Any intentional harm or mistreatment to a child under 18 years old is considered child abuse. Child abuse takes many forms, which often occur at the same time.
Most child abuse is inflicted by someone the child knows and trusts, often a parent or other relative. If you suspect child abuse, report the abuse to the proper authorities.
A child who's being abused may feel guilty, ashamed or confused. He or she may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse, especially if the abuser is a parent, other relative or family friend. In fact, the child may have an apparent fear of parents, adult caregivers or family friends. That's why it's vital to watch for red flags, such as:
Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of abuse. Keep in mind that warning signs are just that — warning signs. The presence of warning signs doesn't necessarily mean that a child is being abused.
Physical abuse signs and symptoms
Sexual abuse signs and symptoms
Emotional abuse signs and symptoms
Neglect signs and symptoms
Although most child health experts condemn the use of violence in any form, some people still use corporal punishment (such as spanking) as a way to discipline their children. Corporal punishment has limited effectiveness in deterring behavior and is associated with aggressive behavior in the child. Any corporal punishment may leave emotional scars.
Parental behaviors that cause pain or physical injury — even when done in the name of discipline — could be child abuse.
When to see a doctor
If the child needs immediate medical attention, call 911 or your local emergency number. Depending on the situation, contact the child's doctor, a local child protective agency, the police department, or a hotline such as Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline (800-422-4453).
Keep in mind that health care professionals are legally required to report all suspected cases of child abuse to the appropriate county or state authorities.
Child abuse occurs across all social and economic levels and ethnic groups. Factors that may increase a person's risk of becoming abusive include:
Some children overcome the physical and psychological effects of child abuse, particularly those with strong social support who can adapt and cope with bad experiences. For many others, however, child abuse has lifelong consequences. For example, child abuse may result in physical, behavioral, emotional and mental issues. Examples include:
Treatments and drugs
Talk therapy, also called psychotherapy, can help a child who has been abused learn to trust again, as well as teach the child about normal behavior and relationships. Therapy can also teach children conflict management and boost self-esteem. Several different types of therapy may be effective, such as:
Psychotherapy can help parents discover the roots of abuse, learn effective ways to cope with life's inevitable frustrations and learn healthy parenting strategies. If the child is still in the home, social services may schedule home visits and make sure essential needs, such as food, are available.
Children who are placed in foster care because their home situation is too dangerous will also need mental health services and therapies.
Places to turn for help
Coping and support
If a child tells you he or she is being abused, take the situation seriously. The child's safety is most important. Here's what you can do:
If the abuse has occurred at school, make sure the principal of the school is aware of the situation, in addition to reporting it to the local or state child protection agency.
You can take simple steps to protect your child from exploitation and child abuse, as well as prevent child abuse in your neighborhood or community. For example:
If you worry that you might abuse your child
Or you can start by talking with your family doctor. He or she may offer a referral to a parent education class, counseling or a support group for parents to help you learn appropriate ways to deal with your anger. If you're abusing alcohol or drugs, ask your doctor about treatment options. Remember, child abuse is preventable — and often a symptom of a problem that may be treatable. Ask for help today.
Last Updated: 2012-10-23
© 1998-2014 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved. A single copy of these materials may be reprinted for noncommercial personal use only. "Mayo," "Mayo Clinic," "MayoClinic.com," "Mayo Clinic Health Information," "Reliable information for a healthier life" and the triple-shield Mayo logo are trademarks of Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
Terms and conditions of use