perpetrator Behaviors:

  • Inordinately protective of the child or strictly limits the child’s contact with others, especially of the opposite sex
  • Is secretive and isolated
  • Is highly jealous or controlling with family members
  • Seeks access to children and tends to get along better with children than adults
  • Has items at home or in vehicle specifically appealing to children such as posters, music, videos, toys, etc.
  • Provides unwarranted gifts, trips, affection, and attention to a specific child or small group of children
  • Refuses to let the child set their own boundaries or frequently crosses their boundaries (i.e. excessive touching, playing doctor, “accidently” walking in on them in the bathroom, etc.)
  • Allows children or teens to consistently get away with inappropriate behaviors or instigating them (i.e. drinking, drugs, sexual behavior)
  • Talks about sexual fantasies with children and is not clear about what’s appropriate with children
  • Possesses child pornography
  • Seeks isolated access to children
Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is defined as inflicting and/or allowing mental or emotional injury to a child that results in an observable and tangible impairment of the child’s growth, development or psychological functioning.

This includes being ignored, rejected, isolated, exploited, verbally assaulted, or terrorized.

Signs of Emotional Abuse in a Child:

  • Behavioral changes or regression in behaviors (i.e. wetting bed, pants)
  • Speech disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Developmental delays
  • Lack of attachment to the 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
  • Reports a lack of attachment to the parent

Concerning Parent or Caregiver Behaviors:

  • 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 where they would be exposed 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

Examples of Neglect:

  • 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

Signs of Neglect in a Child:

  • 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

Concerning Parent or Caregiver Behaviors:

  • 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
Commercial Sexual Exploitation

Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) refers to a range of crimes and activities involving the sexual abuse or exploitation of a child for the financial benefit of any person or in exchange for anything of value (including monetary and non-monetary benefits) given or received by any person.

Examples of crimes and acts that constitute CSEC:

  • 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+ missing incidents)
  • Children who have experienced childhood sexual abuse, especially if the abuse was unreported or 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 who have been stigmatized by their family.

Red Flags or Indicators of Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSEC) in a Child:
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.  That is why being aware of the following indicators is so important:

Behavioral Indicators

  • Child has a significant change in behavior, including increased virtual behavior, or associates with a new group of friends
  • Child avoids answering questions or lets others speak for him or her, or looks to others before answering questions
  • Child appears frightened, resistant, or belligerent to law enforcement
  • Child lies about his or her 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” (e.g., displaying photos of cash)

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) (More +)
  • There is evidence the child has been or will be traveling (child is living out of suitcases, at motels, or in a car)
  • Child has a name or symbol tattooed, burned, or branded onto his or her body, particularly when coupled with the child’s reluctance to explain the tattoo, the child’s tattoo matches other children’s tattoos, the tattoo indicates money or ownership (ex. MOB, barcode or $)
  • Child references traveling to other cities or states or is not from the current location; the child may also lack knowledge of his or her travel plans, destinations, and/or his or her current location.
  • Child has hotel keys, hotel receipts, or other items from a hotel/motel
  • Presence of an overly controlling or abusive “boyfriend” or older female
  • Child is recovered at a hotel, street track, truck stop, or strip club
  • Child has notebooks or slips of paper containing phone numbers, dollar amounts, names, or addresses
  • Child has items or an appearance that does not fit his or her current situation (e.g., a homeless or runaway child who has money, electronics, new clothes or shoes, and who has his or her hair and nails done)
  • Child references online classified ads or escort websites
  • Child references traveling job opportunities (including modeling, singing and/or dancing in a music group, or magazine sales crew)
  • Child has unaddressed medical issues or who goes to the ER or clinic alone, or with an unrelated adult.

Source: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (https://www.missingkids.org/theissues/trafficking)