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Child Abuse Risk Factors, Resources, and Coping Strategies

News Release

Every April, National Child Abuse Prevention Month provides an opportunity for people to raise awareness regarding the tragedy of child abuse. National Childhood Abuse Prevention Month started in 1983, and ever since, the campaign has been a key component in the fight to protect children.

One of the main slogans of National Child Abuse Prevention Month is that “Everyone can make great childhoods happen—especially you, especially now!” Even by simply raising awareness regarding child abuse, anyone can be a part of the solution. In that spirit, we hope to raise awareness about child abuse in this article. Below, we discuss child abuse risk factors, resources for combatting child abuse, and coping strategies.

What are the risk factors for child abuse?

Risk factors for child abuse can include characteristics of the child, the child’s family, and the child’s community. Also, different risk factors can contribute to different types of child abuse, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or emotional abuse.

When it comes to risk factors associated with the child, children with disabilities are more likely to suffer abuse. These disabilities include physical and mental disabilities. The child’s age is also a risk factor for abuse. Younger children, particularly under the age of four, are more likely to suffer emotional abuse and neglect. As children approach puberty, they are more likely to experience sexual abuse. Generally speaking, female children are at a higher risk of sexual abuse than male children.

There are also several characteristics of the family and the child’s caregivers that can serve as risk factors for child abuse. In particular, families that suffer from substance abuse are more likely to have cases of child abuse. Similarly, families with instances of domestic violence are also more likely to have cases of child abuse. Children are also at a higher risk of child abuse when adults in their family or their caregivers are victims of child abuse themselves.

Regarding community-based risk factors, children in communities afflicted by poverty and violence are at higher risk of child abuse. Children are also at a higher risk of child abuse when adults in their lives do not have strong support networks. Also, some communities can have a strong social norm of non-interference with the family unit. This norm can put children at a higher risk of child abuse, as when this community norm is present, people are hesitant to report known or suspected cases of child abuse.

What should a person do when they recognize child abuse? What resources are available?

When a person suspects child abuse, it can be difficult for the person to know what to do next. Sometimes the person who suspects child abuse is hesitant to take action, as they may have social ties with the potential abuser, and they are rarely completely sure that child abuse has taken place.

Often, child abuse is difficult to detect, and people who identify child abuse seldom see the actual abusive event take place. Instead, people who identify child abuse often only see after-effects. For example, the child may have physical marks that are visible or hidden with clothing. Another common sign of child abuse is when the child reflexively shudders when an adult reaches out to shake their hand or to give them a high-five.

Importantly, people should know that most reports of potential child abuse come from an adult noticing the after-effects of an abusive event or series of events. There is rarely a “smoking gun.” Adults in the child’s life are often the child’s only line of defense, and when an adult observes signs of potential child abuse, they should take action.

So, what can a person do if they suspect a case of child abuse? One first step is to talk with the child’s parents. While this may be a counterintuitive step when the child’s parents are the suspected abusers, a simple discussion can help a person better assess the situation and potential solutions.

Beyond a conversation with the child’s parents, a useful child abuse prevention resource is the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1 800 422-4453. People can also text the hotline or chat online here. The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is available 24/7, and callers can connect with an operator in over 170 languages. The operators can advise a person on what to do next and what resources are available in your area. Importantly, conversations are completely confidential.

Remember, if a person believes that a child is in immediate danger, the person should call 911 immediately.

What are the typical coping strategies for child abuse?

Child abuse is a severe violation of a child’s trust in an adult, and children attempt to cope with child abuse in a variety of ways. Some children deal with abusive events by engaging in denial or withdrawal. Other coping mechanisms include the child engaging in approval-seeking behavior or sudden behavioral shifts and outbursts. Many children cope by keeping quiet or maintaining secrecy surrounding abusive events, as they may be scared of the unknown consequences of someone finding out what happened.

Unfortunately, children have limited options for responding to child abuse and neglect, as they are often dependent on the care of the abusive adult and do not know how to react appropriately. This reality can result in the child remaining in an abusive environment and abusive behavior becoming normalized over time.

How can Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute be helpful?

Sometimes, an adult’s behavioral and mental health can be a risk factor for cases of child abuse. When an adult is facing troubles of their own, these stressors can lead to the adult taking out their stress on a child through various forms of abuse.

At Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute, we have a variety of inpatient behavioral health programs and outpatient behavioral health programs to help adults work on their mental wellbeing. We also offer inpatient programs for adolescents, which, in some cases, may be appropriate.

To get started at Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute, anyone can call our 24/7 hotline at (512) 819-1100.