Signs of Child Abuse

The Department of Defense and the Family Advocacy Program are committed to promoting the well-being of children and families by preventing and addressing child abuse and neglect.

An estimated one in four children has experienced abuse or neglect at some point in their lives. This abuse most often occurs at home and is typically committed by those well known to the child – parents, relatives, babysitters and family friends.

The good news is child abuse and neglect can be prevented. You can do your part to keep military children safe and secure by learning more about what child abuse and neglect are, understanding signs that a child may be at risk, and knowing how to report suspected abuse.

What is child abuse and neglect?

The Department of Defense defines 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 injury or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or, an act or failure to act which presents imminent risk of serious harm." 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. For example, a parent or caregiver withholds food from their child as a punishment for misbehaving.
  • Physical abuse includes any behavior that involves the use of force to harm a child, such as punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting or burning.
  • Sexual abuse involves any contact with a child of a sexual nature by an adult. This includes both physical touch involving a sexual body part belonging to the child, or the adult, as well as forcing a child to look at an adult’s sexual body parts. Sexual abuse of children also includes intentionally exposing children to pornographic or other explicitly sexual material. It is key to remember that children cannot consent to any sexual activity.
  • Emotional abuse includes a pattern of verbal and non-verbal behaviors that have a negative effect on the child's psychological well-being, including constant criticism, threats, humiliation and rejection. Emotional abuse can also include a parent or caregiver intentionally withholding affection from a child.

Risk of child abuse and neglect

Experts have identified common risk factors that may make some children more likely to experience abuse or neglect. At the individual level, parents who have a history of Adverse Childhood Experiences, including experiencing abuse or neglect while they were children, may be more likely to repeat similar mistreatment of their own children. This is because abuse is often a learned behavior, and our earliest experiences can have a big impact on our future relationships.

Another factor that may add to parental risk of abusing or neglecting their children is a lack of knowledge of child development. Parents who are younger, and perhaps less prepared to become parents, may need additional support to build healthy and nurturing relationships with their children. Further, parents who struggle with addiction to alcohol or drugs are at risk of exposing their children to dangerous substances and are less likely to provide for their children’s safety.

At the family level, parents who are under particular stress, such as financial insecurity, may be at a higher risk of neglecting their children. Times of uncertainty or crisis can lead to higher risk. For example, adults who are unable to cope with pressure may take out their anxiety on their children or partner by yelling, screaming or even hitting physical objects in the home. Parents with a history of relationship violence, with one parent abusing the other, may risk exposing their children to domestic abuse, which has long-lasting harm on their social and emotional development.

At the community level, everyone can play a role in reducing the risk of harm to any child through a commitment to knowing the signs of child abuse and neglect, committing to report any suspected abuse and by supporting parents who are going through especially stressful times.

Report Suspected Child Abuse

If you have concerns that a child may be abused or neglected, the Family Advocacy Program is available to help keep children safe and to keep your report confidential.

Know the signs of child abuse and neglect

A child who is being abused or neglected may feel guilty, ashamed or confused. The child may be afraid to tell anyone, particularly if the person harming them is a parent, sibling or other relative, or family friend. Learn about the indicators of child sexual abuse and how to talk to your child to ensure their safety.

The child may seem afraid of parents, older youth or adult caregivers or family friend. Watch for the following 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
  • Seems to always lack 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 their parent or caregiver and protests or cries when it is time to go home from a playdate, from school or another outside activity
  • 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.

Depending on the situation, you may report child abuse or neglect to one or more of the following organizations:

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?”