Empty colorful swings at the park

Signs of Child Abuse

The Department of Defense and the Family Advocacy Program are committed to promoting the well-being of children and families and preventing, addressing and ultimately ending child abuse. Child abuse and neglect affects children of all races, religions and income levels. Abuse most often occurs at home, committed by those well known to the child -- parents, relatives, babysitters and trusted family friends. Do your part to keep kids safe and secure: learn what child abuse is, who might be at risk, how to recognize the signs and ways you can help.

What defines child abuse

The Department of Defense defines child abuse as injury to, maltreatment of, or neglect of a child by a parent, guardian or caregiver so that the child's welfare is harmed or threatened. Child abuse generally falls into one of the following four categories:

  • Neglect includes the failure to provide for a child's basic physical, emotional, medical or educational needs.
  • Physical abuse causes physical harm to a child by actions such as punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting or burning.
  • Sexual abuse includes touching or non-touching sexual activity toward or involving a child.
  • Emotional abuse includes a pattern of behaviors that have a negative effect on the child's psychological well-being, including constant criticism, threats, humiliation and rejection.

Why does child abuse occur?

According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, several factors, often in combination, increase the risk of child abuse or neglect:

  • Immaturity. Young parents may lack experience with children or be unprepared for the responsibility of raising a child.
  • Unrealistic expectations. A lack of knowledge about normal child development or behavior may result in frustration and, ultimately, abusive discipline.
  • Stress. Families struggling with poverty, unstable housing, divorce, or unemployment may be at greater risk.
  • Substance use. The effects of substance use, as well as time, energy and money spent obtaining drugs or alcohol, significantly impair parents’ abilities to care for their children.
  • Intergenerational trauma. Parents’ own experiences of childhood trauma impact their relationships with their children.
  • Isolation. Effective parenting is more difficult when parents lack a supportive partner, family or community.

These factors do not mean the family will experience child abuse or neglect, but they can add to family distress and increase the risk of abuse.

Examples of child abuse

You can help keep your community safe and report child abuse when you see it. Here are some examples of child abuse:

  • A mother leaves her 2-year-old child unsupervised at home while she runs a quick errand
  • A parent puts a young child in the bathtub and leaves the room for a break
  • A parent or caretaker shakes a baby to get the infant to stop crying
  • A father hits his unruly teenager leaving bruises, cuts or welts
  • A parent frequently tells the child they're no good and should never have been born
  • A family member engages in sexual behavior with a child by touching the child inappropriately or making the child participate in sexual activities.

Know the signs of child abuse and neglect

A child who's being abused or neglected may feel guilty, ashamed or confused. The child may be afraid to tell anyone, particularly if the abuser is a parent, sibling or other relative, or family friend. The child may seem afraid of parents, older youth or adult caregivers or family friend. Watch for red flags, such as when a child:

  • Shows sudden changes in behavior or school performance
  • Has not received help for physical or medical problems brought to the parents’ attention
  • Has learning problems, or difficulty concentrating, that cannot be attributed to specific physical or psychological causes
  • Is always watchful, as though preparing for something bad to happen
  • Lacks adult supervision
  • Has unexplained burns, bites, bruises, broken bones or black eyes
  • Has fading bruises or other marks noticeable after an absence from school
  • Seems frightened of the parents and protests or cries when it is time to go home
  • Abuses animals or pets.

How you can help

Reporting child abuse only takes a minute, but it also takes courage and the commitment to keeping children healthy and safe. If you’re concerned about a child or family, but aren’t sure whether it’s abuse, err on the side of safety. Reporting provides the opportunity to prevent or stop abuse and enable the family to get the help they need. Everyone has a moral obligation and, in many cases, a legal responsibility to take action to end child abuse and neglect. Here are some ways you can help.

  • Call 911 or the military police if you witness violence or know someone is in immediate danger.
  • Report suspected child abuse or neglect to the installation Family Advocacy Program and the local child protective services or child welfare office. You can also call your state's child abuse reporting hotline or Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 800-4-A-CHILD (422-4453).
  • Help is available. Your installation's Family Advocacy Program provides counseling and support to help address issues contributing to stress within the home. The program can connect you with the network of community services available to strengthen families and promote resilience. To find your installation’s Family Advocacy Program, call Military OneSource, 800-342-9647, or visit MilitaryINSTALLATIONS.

Strong communities strengthen families. Parents, caregivers, and community members can help by being informed, attentive and supportive of children. To learn more about child abuse, read, “What is Child Abuse?”