What is child abuse?

Each state has its own definition of child abuse. Most include the following:

  • Physical child abuse is physical injury or intent to hurt a child as a result of hitting, kicking, shaking, burning or otherwise harming a child.

  • Sexual child abuse is when a child is used by another person for that person's sexual satisfaction.

  • Emotional child abuse is a pattern of behavior that hurts a child's emotional development or sense of well-being.

  • Child neglect is failure to provide for a child's basic needs such as food, housing or schooling.

  • Interpersonal violence includes actions when a person intentionally hurts another person. This includes community, intimate partner (domestic) violence, and bullying.

  • Community violence is violence that happens in a child's neighborhood or community.

  • Intimate partner violence is physical or sexual violence, the threat of violence, or emotional abuse towards a current or past spouse or intimate partner.

  • Bullying is repeated negative acts by one or more children against another.

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What are signs that a child may need help after experiencing abuse or interpersonal violence?

Children may show any of the following difficulties:

  • Trouble sleeping (e.g., interrupted sleep; nightmares; sleeping too much)

  • Trouble with school (e.g., not wanting to go to school; poor attention; poor grades)

  • Trouble getting along with siblings or friends

  • Loss of interest in usual activities

  • Behavior problems

  • Anxiety, sadness, irritability

  • Posttraumatic stress symptoms

Any change in the child's usual behavior or emotions may be a sign that the abuse or violence has had a negative effect on the child. If you see changes in your child that last more than a few weeks, consider seeking a mental health evaluation.

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What can a parent do if they suspect that their child is being abused?

If you suspect that your own child or another child is being abused, contact the Childhelp® National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) or visit the federally funded Child Welfare Information gateway at: http://www.childwelfare.gov/responding. If you need immediate help, call 911.

Many communities have Child Advocacy Centers (CACs) that provide coordinated support and services for children after abuse. For a listing of accredited CACs visit the National Children's Alliance website at http://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org. Your pediatrician or family doctor may also be able to help you locate resources in your community.

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How can I help my children after they have been experienced abuse or interpersonal violence?

Parental support is critical for a child's recovery after child abuse or violence. First, spend positive time with your child. Try to find a few minutes each day to do something your child enjoys, tell your child you love him or her, and show simple affection through actions (e.g., holding hands, hugs, smiles) as well as through words.

Second, assure your child that he or she was not to blame for what happened. This is especially important if changes occur in the family (for example, if a child abuser was a family member, the abuser had to leave the family, and people in your family "take sides" about whom to believe). In these situations your child may feel responsible for the difficult family circumstances.

Finally, understand your child's need for safety even if he or she sometimes misses the person who caused the violence or abuse. It is not uncommon for a child to still love or miss a family member who abused them or who was violent. Let your child know that the person had to leave because they were hurting someone in the home and this was not safe. Even young children understand that rules are needed to maintain safety. By explaining your family's safety rules (e.g., what you will do to keep everyone in your home safe) you will help to get back a sense of security and safety for your children.

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