What Is Child Abuse and Neglect?

What Is Child Abuse and NeglectWelcome to Part 2 of our 10 part series on child abuse and neglect. Today, we will be exploring the various types of child abuse and neglect. 

Abuse and neglect are difficult words to define as we will see later in this article when we start to examine the many different kinds of abuse. Let’s look first at what abuse and neglect are according to federal law. In a pamphlet entitled, What Is Child Abuse and Neglect?, the Child Welfare Information Gateway of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services explains that:

“Federal legislation lays the groundwork for State by identifying a minimum set of acts or behaviors that define child abuse and neglect.”

Most laws at the federal and state level cover abuse and neglect inflicted by parents and other child caregivers and do not extend to harm caused by other people which are covered under other statutes. The minimum standards set by federal law define child abuse and neglect as:

  • 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.

These laws are then further refined and explained at the state level. For a listing of abuse and neglect laws for your state, visit the State Statutes Search webpage at The Child Welfare Information Gateway of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This page allows you to search for a variety of state statutes including the definitions of abuse and neglect.


Categorizing Child Maltreatment

Child maltreatment is the general term used to encompass both child abuse and child neglect. Child abuse can be generally described as acts of commission which harm a child, and child neglect can generally be described as acts of omission which allow harm to befall a child. The abuse and neglect of children can be further divided into subcategories as follows:

    • Emotional Abuse
    • Physical Abuse
    • Sexual Abuse
    • Educational Neglect
    • Emotional Neglect
    • Medical Neglect
    • Physical Neglect

Some states would also add abandonment and substance abuse by parents to this list of types of maltreatment. Others would also add failure to supervise (e.g., inadequate supervision or exposure to dangerous environments) to the list of types of neglect. Some sources/statutes would combine these categories. Let’s examine each type of maltreatment listed above a little closer by defining the terms and looking at examples of each type of maltreatment starting with the different types of abuse and then moving on to the different types of neglect.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse, sometimes referred to as psychological abuse, is often difficult to prove and frequently accompanies other types of abuse. Emotional abuse can cause severe damage to a child’s mental health and development, but for a third party, it is often difficult to see because the hurt occurs on the inside not the outside. The pamphlet called Fact Sheet: Emotional Child Abuse, from the organization Prevent Child Abuse America, defines it this way:

Emotional child abuse is maltreatment which results in impaired psychological growth and development. It involves words, actions, and indifference. Abusers constantly reject, ignore, belittle, dominate, and criticize the victims. This form of abuse may occur with or without physical abuse, but there is often an overlap.

Examples of emotional abuse would include:

  • Administering unprescribed substances
  • Belittling
  • Bullying
  • Calling a child names
  • Close confinement (tying, binding other physical restriction)
  • Constant criticism
  • Denigrating
  • Excessive demands on a child’s performance
  • Excessive responsibilities
  • Humiliating
  • Ignoring or Rejecting a child as punishment
  • Limited physical contacts (e.g., withholding signs of affection)
  • Making negative comparisons to others
  • Penalizing a child for positive, normal behavior (e.g., smiling, mobility, exploration, etc.)
  • Penalizing a child for demonstrating signs of positive self-esteem
  • Rejection
  • Scapegoating
  • Shaming
  • Terrorizing
  • Threatening
  • Threats of sexual or other types of abuse
  • Withholding food, shelter, sleep or other necessities
  • Withholding love, support and guidance
  • Yelling

Many of the examples listed above require a sustained pattern before they rise to the level of emotional abuse.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse can take many forms, but it is essentially any physical activity which intentionally harms a child, or for which the harm should have been foreseeable. It is one of the more commonly recognized types of abuse because many times the results of the abuse are readily observable. The CDC’s publication titled Child Maltreatment Surveillance: Uniform Definitions for Public Health and Recommended Data Elements, Version 1.0 defines physical abuse as:

Physical abuse is defined as the intentional use of physical force against a child that results in, or has the potential to result in, physical injury.

Physical abuse includes physical acts ranging from those which do not leave a physical mark on the child to physical acts which cause permanent disability, disfigurement, or death. Physical abuse can result from discipline or physical punishment.

