Child abuse takes many forms:
- Physical abuse. Physical child abuse occurs when a child is purposefully injured. Physical abuse can be an act of direct physical harm or an act of omission that leads to injury.
- Sexual abuse. Sexual child abuse is any sexual activity with a child, including fondling, oral-genital contact, intercourse and exposure to child pornography.
- Emotional abuse. Emotional child abuse includes verbal and emotional assault — such as continually belittling or berating a child — as well as isolating, ignoring or rejecting a child.
- Neglect. Child neglect is failure to provide a child adequate food, shelter, affection, supervision or medical care.
Most child abuse is inflicted by someone the child knows and trusts, often a parent or other relative. If you suspect child abuse, either in your own child or a close contact, report the abuse to the proper authorities. Your concern may provide an opportunity for healing.
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 or other loved one. That’s why it’s vital to watch for red flags, such as:
- Sudden changes in behavior or school performance
- Untreated medical or dental problems
- Unexplained bruises, cuts, burns or other injuries
- Blood in the child’s underwear
- Inappropriate sexual behavior for the child’s age
- Behavior extremes, from overly aggressive to unusually passive
- Nightmares or unusual fears
- Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
- Low self-esteem
- Poor hygiene
- Frequent absences from school
Sometimes a parent’s demeanor or behavior also sends red flags about child abuse. Warning signs include a parent who:
- Shows little concern for the child
- Denies the existence of problems at home or school, or blames the child for the problems
- Refuses offers of help to resolve problems at school
- Consistently blames, belittles or berates the child
- Describes the child with negative terms
- Uses harsh physical discipline or asks teachers to do so
- Demands an inappropriate level of physical or academic performance
- Severely limits the child’s contact with other children
- Offers conflicting or unconvincing explanations for a child’s injuries, or no explanation at all
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.
When to seek help
If you’re concerned that your child or another child has been abused, seek help immediately. Contact RCASA at 540.371.1666 or the local police department.
Child abuse occurs across all socioeconomic levels and ethnic groups. For parents and other caregivers, factors that may increase the risk of becoming abusive include:
- Low self-esteem
- Poor impulse control
- Marital conflict
- Domestic violence
- Financial stress
- Social isolation
- Alcoholism or other forms of substance abuse
- A history of mistreatment as a child
Some children overcome the physical and psychological effects of child abuse, particularly those who have high self-esteem, an optimistic attitude and strong social support. For others, however, child abuse has lifelong consequences. For example, child abuse may lead to:
- Physical disabilities
- Learning disabilities
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty establishing or maintaining relationships
- Challenges with intimacy and trust
- An unhealthy view of parenthood
- Substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Personality disorders
- Delinquent or violent behavior
If a child tells you he or she is being abused, take the situation seriously:
- Encourage the child to tell you what happened. Remain calm as you assure the child that it’s OK to talk about the experience, even if someone has threatened him or her to keep silent. Ask open-ended questions such as, “What happened then?”
- Remind the child that he or she isn’t responsible for the abuse. The responsibility for child abuse belongs to the abuser. Say, “It’s not your fault” over and over again.
- Offer comfort. You might say, “I’m so sorry you were hurt,” “I’m glad that you told me,” and “I’ll do everything I can to help you.” Let the child know you’re available to talk or simply listen at any time.
- Report the abuse. Contact a local child protective agency or the local police department. Authorities will investigate the report and, if necessary, take steps to ensure the child’s safety.
- Seek medical attention. If necessary, help the child seek appropriate medical care.
- Help the child remain safe. Don’t let the child be alone with the abuser. If that’s not possible, do what you can to eliminate the abuser’s access to the child. Make sure the child knows how to call for emergency help if needed.
- Consider additional support. You might help the child seek counseling or other mental health treatment. Age-appropriate support groups also can be helpful. Contact RCASA 540.371.1666 for addtional information.