Child Abuse – A Guide to Parents & Caregivers


Child abuse is a life-scarring experience for a child, not to mention the emotional trauma for the family. Feelings of shame, guilt or even confusion prevent young children from informing their parents about the event. This reluctance could also be a result of any threat from the abuser, and that’s the reason why parents should be able to recognise the signs of abuse. It can make a huge difference to a child’s life if she knows that the parents understand her feelings.

What Is Child Abuse?

The physical, psychological or sexual maltreatment or neglect of a child is termed as child abuse. This can happen at the hands of a parent, a close relative or a caregiver and has a significant detrimental effect on the child’s psyche. The highest risk of child abuse is to children who are five years and below. When both parents are out to work, the child is often entrusted to the care of a babysitter, a crèche or a family member. In this case, it is natural for the parents to be concerned about the child’s safety.

Types of Child Abuse

There are many ways in which a child may be maltreated or abused, and these include sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.

  • Physical abuse occurs when a parent or a caregiver causes deliberate physical injury to a child
  • When a child is exploited for a sexual purpose or is involved in a sexual act, sexual abuse occurs
  • If a child’s social and mental development is compromised by a parent, it is called emotional abuse.
  • Neglect of a child occurs when the parent or caregiver does not carry out necessary care and support activities necessary for a child.

Girl with her mouth covered

Causes of Child Abuse and Neglect

Abuse of children can occur in several circumstances. Here are some scenarios where a child may be victimised:

  1. Domestic Violence

    Children who are part of households where there is frequent domestic violence are prone to becoming victims of abuse themselves. Men who abuse their female partners are responsible for abusing the children in their homes too.

  2. Alcohol and Drug Abuse

    Parents who have a history of alcohol and drug abuse can be responsible for child abuse. Dependence of substance abuse is one of the major causes of child abuse and maltreatment which includes physical abuse and intentional neglect. Alcohol or drug-abusing parent is more likely to initiate child abuse with kids of five years or below.

    victim of alcohol abuse

  3. Untreated Mental Illness

    A parent’s untreated mental illness is a common cause of child abuse. Manic depression or any other illness of the mind can become a prime cause for the parents to be unavailable for the child. A mother may remain withdrawn from her kids or in extreme cases suspect that the child plotting against her. A parent’s suffering is often the cause of subjecting a child to abuse.

  4. Lack of Parenting Skills

    Most parents are naturally gifted while caring for their children, but few may not be able to manage their physical and emotional needs adequately. Many parents would often equate disciplining children with abusing them and will need counselling to understand the role of a parent in a better manner.

  5. Stress and Lack of Support

    Many children face psychological mistreatment when their caregivers or parents are under stress. Parents find it difficult to deal with the emotional needs of a child especially when they face stressful situations. Divorces, relationship issues, financial worries and job-related problems can lead to parents meting out abuse to their children.

How Can You Tell Whether Your Child Has Been a Victim of Abuse?

There is always a nagging fear and doubt about a child’s safety in the minds of parents who are unable to be around her. It is always easy to ignore or overlook signs of abuse especially when you do not know what to look for. Check with your child if anything unusual has happened to him or her during the day, while at school or in daycare. Ask if she feels uncomfortable or frightened about a particular situation or person. You should also keep an eye on any physical or emotional changes you notice. Signs of injury to the body or constant crying and fussiness are direct pointers of your child being an abuse victim.

Signs to Watch Out for

Children are not always able to talk about the abuse they may be facing, either because they are too young to vocalise or recognise it, or because they don’t feel comfortable sharing it. Watching out for the signs listed below can help alert a parent or caregiver about a potential problem.

  1. Physical Abuse

    Watch out for sudden changes in behaviour at home or daycare and a dip in performance at school. A child who’s being physically abused will be reluctant to go to daycare or spend time with a particular babysitter. Check if her body is covered with bruises or injury marks which cannot be explained rationally. If there are repeated bite marks or burn marks, it is a definite warning sign about the child being subjected to physical abuse.

  2. Emotional Abuse

    An emotionally abused child may display various behavioural changes that are extreme. She could rebuff a parent’s show of affection or can become extremely attached and cling to them. When an excessively talkative child turns quiet or vice versa, it indicates that she is disturbed emotionally and needs emotional support from parents. A parent should watch out for unexplained stomach aches or headaches or loss of appetite.

  3. Sexual Abuse

    A child who has been subjected to sexual abuse will face intense emotional as well as physical trauma. Not only will you be able to ascertain this from the child’s body language, but also from the marks, however minor on the child’s body. She can also demonstrate difficulty while sitting or walking as a result of pain in the anal or genital area (if genital penetration has taken place).

Effects of Child Abuse

Child abuse and neglect often leave long-term scars on the child, ones that are difficult to erase from the mind and the body too. It can have a massive impact on the way the child will manage relationships during adulthood and can dent their self-confidence. Children are unable to function normally at school, college or work when they grow up:

Effects of child abuse

  • Develop Trust Issues: It is very difficult for children to trust other people, especially when their parents have been responsible for abuse. If one’s parents can be trusted, who else can? An abused child may not be able to form strong relationships nor maintain a healthy relationship.
  • Unable to Express Emotions: Abused children are unable to vent their feelings and emotions positively. This results in bottling up of emotions and may give way to different psychological problems. Abused children often resort to alcohol or drugs during adulthood to assuage the pain as they can suffer from anxiety and depression.
  • Feelings of Being Worthless: It is extremely difficult to overcome negative feelings if one is constantly being berated or even beaten up. Abused children harbour feelings of inferiority and being worthless and thus settle for lesser education and low-paying jobs when they grow up. Similarly, sexually-abused children cannot ignore the shamefulness of the act and the stigma attached to it.

Tips for Child’s Caregiver

A caregiver can ensure proper healing to help a child to overcome the trauma of abuse and ensure no future abuse takes place:

Girl talking to adult

  • Give the child freedom to express his or her feelings without any fear
  • Build a strong support system of friends and family to support during tough and challenging times
  • Be patient
  • Make sure your love for the child is expressed through words and actions. Do not hesitate to hug the child to make him feel secure.
  • Have open and honest discussions about drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, sex and its dangers

How to Stop Child Abuse?

The implementation of the following rules can ensure prevention of child abuse:

  1. One of the most important ways of stopping child abuse is to recognize its signs in the first place. Children tend to suffer in silence hence it is necessary to ask them to open up and share.
  2. Children often imitate the adults in their lives and if they have seen a parent inflict abuse, they feel the behaviour is acceptable. Opt for therapy and counselling for children who are vulnerable to abusive situations.
  3. Spread knowledge about child abuse in the neighbourhood or your town. When people become aware of the harsh realities of abuse and neglect, they will spread the word about it and this can stop a potentially abusive situation.
  4. Educate children about ‘the good touch and the bad touch’.

Tips for Helping Abused Child

  • On hearing or knowing about abuse of a child, make sure you respond with urgency and care.
  • Believe what the child has told you and do not repeat it to others without reason.
  • Never stop them from talking about it or make them feel guilty about it.
  • Tell the child that he or she is now safe and you will take care of the situation.

Child Abuse Reporting

The individual who has abused a child has to be held accountable for the act and this is one of the primary solutions to child abuse. Getting professional help from people specialized in this area is the next step. One should immediately report the child abuse case to the nearest police station if the abuser does not own up to his act.

Child abuse is a serious and life-threatening matter that needs to be tackled in a sensitive manner with urgency. It can be traumatic for the child involved and all the necessary steps to address the situation should be taken. If the signs are recognised well within time, it is possible to avert major trauma in the future.