Definition of Child Abuse

A Definition of Child Abuse

definition of child abuseFinding one simple definition of child abuse is not a simple task; it seems everyone who has an opinion on the subject defines it in a slightly different way. Here are some definitions of child abuse I came across while researching this topic.

* “The physical or emotional or sexual mistreatment of children.”

* “Behavior directed toward a child by an adult that harms a child’s physical or emotional health and development. …”

* “Any form of cruelty to a child, which includes not only physical cruelty but mental cruelty.”

* (Federal Law) “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation.” Or, “An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

Notice that these definitions of child abuse run the gamut from simple “mistreatment” to “death”, “serious…harm”, and “exploitation”. It would appear that obtaining a conviction of child abuse in Federal court would require proof of some very serious maltreatment!

A model to help states determine their own definition of child abuse includes specific acts in three different categories:

  • “Physical abuse is physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child. Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caretaker intended to hurt the child.”
  • “Sexual abuse includes activities by a parent or caretaker such as fondling a child’s genitals, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, and exploitation through prostitution or the production of pornographic materials.”
  • “Emotional abuse is a pattern of behavior that impairs a child’s emotional development or sense of self-worth. This may include constant criticism, threats, or rejection, as well as withholding love, support, or guidance. Emotional abuse is often difficult to prove and, therefore, child protective services may not be able to intervene without evidence of harm to the child.”

The most frequently reported type of child abuse (and perhaps most damaging) is child neglect.

definition of child abuseChild neglect is the result of the ultimate expression of narcissism. The child’s primary caregiver is so involved with their own needs that they ignore those of the child. They fail to provide for shelter, safety, nutritional needs, health and education. Thus the child has a high probability of experiencing ill health as well as physical, mental, spiritual, moral and/or social development. Child neglect is frequently found in families where drug and alcohol abuse are not only prevalent but often rampant.

While most people would think first of something physical when they look for a definition of child abuse, physical abuse accounts for only 25% of reported cases of child abuse. We’re left then with the alarming fact that 75% of child abuse cases leave no physical evidence of the abuse. And without physical evidence child abuse is very difficult to prove or even recognize by either an authority figure or the victim himself!

The last statement is significant.

definition of child abuseA child who has been neglected or emotionally abused typically does not identify the treatment they received as abuse. Rather, the resulting emotional scarring left by the abuse is interpreted by the abused as a deficiency on their part and typically manifests itself as a chronic and irresolvable guilt. I’ll elaborate more on this in the section “Effects of Child Abuse.”

When one attempts a definition of child abuse some blurry lines often appear. Consider the following cases.

  • A friend of mine was watching TV when his son approached his chair from the side. Ted asked the boy to go to the kitchen and get him a soft drink before sitting down. The eight-year-old lad responded to his father’s request thusly; “F*ck you!”The shocked father turned in his chair to reprimand his son, slapping him with the back of his hand in the process.The next day the boy’s teacher asked him about the red spot on his face. A few hours later a policeman showed up at my friend’s place of business and took him to jail. Ted was sentenced to community service and required to attend a ten week anger management course.

Does this fit the definition of child abuse? Or was it simply a case of inappropriate reaction to a situation that required immediate discipline? Did it justify jail, community service and anger management classes?

  • Look at the two cases of discipline I described on the Child Abuse Homepage. On two different occasions my father hit me in the head hard enough to knock me to the ground. On one, the “decking” was followed by him forcing me to eat laundry detergent then whipping me with his belt. Not many would dispute that my father’s actions would fit the definition of child abuse. Yet to me, the purportedly abused, it was not.

Two things are missing in both of the above examples.

First, the alleged abusers intentions were not malevolent. Granted, my friend reacted inappropriately but he had no intention of either hurting his son or deriving personal satisfaction from his actions (as would typically be the case in incidents of sexual abuse).

definition of child abuseThe second thing that is missing is emotional damage to the boys who were struck.

Ted and his son are great friends; he is a well-adjusted boy who does well in both academics and athletics at school. He and Ted have discussed the incident and the boy understand his father’s reaction and harbors no ill feelings toward him.

As for me, I never held my father’s disciplinary tactics against him. While I would agree that they were a little “over the top” by today’s standards I always knew that the intentions behind the actions were honorable. Besides, when I was growing up lots of kids got spanked, swatted and whipped with the belt. Our parents’ corrective devices were the norm for the day and as long as we perceived honorable intention we suffered no long-term ill effects.

Now here’s where things get even more “blurry”. What if my father had broken my jaw?

His intentions may have been honorable but the results were now extreme; is it now child abuse? If Ted would have knocked his son off balance causing him to fall and cut his chin badly enough to require stitches, would that constitute child abuse?

It is not always black and white when attempting to find a definition of child abuse.

definition of child abuseWhat might be considered abusive at one time or in one culture could be acceptable at or in another. Likewise, a spanking administered by a loving parent might be a beating when delivered by one who resents or dislikes the child.

But in my opinion, the final determination of what constitutes child abuse would a judgment not of the action but rather the result of the action. Did the actions of the alleged abuser “…impair the child’s emotional development or sense of self worth?” If the answer is ‘yes’ the defendant is guilty as charged.


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