About five children die every day in the United States from abuse and neglect, with thousands more experiencing abuse.
Many child advocates have predicted that during the current COVID-19 pandemic, extra stress, isolation, and lack of access to resources will increase the rate of child abuse in households and expose already-abused children to more intense maltreatment.
Here’s why the COVID-19 pandemic is a risk factor for abuse, and what you can do to help.
How Common is Child Abuse?
About a third of males and a quarter of females report experiencing physical abuse as children.According to data from the Ontario Child Health Study, about a third of males and a quarter of females report experiencing physical abuse as children. Sexual abuse, too, is highly prevalent, with 22.1 percent of females and 8.3 percent of males reporting some form of childhood sexual abuse. Emotional abuse is likely even more common, and the actual prevalence of child abuse may be even higher than official reports.
The high rate of child abuse suggests that most families know a child who is being abused or at risk of abuse. Child abuse affects children of every age and demographic. Even families that seem nice to outsiders can be abusive. Indeed, abusive parents may conceal their abuse through a facade of external kindness. Some abusive people even actively court relationships with people to whom their children might turn for help. This makes it less likely that other adults will believe the child.
Risk Factors for Child Abuse
Although any parent can become abusive, certain factors are more likely to trigger abuse. Those include:
- facing stress, such as the individual stress of a job loss or the widespread cultural stress of a pandemic
- living in a disadvantaged neighborhood with high rates of poverty, violence, or joblessness
- being socially isolated, as with the extreme social isolation of COVID-19
- being a new or transient caregiver, such as a stepparent or baby-sitter
- a poor understanding of the child’s needs
- weak understanding of developmentally appropriate behavior
- having attitudes that justify abuse–such as believing children must be punished to learn or blaming children for their emotions
- stress related to parenting
- negative parent-child interactions
Some children are also more likely to be abused. Child-specific risk factors include:
- having special needs
- having behavioral or mental health conditions
- being younger than 4 years old
It is important to note that children with these risk factors do not cause the maltreatment. Instead, these risk factors can intensify parent stress, increasing the likelihood that at-risk parents will become abusive.
How COVID-19 Could Drive a Child Abuse Epidemic
The society-wide changes from COVID-19 expose virtually every family to child abuse risk factors such as social isolation and stress.The society-wide changes from COVID-19 expose virtually every family to child abuse risk factors such as social isolation and stress. Many parents are now struggling to balance work and educating their children, and may feel intense pressure to excel at each of these tasks. This parenting-related stress can erode coping mechanisms and decrease the quality and warmth of parent-child interactions. Moreover, because most parents can no longer rely on childcare or even get help from a relative, they are with their children for all or most of the day. This means no breaks for the parent, further intensifying their stress.
Children, too, are stressed. This can compound mental health and behavioral difficulties, cause regression, and lead children to act out. Parents may lose control when they don’t know how to handle their children’s behavior.
A 2019 study of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey found that both intimate partner violence and child abuse increased. Many of the stressors that drove abuse following the storm are now affecting families across the globe.
Some other factors that may increase abuse during COVID-19 include:
- Loss of control. Most researchers agree that child abuse is about regaining a sense of control. When people’s lives are in a tailspin, they may lash out against their children.
- Lack of access to social services. This may include shelters, family support programs, and mental health care.
- Economic disenfranchisement, poverty, and job loss.
- Privacy and secrecy. When children are in the house with abusive parents all day, every day, there is no third party who can witness signs of abuse. The child does not get a break and may not have access to responsible adults who can help them.
Examples of Child Abuse
Some examples of child abuse include:
- Physical abuse: This includes doing things that could injure or even kill a child, such as hitting them very hard, hitting them with an object, burning or kicking them, or deliberately inflicting pain such as by pinching the child or forcing them to eat spicy food.
- Emotional abuse: Most parents occasionally lose their temper. This rises to the level of emotional abuse when a parent consistently calls a child names, degrades them, punishes them for expressing their emotions, relies on the child as a primary source of self-esteem or support, consistently shames or guilt the child, or deliberately attempts to destroy the child’s self-esteem.