Common examples of physical abuse include:

  • Assault
  • Beating
  • Biting
  • Burning
  • Dragging
  • Dropping purposefully
  • Grabbing
  • Hitting with a hand, stick, strap or other object
  • Kicking
  • Pinching
  • Poisoning
  • Pulling
  • Punching
  • Pushing
  • Scalding
  • Shoving
  • Slapping
  • Smothering
  • Shaking
  • Stabbing
  • Strangling or Choking
  • Throwing

For those interested, the What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? pamphlet explicitly states that:

Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.

Sexual Abuse

Although all maltreatment of children is heartbreaking, it is sexual abuse which often makes the headlines and causes us to cringe the hardest. Federal law defines sexual abuse as,

“…the employment, use, persuasion, inducement, enticement, or coercion of any child to engage in, or assist any other person to engage in, any sexually explicit conduct or simulation of such conduct for the purpose of producing a visual depiction of such conduct; or the rape, and in cases of caretaker or inter-familial relationships, statutory rape, molestation, prostitution, or other form of sexual exploitation of children, or incest with children.”

It can include:

  • Attempted or threatened sexual abuse with physical contact
  • Child pornography
  • Child prostitution
  • Exposure
  • Failure to supervise child’s voluntary sexual activities
  • Genital molestation
  • Incest
  • Intrusion
  • Providing sexually explicit materials
  • Rape
  • Sexual harassment of a child
  • Voyeurism

Educational Neglect

Educational neglect is defined as the failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs. Generally it relates to a caregivers’ failure to sufficiently provide for the educational needs of the child.

Examples of educational neglect might include:

  • Chronic truancy
  • Encouraging a child under age 16 to drop out of school
  • Failure to allow or provide needed attention for a diagnosed educational need
  • Failure to enroll a child in school
  • Keeping child home without legitimate reason

Emotional Neglect

Emotional neglect is defined as inattention to a child’s emotional needs.

Examples of emotional neglect might include:

  • Failure to provide psychological care
  • Inadequate nurture or affection
  • Inadequate structure
  • Inappropriate advanced expectations
  • Inattention to a child’s developmental or emotional needs
  • Overprotective treatment
  • Permitting a child to use alcohol or other drugs

Medical Neglect

Medical neglect is failure to provide a child with necessary medical or mental health treatment. Note: For purposes of NIS-4 (the source of the statistics throughout this article), medical neglect is classified as a form of physical neglect.

Examples of medical neglect include:

  • Failure to administer prescribed medications
  • Refusal to seek timely medical attention

Physical Neglect

Physical neglect represents a failure to provide a child with necessary food or shelter. A failure to provide adequate supervision and abandonment are sometimes classified as physical neglect as well.

Examples of physical neglect might include:

  • Abandonment
  • Health hazards in the home
  • Inadequate attention to needs for clothing
  • Inadequate attention to needs for food
  • Inadequate attention to needs for personal hygiene
  • Inadequate attention to needs for shelter
  • Inadequate supervision
  • Other disregard for child’s physical needs or physical safety
  • Refusal of custody
  • Unstable custody arrangements

Abuse and neglect can take many forms. The lists above are certainly not exhaustive, but they do serve as a starting point for recognizing potential forms of abuse and neglect.

For more resources for learning about, and dealing with child abuse and neglect, please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Child Abuse & Neglect Help Center. For more resources for learning about, and dealing with sexual abuse and rape, please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Sexual Abuse & Rape Help Center.

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on September 21, 2011.

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Written by Wayne Stocks
Wayne is the founder and executive director of Hope 4 Hurting Kids. He is a happily married father of four kids with a passion for helping young people who are going through rough times. In addition to Hope 4 Hurting Kids, Wayne previously started I Am A Child of Divorce and Divorce Ministry 4 Kids to help kids who are dealing with the disruption of their parents' relationship. These are now part of Hope 4 Hurting Kids. Wayne speaks frequently at conferences and churches on issues related to helping kids learn to deal with difficult emotions and life in modern families. Wayne lives with his wife, three youngest kids, three dogs and an insane collection of his kids' other pets outside of Columbus, Ohio. In addition to his work with Hope 4 Hurting Kids, Wayne is a partner in a local consulting firm, an avid reader, coaches his son's soccer team and is a proud supporter of Leicester City Football Club (and yes, for those in know, his affinity for the club does predate the 2016 championship). You can reach Wayne at wayne@hope4hurtingkids.com.