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The Psychology of Child Abuse
Children have always been regarded as the symbol of the future. This is an apt metaphor, considering how each child possesses great promise. Optimizing potential, however, is not an easy task. Ensuring that a child grows up into a well-rounded and productive individual requires adequate care, nourishment, and affection from older people. As the old saying goes, it takes a village to raise a child. Unfortunately, not all children are given the same resources and opportunities in life. Even more tragic, many children around the world fall victim to child abuse. There are likely millions of children suffering from maltreatment at any given time—a fact that underscores the need for action. The urgency of the situation is further made apparent when the long-term impact of child abuse is considered. The damage caused by child abuse does not end even when the abuse itself ceases; rather, consequences can affect a child for years, decades, and in many cases even a lifetime. So what are these effects and what can society do to decrease the number of victims? This research paper provides an overview of the most salient aspects of child abuse including its definition, effects, and ways to address the issue.
What is Child Abuse?
The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines child abuse as the “recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation” of a child or the “act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm” (Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], n.d.). This act also identifies a child as a person who is below 18 years. Due to the broad definition, it can be construed that child abuse comes in different forms including physical, emotional, and sexual among others. Note that in this definition, child abuse is not merely the commission of an act but also the omission of a responsibility that causes or risks causing harm to a child.
Child abuse affects hundreds of thousands of children every year. According to the National Children’s Alliance, as many as 700,000 children suffer abuse in the country each year. This represents around 1% of the child and adolescent population in the United States. The number of deaths is equally harrowing. In 2018 alone, around 1,770 children died from child abuse (2019). In an investigation conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families involving over 3.5 million cases, it was found out that 60.8% of victims suffered negligence. Meanwhile, around 10.7% suffered physical abuse, and around 7% suffered sexual abuse. Around 15% of cases suffered two or more types of abuse (Administration for Children and Families [ACF], 2020). It is important to note that these figures are likely lower than the actual number of cases. Many cases go undetected or unreported, which means that the real numbers are likely higher. Child abuse also frequently occurs in households with domestic violence. For example, children who live in households where domestic abuse occurs are at higher risk of being neglected due to the stress experienced by caregivers.
Health Outcomes of Children Who Experienced Abuse
The effects of abuse on the health of children are numerous, potentially severe, and cut across all dimensions of health. Such effects may also reverberate throughout their lifespan. Studies show that child abuse has a detrimental effect on growth and motor development. Children who experience abuse often show signs of stunted growth such as considerably lower weight and height compared to peers of the same age. They are also more likely to show delays in the development of gross and fine motor skills (Petersen, Joseph, and Feit, 2014).
Child abuse increases children’s risk for illness. Lack of nutrition and a generally stressful existence weaken children’s immune systems, making them vulnerable to diseases. Certain diseases are also associated with certain types of abuse. For example, children who suffer sexual abuse are at risk for acquiring hepatitis C since this is usually transmitted via sexual contact. Child abuse, however, does not only put children at risk for acute illness; abuse also increases their chances of developing chronic conditions. Studies show that children who suffer abuse are also more likely to develop conditions such as cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases among others. The risk for obesity also increases as a result of abuse, and obesity in itself is a risk factor that can lead to a variety of other health conditions (Petersen, Joseph, and Feit, 2014).
Child abuse has also been linked to increased risk of various life issues. For one, children who suffer child abuse are more likely to be involved in delinquency and violence than children who do not go through abuse. For example, studies show that those who experienced abuse are one and a half to two times more likely to be arrested for violence. These children also tend to develop substance dependence such as alcoholism and drug abuse. Furthermore, there is some evidence suggesting that child abuse is associated with the development of risky behavior. For instance, some studies show that children who suffer sexual abuse are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior that poses dangers such as common sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS (Petersen, Joseph, and Feit, 2014).
