Child abuse is often perceived as a rare and horrific exception that only happens to other people. We hear of it on the news sometimes, can't believe such monsters exist in our society, and want them castrated and executed. However, this view isn't very realistic. Child abuse comes in various forms and degrees, affects roughly half of children (see link to stats below), and most of it is done by the child's immediate family, mothers and fathers. Seeing it as a rare exception rather than an unfortunate but common occurrence results in dismissing the issue as "not bad enough," when we're faced with it. Abusive parents continue harming their kids because they don't identify themselves as the TV monsters and don't realize that what they are doing also constitutes child abuse. Relatives, neighbors, teachers, etc aren't interfering because they don't want to label the parent as a child abuser because s/he didn't mean it. Their children feel the same way when they grow up, and as a result aren't getting the support they need to recover from the trauma and repair the damage it caused. Many abusive parents aren't monsters and weren't trying to hurt their child deliberately, so aside from the saint/monster classification it's important to recognize the "they screwed up" option as well.
Child abuse comes in a few forms, but the overall idea is that an adult causes harm to a child, through action or through inaction. For example, a mother left her child in a locked car at a Walmart parking lot. The kid got heat stroke, police broke the windows, got him out of the car, social services took custody, the mother is facing child abuse/endangerment charges, might end up in prison for a while. Of course she wasn't deliberately trying to give her son a heat stroke, and it's not her fault it was so hot that day. Yet it was her responsibility to check the weather, take a parenting class, google if it's safe to leave children his age in locked cars, contact CPS if she felt unable to parent him, or do whatever else it would take to ensure his safety. Because it's not her son's problem, to figure these things out for her. Children (anyone under 16-18yo) are not responsible for caring for, providing for, and protecting themselves. It's the parent's job, to ensure that their child is safe, fed, clothed, healthy, happy, and getting the education and guidance s/he needs to grow up into a well-adjusted individual. Failing to do so constitutes child abuse.
Physical abuse of a child
means any act of physical violence: hitting, kicking, punching, shoving, slapping, etc. Corporal punishment is seen as acceptable in some cultures, but it cannot leave any marks (bruises, cuts, etc), the adult engaging in it needs to be calm, the child needs to understand why they are being punished and have a way to avoid it in the future, and the overall degree of force used needs to be reasonable. I.e. when a 3yo child is throwing a temper tantrum in a toy store it's appropriate for a parent to pick her up and carry her outside despite her protests - but when a 13yo is giving attitude to a waiter in a restaurant it's not appropriate for a parent to drag her outside by force. When a 1yo is trying to grab a burning candle and isn't listening to "no" it's OK to slap his hand (though it makes more sense to just move him away from the candle or the candle away from him) - but when a 10yo wets his bed there's no need to slap him: he speaks English and isn't doing it deliberately.
Sexual abuse of a child
means involving or exposing him/her to any sexual activities. This can include rape (penetration), molestation (non-penetrative acts, fondling), flashing, either by strangers or by family members (e.g. dad walking around the house naked with an erection), exposure to adult content (e.g. watching porn while a child is in the room or having the child sleep in the same room with parents and observe their sex life), or exposing/handling child's private parts for the adult's sexual gratification (e.g. making a child pose nude for photos). Sexual abuse causes the most confusions because parents tend to rationalize these actions as done for the benefit of the child. It's appropriate for a mother to expose and handle her child's privates when the child is one year old, while she's changing his diapers or giving him a bath. However, it's not appropriate to make a 15yo strip naked for the purpose of corporal punishment, to teach a 12yo girl how to use tampons by inserting them into her vagina, to supervise, guide, or participate in 9yo's masturbation, to give enemas to children over 7yo (if a child needs an enema they can have it at a doctor's office), or to bathe children who are old enough to do it themselves. These things are sexual abuse.
Emotional abuse of a child
means harming a child on the emotional level: yelling, humiliating, name-calling, ostracizing, threatening, shaming, ridiculing, etc. Children depend on adults for their life, parents have power over them legally, physically, and financially - so there can be no battles, rivalry, or revenge between adults and children. If an adult wants to fight, they need to pick someone their size. However, children aren't pets or servants either: they are human beings, and need to be treated with dignity and respect just like anyone else. The power parents have over their children is there solely for the purpose of ensuring the child's best interest, and using this power personal comfort or gain is a form of emotional abuse. For example, a child should be held responsible for cleaning his own room and for participating in cleaning of common areas (kitchen, bathroom, living room), because he needs to learn this skill - but he cannot be the only one cleaning the house and the chores need to be age-appropriate: e.g. a 5yo can help with setting the table, but not with cooking. If he fails to do it, he needs to receive appropriate consequences, in order to learn from this experience. For example, if he forgets to make his bed in the morning he can be grounded for a day, skip allowance for a week, or make both his and his mom's bed tomorrow (since she made his today). But he cannot be yelled at, called "filthy pig", or shamed in front of his classmates. Every parent slips up sometimes, but doing such stuff repeatedly constitutes emotional abuse.
Neglect of a child
means failure to provide adequate care: food, shelter, clothing, personal hygiene supplies, school supplies, medical care, education, supervision, guidance, safety. Food needs to be fresh, healthy, and available unconditionally (i.e. no working for food). The house needs to be clean, with heat, electricity, hot and cold water, clean and warm bed for the child to sleep in, a place to do her homework (time/space at dinner table or a desk in her room), and functional and accessible storage space for her belongings: toys, clothes, school supplies, etc. Note that parents are not obligated to provide brand-name clothing or the child's favorite food. It's possible to abuse a child by providing bad food or clothing, but that falls under emotional abuse, not neglect. Neglect is when the child is wearing tennis shoes in snow because that's their only pair of shoes, or eating dog/cat/bird food because that's the only food available. No exposure to violence, drugs, other hazards - keeping a child in an unsafe home is a form of neglect as well. The child needs to taught various age-appropriate skills (e.g. walking, talking, bathing, reading, cleaning after themselves, cooking, grocery shopping, safe sex, etc). By the time the child turns 18 he/she needs to master all of the skills necessary for independent living, and failure to ensure it is a form of neglect (unless the child is disabled, in which case he/she needs to be receiving appropriate care and treatment).
If you were abused as a child, please know it was not your fault and you aren't alone. Plenty of us are successfully coping with the aftermath of this trauma, leading productive lives, and talking about it. Feel free to join us.
If you suspect a child is being abused, please remember that a child cannot get help for themselves. Do the right thing, contact authorities. Read more about reporting suspected abuse.
If you feel you might hurt a child, please know that there's help available. Reach out for it, protect the child and avoid criminal charges yourself. See the links below or browse our list of hotlines and other helpful organizations.
If you're already hurting a child - please stop now. It would make a tremendous difference to any abuse survivor if the person who was abusing them stopped and said, "I shouldn't be doing this to you, it's wrong," and left, even without an apology.
You know it's wrong. Have the guts to say so.
~ Eldridge Cleaver
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