What Constitutes Child Abuse?

Download our info sheet about the warning signs for abuse and neglect here

Recognizing Child Abuse

In simplest terms, abuse is an act of commission. It represents an action against a child and is generally of three kinds: physical, sexual, and emotional.

Physical Abuse 

Purposeful injury of a child by a parent or caretaker. This includes beating, burning, or punching. Signs of physical abuse: unexplained bruises and welts on the face, lips, mouth, torso, back, buttocks, or thighs in various stages of healing. Rectangular patterns reflecting the shape of an article used to inflict a wound (i.e. electric cord, belt buckle) may appear on several different surface areas.

Cigar or cigarette burns may be visible on palms, soles, back, or buttocks. Rope burns are usually seen on arms, legs, neck, or torso.

Immersion burns are sock-like or glove-like, or doughnut-shaped when appearing on the buttocks or genitalia. Watch for patterns from electric burners or irons. Infected burns indicate a delay in treatment.

Behavioral Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Children who are abused may be nervous around adults or be afraid of certain grown-ups.
  • They may be apprehensive when other children cry.
  • Feel deserving of punishment.
  • Be tired a lot, or complain of nightmares or not sleeping well.

Behavioral Extremes

  • Aggressive or withdrawn.
  • Frightened of parents or afraid to go home.
  • Vacant or frozen stare.
  • Indiscriminately seeks affection.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse includes rape, touching/fondling, or involving a child in pornography. The act may be for the gratification of the perpetrator or of a third party.

Physical Indicators of Sexual Abuse

  • Difficulty in walking or sitting.
  • Pain, swelling, or itching in the genital area.
  • Bruises, bleeding, or lacerations in external genitalia, vaginal or anal areas.
  • Sexual knowledge or behavior beyond what is normal for the child's age.

Behavioral Indicators of Sexual Abuse

  • Unwilling to change for gym or participate in physical education class.
  • Bizarre, sophisticated, or unusual sexual behavior or knowledge.
  • Poor peer relationships.
  • Delinquent or runaway.
  • Change in performance in school.

Emotional Maltreatment

Emotional abuse is a pattern of destructive interactions between a parent and child resulting in the child's emotional instability. Emotional maltreatment may involve criticizing, insulting, rejecting, or withholding love from a child. It is the most difficult form of abuse or neglect to define.

Behavioral Indicators of Emotional Abuse

  • Acting overly mature or immature for the child's age.
  • Extreme changes in behavior.
  • Attempted suicide.
  • Delays in physical or emotional development.
  • Lack of emotional attachment to a parent.


While abuse is described as an act of commission, neglect is an act of omission. Neglect (physical, emotional, and educational) is the failure to provide basic needs for adequate growth and development.

For example, leaving a young child home alone or failing to provide needed medical care may be considered physical neglect.

Physical Indicators of Neglect

  • Chronic uncleanliness.
  • Severe or untreated diaper rash.
  • Height and weight significantly below age level norms.
  • Constant fatigue, listlessness or falling asleep in class.

Behavioral Indicators of Neglect

  • Delinquency and/or attendance problems.
  • Begging for or stealing money or food.
  • Says there is no one at home to take care of him or her.

Educational Neglect

Educational neglect occurs when a child's parents, guardian or custodian neglects or refuses to provide him/her with proper education necessary for his/her health.


A dependent child is one:

  • Who is homeless or destitute without proper care and support, through no fault of his/her caretakers;
  • Who lacks proper care or support because of the mental or physical condition of his/her caretakers;
  • Whose condition or environment is such as to warrant the state, in the interests of the child, in assuming his guardianship;
  • To whom both of the following apply:
    • he/she is living in a household in which a parent, guardian, custodian or other resident has abused or neglected a sibling of the child.
    • because of the circumstances surrounding the abuse or neglect of the sibling and the other conditions in the household of the child, the child is in danger of being abused or neglected by that parent, custodian, guardian, or member of the household.