- Sexual abuse: Sexual abuse happens when a parent uses the child for their own sexual gratification. For example, an adult might fondle the child or force the child to fondle them. Sexual abuse does not have to include physical contact. Exposing the child to pornography or inappropriate sexual material may also be abusive.
- Neglect: Neglect happens when parents consistently ignore a child’s basic needs—not when they occasionally forget a daily task, such as giving a child a snack. For example, a parent who denies a child food as punishment or refuses to seek medical care for a sick child or after a serious injury has engaged in neglect. In some cases, exposing a child to very dangerous situations—such as by leaving loaded guns out—may constitute neglect.
Every state has its own laws about child abuse. It’s important to note that many abusive behaviors were once legal. Some still are. What matters is not the legal status of an action, but whether it has the potential to cause lasting emotional or physical harm.
Help for Children Experiencing Abuse
Children who are being abused should know, first and foremost, that abuse is not their fault.Children who are being abused should know, first and foremost, that abuse is not their fault. No amount of misbehavior warrants abuse. Millions of children across the globe make mistakes or deliberately antagonize their parents, and are not met with maltreatment. It is also not the child’s responsibility to stop the abuse.
Some options that might help include:
- Call 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) for help.
- If you have contact with an adult you trust, try reaching out to them when your parents are not around or when you have privacy.
- If your parent is physically or sexually abusing you, consider calling 911.
If you aren’t able to get help now, know that there will be more resources at the end of the pandemic. It may help to keep a log of the abuse to share with a teacher or other adult.
Supporting a Child You Think May Be Suffering Abuse
Abuse thrives in secrecy. Abusive parents may go to great lengths to conceal the abuse, or to cut off abused children from adults who try to help. So confronting the parent may not be a wise strategy unless you have a plan for getting the child away from the parent. Instead, focus on three goals:
- Getting the child to safety. If the abuse is severe enough, the police and child protective services will care about it. If a child is in serious danger, call the police or your local child advocacy office.
- Supporting the parent with appropriate resources. Child abuse is never acceptable. However, abusive parents are often exhausted and overwhelmed. Helping them access the resources they need may ease the abuse. Consider offering to tutor the child online for the duration of the pandemic, or asking what you can do to support the family. Sometimes praising a child in front of an angry parent is helpful because it eases the parent’s anger.
- Giving the child a safe person to talk to. After a while, abuse seems normal. Helping abused children understand that their treatment is abnormal and undeserved can help them recover. Offer to talk to the child daily, and offer reassurance that they are worthy of love. Sharing a beloved hobby—such as reading, gardening, or talking about animals—can offer a meaningful distraction.
Therapy can help all parties to child abuse—bystanders, parents, and children. In therapy, parents can learn better coping skills, while children can rebuild self-esteem. Bystanders may gain access to new resources that empower them to support the family.
Many therapists offer teletherapy which you can access from your home, and some even offer discounted treatment to abuse survivors and needy families. Click here to find a therapist on GoodTherapy.
- Abramson, A. (2020, April 8). How COVID-19 may increase domestic violence and child abuse. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/covid-19/domestic-violence-child-abuse
- Child abuse and neglect fatalities 2017: statistics and interventions [PDF]. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/fatality.pdf
- Macmillan, H. L., Tanaka, M., Duku, E., Vaillancourt, T., & Boyle, M. H. (2013). Child physical and sexual abuse in a community sample of young adults: Results from the Ontario Child Health Study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(1), 14–21. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0145213412002244
- Risk and protective factors. (2020, March 5). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/riskprotectivefactors.html
- Serrata, J. V., and Alvarado, M. G. H. (2019). Understanding the impact of Hurricane Harvey on family violence survivors in Texas and those who serve them. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://tcfv.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Hurricane-Harvey-Report-FINAL-and-APPROVED-as-of-060619.pdf
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