What is child abuse?
Child abuse is when a parent or caregiver, whether through action or inaction, causes harm to a child. There are many forms of child abuse, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Growing up in a home where there is domestic abuse, substance abuse, or other scary, chaotic, or violent parental behavior is also a fo(rm of abuse.
How common is child abuse?
Because of the secretive nature of child abuse and various definitions of what abuse constitutes, it is difficult to know exactly how many children are abused. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 adults (25%) in the U.S. say they were abused as children. The true number is probably higher, as many adults do not realize that their parents’ harsh punishments, neglect, abandonment, substance abuse, or violent behaviors are forms of child abuse.
What causes child abuse?
Child abuse is a complex problem with multiple causes. The use of physical or corporal punishment is a major risk factor. More than 2/3 of all child abuse is the result of punishment that got out of hand. Parents who have unrealistic and age-inappropriate expectations for their children’s behavior are more likely to commit child abuse, as are parents with anger management problems. Some other factors that have been shown to increase the likelihood of child abuse are parental substance abuse, parental mental illness, domestic violence in the home, and poverty. Children born of unintended pregnancies and children with disabilities are at increased risk.
What are the effects of child abuse?
Child abuse can cause a range of psychological, emotional, and physical problems. One long-term study found that up to 80% of abused people had at least one psychiatric disorder at age 21, with problems including depression, anxiety, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, eating disorders, and suicide attempts. Adults who were abused as children are at increased risk for low self-esteem, dissociative symptoms, and difficulties with trust and relationships. Victims are also more likely to commit crimes as juveniles and adults.
Adults who experienced abuse or neglect during childhood are more likely to suffer from physical ailments such as allergies, arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure, and ulcers. There may be a higher risk of developing cancer later in life, as well as possible immune dysfunction.
Unfortunately, many children are abused multiple times in multiple ways. Poly-victimization, especially experiencing different types of abuse (e.g., physical, sexual, neglect) is associated with the development of more symptoms of trauma. There is a strong relationship between the number of abusive experiences a child experiences and later cigarette smoking, obesity, physical inactivity, alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, attempted suicide, sexual promiscuity, and sexually transmitted diseases. People who reported higher numbers of negative experiences in childhood were also more likely to have heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, skeletal fractures, liver disease, and poor health as an adult.
What are remedies for the effects of child sexual abuse?
Many adults who were abused as children do not realize how it may have affected them, so they don’t seek help for the abuse. Instead, they eventually enter psychotherapy for secondary issues like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and relationship problems. During the course of therapy, victims of child abuse often begin to see a link between their current problems and their past abuse. In remembering the abuse and mourning its damage, survivors can free themselves to lead more fulfilling lives.
Dr. Michelle Stevens is a psychologist, writer, and expert on trauma. She wrote the bestselling book, Scared Selfless: My Journey from Abuse and Madness to Surviving and Thriving (Putnam, 2017).