One in eight American children will be abused in some way, which translates into about 12 percent of kids, between birth and their 18th birthday. According to, a report of child abuse is made every ten seconds.

While even one abused child is too many, the number of children suffering from various forms of child abuse is lower today in comparison to 25 years ago, according to a Yale study published in the June issue of JAMA Pediatrics.

Federal and state laws recognize four types of child abuse:

1. Physical abuse—Non-accidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to serious injury) caused by punching or hitting, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, choking, etc. Physical discipline (spanking or paddling) is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and does not cause injury. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not support physical punishment of any kind.

2. Sexual abuse—Genital fondling, penetration, incest, rape, sodomy, indecent exposure, or exploitation through prostitution or pornographic material.

3. Emotional abuse—Defined as a pattern of behavior that hurts a child’s emotional development or self-esteem. Although difficult to prove, this type of abuse usually occurs with other forms of abuse.

4. Neglect—Failure to provide for a child’s basic physical (food, shelter, proper supervision), medical (medical or mental health treatment), educational (failing to educate a child or meet special education needs), or emotional needs (inattention to emotional needs, psychological care, or allowing a child to use alcohol or drugs).

Neglect also includes child abandonment in many states. A child is considered abandoned if a parent cannot be located or if his or her identity is unknown. A child left alone in a home or vehicle without parental contact or support is neglected and requires investigation. Like other forms of abuse, if a child suffers injury as a result of being left alone, the caregiver can be prosecuted.

A child is also considered neglected in many states if a parent or caregiver:

  • Exposes an unborn child to harm by using illegal drugs or other substances.
  • Manufactures drugs such as methamphetamines when a child is present.
  • Sells, distributes, or gives alcohol or illegal drugs to a child.
  • Uses illegal drugs or other substances that make the parent or caregiver unable to care for the child.

Child abuse is a serious problem. Suspected abuse should be reported, confidentially, to a child abuse hotline.

You can access your state’s child abuse hotline at the State-by-State Child Abuse Hotlines.


  • Abuse can take many forms, including neglect.
  • Exposing children to drugs or the effects of drugs or alcohol can constitute abuse.
  • Leaving a child alone without adult supervision or contact in a home or a vehicle is considered abuse.

Last reviewed by Heather Felton, MD, FAAP. Review Date: April 2020


  1. National Institutes of Health. What is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms.
  2. National Institutes of Health. 1 of 8 U.S. Kids Mistreated Before Age 18, Study Finds.
  3. ChildHelp. National Child Abuse Statistics.
  4. JAMA Pediatrics. Childhood Maltreatment, Altered Limbic Neurobiology, and Substance Use Relapse Severity via Trauma-Specific Reductions in Limbic Gray Matter Volume.


  1. This was supposed to tell us the signs of child abuse. This was an overview of what it is, not how to spot it….

    1. Correct. This is an overview. Spotting child abuse is often quite difficult. Bruises, broken bones, broken spirits, and the like are not always obvious. Doctors, healthcare workers, daycare workers and teachers are mandated reporters meaning that our job is to report any suspicion of abuse to Child Protective Services. The key is suspicion, if you suspect a child is being abused in any of the above ways, you should report.

  2. It is good to know that child abuse is lower today than in the past. However, it is unfortunate to know that many cases still go unreported.


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