This month is Child Abuse Prevention Month (CAPM). CAPM is organized and promoted by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families (AYCF), which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The Mayo Clinic defines child abuse as “any intentional harm or mistreatment to a child under 18”. This can include physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, medical abuse, or neglect.
According to ChildHelp, a national nonprofit, people make about 3.5 million calls to child protective services every year. That’s about one report every 10 seconds.
Which means that in the time you spent reading the above paragraph, someone made a call to child protective services to report the possible abuse or neglect of a child.
The annual Child Maltreatment Report (CMR), a publication released by the AYCF, includes data on child abuse and maltreatment gathered from child welfare agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Data from the 2019 report shows that out of the 4.4 million referrals received that year involving 7.9 million children, 3.4 million of them warranted an investigation.
Of those referrals investigated, over 650,000 children were found to be victims of serious maltreatment and/or neglect.
Here are additional statistics from the 2019 CMR. Of the 656,000 children who were victims of maltreatment:
- 61% of children were neglected
- 10.3% were physically abused
- 7.2% were sexually abused
- 15.5% were victims of two or more maltreatment types
- 1,840 children died from abuse and neglect
- Most of the cases involved young children
And the most disturbing statistic of all:
About 78% of the abusers were parents.
The Impact of Child Abuse
Child abuse can lead to serious, long-term, physical, and emotional problems for the victim. Child abuse is one of the many Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) found to result in long-term negative mental health consequences such as substance abuse, depression, and suicide. Other ACEs include domestic violence, neighborhood violence, living in a foster home, and living with a parent with mental illness or alcohol/substance use disorder.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), individuals who experience ACEs are at increased risk of the following:
- Drug abuse
- Alcohol abuse
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
- Personality disorders
- Suicide attempts
- Risky sexual behavior
- Violent behavior
- Criminal behavior
- Teen pregnancy
- Lowered IQ
- Impaired cognitive function
- Learning disabilities
- Heart Attack
- Social skills impairment
- Premature death
Decades of research show the definitive correlation between early trauma, such as child abuse, and subsequent physical and mental health complications. Abuse victims may develop a lack of self-esteem, trouble with intimacy and relationships, and an inability to productively manage stress. Without treatment or therapy to resolve past trauma, the likelihood of developing physical, emotional, and psychological complications increases.
Signs of Child Abuse
Sometimes, people other than immediate family members may suspect that a child or teen is being abused. Teachers may notice increased absences from school, changes in academic performance, or even a reluctance to leave school activities. Neighbors or relatives – such as grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – might also suspect their loved one may be experiencing abuse. According to the Mayo Clinic, the following symptoms in a child may indicate abuse:
- Increased aggression, anger, irritability
- Change in energy level (hyperactivity)
- Avoiding friends or usual activities
- Depression or anxiety
- Developing unusual phobias
- Loss of self-confidence
- Rebellion or defiance
- Running away or attempting to run away
- Self-harming attempts
- Suicidal behavior
You can find additional warning signs of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and emotional abuse on the Mayo Clinic website.
How to Prevent Child Abuse
There are several risk factors that increase the likelihood of child abuse. At the same time, there are also protective factors against abuse.
The presence of the following factors can increase the risk a person may become abusive toward children:
- Violent and abusive early family environment
- Diagnosed depression or PTSD
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- High levels of stress
- Economic instability, stress, or unemployment
- Extended isolation
- Domestic violence
- Younger age at beginning of parenting, single parenting, parenting many children
- Anger management issues
In addition, relatives, friends, and neighbors should stay vigilant when they see parents who show little or no concern when their child is in distress or demonstrate other concerning behavior. If a parent can’t explain a child’s injuries, physical abuse might be present. Relatives should also not ignore parents who consistently berate their kids, curse at them, or call them demeaning names. Parents who abuse their children typically blame the children for problems and use harsh disciplinary techniques, such as corporal punishment. The parents often struggle with anger problems and take it out on the child.
There’s a critical point to understand, elucidated clearly by the child abuse awareness non-profit organization *1in6 :
“Most people who abuse others were abused as children, but the reverse is not true. Most people abused as children do not go on to abuse others.”
With that said, if you’re alarmed about a specific parent-child interaction, then do not ignore your instincts. This statement from the Mayo Clinic is worth emphasizing here:
“[Any] parental behaviors that cause pain, physical injury or emotional trauma — even when done in the name of discipline — could be child abuse.”
In fact, there are federal and state laws regarding reporting child abuse. The laws vary state by state. In some states, people like teachers are required by law to report known or suspected child abuse. In other states, anyone aware of child abuse is required to report the abuse.
Protective Factors Against Child Abuse
Protective factors are circumstances or actions that reduce the likelihood of child abuse and neglect. The presence of the factors listed below reduces the risk of child abuse and neglect.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), parents are less likely to abuse their children if they:
- Understand child development
- Know how to provide affection and care to their children
- Are present and interested in their child or teen
- Supervise their children appropriately
- Enforce household rules consistently
- Are capable of providing food, shelter, education, and medical care for their children
- Have friends and family members who can provide support and advice
- Have a healthy relationship with their spouse
- Understand and practice productive stress management techniques
This is all good news. Taking both the risk factors and protective factors into consideration, it’s clear that there are actionable steps – such as taking parenting courses, going to therapy, and joining support groups – that can prevent child abuse from happening in the first place. Parental support is the most important way to strengthen families and create a healthy, safe environment for children.
What You Can Do to Help
Child abuse is serious. If you suspect a child is the victim of abuse, the best course of action is to report it to the appropriate authorities. As mentioned above, in some states, the law requires you to report any abuse you know about. And in some professions, the rules about reporting are strict and unequivocal: some occupations make you a mandatory reporter by default.
Friends and family members can prevent child abuse from occurring, or stop it while it’s happening, by providing practical support to parents. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins – in addition to teachers, faith leaders, neighbors, and friends – can direct parents to counseling, support groups, or anger-management classes so they can learn how to deal with parenting stress without harming their children. They can also check in on their relatives to see how they can help in the short-term – whether it’s by offering to babysit, send meals, or research resources for parents in the area.
Last but certainly not least, we need to think of the children involved.
Here’s a fact: abuse causes serious trauma. Unresolved stress from traumatic incidents can lead to the negative health implications we discussed above – drug abuse, lifelong mental health consequences, and even suicide. If you know a teen with mental health or addiction problems, they may have experienced abuse or neglect as a child. In the absence of professional treatment and support, it’s likely their problems will not resolve, but escalate.
Adolescent behavioral health treatment centers help teens with a history of trauma. Most high-quality residential treatment centers (RTCs), partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), and intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) offer complementary parent support classes, family therapy, and multifamily sessions in order to strengthen and heal the entire family.