Child Abuse Prevention

The month of April is not only Sexual Assault Awareness month, but it is also National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Within the past year, at least 1 in 7 children have experienced child abuse or neglect. However, as with a lot of different types of abuse, this may be an inaccurate number, as many cases of child abuse can and do go unreported.

Children who are abused may suffer immediate physical harm or more long-term emotional and psychological issues such as anxiety or posttraumatic stress. In severe cases, abuse may also lead to the death of the child. In 2020, 1750 children died of abuse and neglect in the United States.

For those who work with children, it is crucial to be able to identify the signs of abuse and neglect. These professionals must have the knowledge to go about ensuring the safety and care of children. To do so, we must better understand what child abuse and neglect is.

Child abuse and neglect is defined as being a recent act or failure to act on the part of the parent or caretaker, that results in death, physical or emotional harm, or the sexual abuse or exploitation of a child. “Child” in this definition means any person under the age of 18, or one who is not an emancipated minor. While the definition directly refers to parents or caretakers, other adults in a custodial role are also included (eg, religious leaders, coaches, teachers) as potential abusers. The abuse may be a single or repeated act of violence that harms the child, acts that may have harmed the child emotionally or psychologically, or even a threat of harm.

Role of the Health Care Provider

When it comes to child maltreatment, it can be difficult for the victim to come forward and disclose that they are being abused. This may be for many reasons, whether it is that they are too young to speak about their abuse, they do not know that the behavior of the abuser is abnormal, or they may not want to get the abuser in trouble (as they are usually trusted adults). This is why health care providers and other professionals should be well-versed in knowing the signs of abuse.

Professionals in both health care and education need to be aware of how to identify suspicious injuries, report the suspected abuse to a child protection agency, support families who are affected by this abuse, coordinate with other professionals, and provide testimony.

Types of Child Maltreatment

Child maltreatment comes in many different forms, and some of them may not be as obvious as others.

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse is defined as the intentional use of physical force that can result in physical injuries (ie, bruises, broken bones, burns). Among other physically abusive behaviors, this can include:

  • Hitting
  • Kicking
  • Shaking
  • Burning

In some cases, a weapon may also be used against the child.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves pressuring or forcing a child to participate in sexual acts. This can include:

  • Fondling
  • Penetration
  • Photographing the child in various states of undress
  • Exposure to other sexual activities

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse refers to any acts/behaviors that harm a child’s well-being or self-worth. These may include:

  • Name-calling
  • Shaming
  • Rejection
  • Withholding love
  • Threatening


Child neglect is the failure to meet basic physical and emotional needs. These needs include:

  • Housing
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Education
  • Access to medical care
  • Validating feelings

How Do We Prevent Child Abuse?

Once abuse has already occurred, the best course of action is to treat the child for injuries and remove the child from the abusive environment. However, how does one cut off child abuse at the root?

First of all, child abuse is preventable. Nurturing, safe, and stable relationships are key to preventing abuse. In order to create and maintain these safe relationships, we need to understand and address the factors that contribute to violent behaviors and take steps to create healthy homes.

Strengthening Economic Support for Families

With a strengthened family structure, children are able to be brought up in a safer environment. Building economic support includes strengthening financial security for households as well as implementing family-friendly work policies, such as greater maternity and paternity leave, flexible working arrangements, and assistance with child care. Rates of child abuse and neglect are 5 times higher for children in families that have low socioeconomic status, so by removing this difficulty from the family, a healthier and more stress-free environment is created. 

Societal Changes

These kinds of societal changes can start small, but they have a ripple effect, leading to a bigger change overall. This movement can begin with public engagement campaigns to help people understand the severity and presentation of child abuse and neglect. Then, it can progress to breaking down societal ideas of what “good parenting” looks like and ensuring that parents are supported as well.

Evolution in the idea of what makes a “good” or “bad” mom/dad/guardian once again helps families by eliminating biases, removing another layer of stress. “Good” parents are still capable of abuse, just as “bad” parents are not always abusers.


Better education for both children and adults is also a part of ensuring the prevention of child abuse and neglect; improving the quality of child care through licensing and accreditation, enhancing parenting skills in order to promote healthy childhood development, continuation of mandated reporter trainings, preschool enrichment with family engagement, and behavioral parent training programs are all part of solving small problems early on before they may lead to an abusive situation.

Until we are able to make these larger, systemic changes, we must continue to train and educate health care providers and other professionals in the identification, treatment, and reporting of child abuse and neglect.

This blog was written by STM Learning’s editorial staff for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific medical or legal advice. For expert information on the discussed subjects, please refer to STM Learning’s publications


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