Cognitive and Psychological Impact of Child Abuse
These health outcomes discussed above, however, are just a few of a long list of negative consequences. Of particular note is the effect of abuse on the cognitive development and psychological health of children. This section discusses some of the cognitive and psychological issues that result from abuse. One issue is disruptions in cognitive development. Numerous studies have shown abuse prevents children from maximizing their cognitive potential. Children who have been subjected to abuse including severe neglect are more likely to have problems with attention regulation including diagnosis of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD. Such children are also more likely to garner lower intelligence quotient (IQ) scores and show poorer overall academic performance than their peers (Petersen, Joseph, and Feit, 2014). Needless to say, the lack of cognitive development in children can lead to other problems. Low academic performance and inadequate executive functioning puts children in difficult situations and pose obstacles that hinder professional progress and social mobility.
The ability to develop interpersonal relationships and attachments is also negatively impacted by abuse. Children who experience abuse find it harder to become attached, largely due to the abusive and negligent attitude shown towards them. Abused children, therefore, have higher chances of developing attachment disorders including disinhibited social engagement disorder among others. Apart from having difficulty with forming relationships, abuse also causes problems with emotion regulation. Abuse disrupts the development of children’s ability to process emotional cues, which in turn can lead to internalizing and externalizing problems. Some examples of internalizing problems are heightened anxiety and the appearance of depressive symptoms. On the other hand, some examples of externalizing problems are aggression, delinquency, and conduct disorders (Petersen, Joseph, and Feit, 2014). The risk of committing suicide, in particular, is a major concern considering the number of teen suicide that occurs every year. Finally, also among the effects of child abuse on the psychological health of children is the development of post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. Studies show that abuse predisposes children to higher rates of PTSD, which in turn is linked to various social, psychological, emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and physical problems.
What Can We Do?
Anyone can contribute to preventing child abuse and there is a wealth of materials that serve as guides to individuals. One of the crucial ways to prevent child abuse within one’s household is by knowing the factors that increase the likelihood of abuse to occur. These factors include a history of abuse among different generations; the presence of alcohol or substance abuse; the presence of domestic or spousal abuse; considerable financial stress; and lower levels of academic attainment (Trevino, Adler, and Bass, n.d.).
Forming a healthy relationship with one’s children is also another way to prevent child abuse. Abuse is often mistaken for discipline, but these are two entirely different things. Self-awareness and self-restraint are therefore essential to prevent child abuse. Parents should ensure that they provide for the needs of their children; utilize effective and non-violent ways of disciplining children such as using time-out rather than corporal punishment; and establish the home as a violence-free space among others (Trevino, Adler, and Bass, n.d.).
Finally, individuals are also encouraged to remain alert for signs of child abuse. People who regularly come into contact with children such as teachers, nurses, doctors, and other service providers are encouraged to learn the signs of child abuse and to familiarize themselves with agencies and institutions that specifically deal with child abuse.
Child abuse remains a pressing concern in American society. Every year, around 700,000 unique cases of child abuse are reported to authorities. This represents 1% of the child and adolescent population in the United States. Beyond the US, the situation is often far worse, with millions of children abused in numerous ways. As has been established in the discussion, the effects of abuse are many and potentially severe. Abuse impacts the physical, emotional, cognitive, and psychological dimensions of health, rendering children unable to reach their potential and putting them at risk for issues that may last their entire lifetimes. Taking this fact into account, it becomes everyone’s moral obligation to take action and contribute towards ending child abuse once and for all.
Administration for Children and Families. (2020). Child abuse, data released . https://www.acf.hhs.gov/media/press/2020/child-abuse-neglect-data-released
Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Definitions of child abuse and neglect . https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/can/defining/
National Children’s Alliance. (2019). National Statistics on Child Abuse . https://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/media-room/national-statistics-on-child-abuse/
Petersen, A. C., Joseph, J., and Feit, M. (2014). New Directions in Child Abuse and Neglect Research. National Academies Press. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK195985/
Trevino, H., Adler, L. C., and Bass, P. F. (n.d.). What you can do to prevent child abuse. University of Rochester. https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/encyclopedia/content.aspx?contenttypeid=1&contentid=1565
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