Child Abuse & Neglect

Note: This piece was very hard for me to write so it might be hard for someone to read. If you start feeling upset, anxious, etc. while reading this, please take a break to love on yourself before coming back to this. If you aren’t sure how to tell when you need to take a break, the right mindfulness technique could help with that. You might see yourself in this piece. Life is complicated so you might see yourself as someone who has received abuse/neglect and/or as a parent who has done some of these things. Life is complicated like that. And all that can be hard to see. Here are some related pieces that might be helpful to read before or afterwards:
 
 
Like I’ve mentioned before in the Intro to Boundaries piece, many people have long histories in dealing with toxic people and situations that never respected them and/or their boundaries. And because of this, they could have a harder time empathizing and caring about other people’s pain. They might be thinking, “Well, I had to deal with it.” Or “I’ve dealt with worse so why should I care?” There might not have been anyone around modeling better interpersonal skills and teaching them how to have empathy for others. And that’s not even counting the role socialization plays in stunting people’s connection to their own emotions in order to benefit the status quo (white supremacy, systemic oppression, capitalism, etc.). People, who struggle to empathize with others, especially others who are different from them, tend to silence people (telling people to “suck it up”, or bragging that they’ve been through worse, etc.). Instead of giving everyone their space to tell their story, be heard, and have the opportunity to work towards healing. When child abuse and neglect is made normal, trauma is passed generation to generation and hurt children grow into hurt adults who fail to protect and nurture the next generation.
The goal of this piece to explain as clearly as possible what child abuse and neglect is and what it can look like while also helping y’all start to recognize it in the real world. I want us to start seeing this as part of community accountability: How can we support parents and our youth while beginning to limit our involvement in systems that harm our communities?
 

What Exactly Are We Talking About Here?

I want to take this time to define child physical abuse, child psychological/emotional abuse, child sexual abuse, and child neglect. Just to make sure we’re on the same page. Legal definitions vary by state in the US (legal doesn’t always mean ethical or moral) so I’m gonna to define it so we’re all on the same page. I’ll be using some information from the US Department of Health and Human Services:
 

What is Child Physical Abuse?

Definition: When adults act in ways (unintentionally and/or on purpose) that end up with the physical pain, injury, and/or sickness of a child/teen.
Some Examples: 
  • Hitting the child/teen with hands or objects
  • Slapping and punching the child/teen
  • Kicking the child/teen
  • Shaking the child/teen
  • Throwing things at and/or near/around the child/teen
  • Poisoning the child/teen
  • Burning and/or scalding the child/teen
  • Bruising the child/teen
  • Biting and/or scratching the child/teen
  • Spraining and/or breaking the child/teen’s bones
  • Drowning the child/teen
 

What is Child Emotional/Psychological Abuse?

 
Definition: Behaviors and speech that have a negative impact on the child’s development, mental health, and/or emotional wellness.
 
Some Examples:
  • Name calling
  • Insults/teasing
  • Public shaming
  • Threatening
  • Pressuring
  • Terrorizing, frightening, and/or bullying
  • Allowing kids to witness the physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse of others
  • Holding back love, guidance, attention, and/or support
  • Isolating the child/teen from social experiences
  • Encouraging the child/teen to engage in age-inappropriate and/or destructive behavior
  • Forcing a trans child/teen to de-transition or blocking them from transitioning at all
  • Forcing a lesbian, gay, bi, queer, etc. child/teen into “conversion therapy” or other efforts to make them straight
 

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

 
Definition: Adults engaging in sexual activity with minors. Minors cannot consent to sexual activity with adults. Due to the severe power dynamics and differences in both cognitive abilities and capacities for judgment at play here, any sexual activity between adults and minors is nonconsensual. It is rape. 
 
Some Examples: 
  • Exhibitionism, or exposing oneself to a child/teen
  • Fondling a child/teen
  • Intercourse with a child/teen of any kind, including vaginal, oral, and/or anal, etc
  • Masturbation in the presence of a child/teen or forcing and/or encouraging the child/teen to masturbate
  • Sexual phone calls, text messages, and/or other kinds of digital interaction with child/teen
  • Creating, owning, and/or sharing pornographic images and/or movies of children/teens
  • Sex trafficking minors
  • Any other sexual conduct that is harmful to a child/teen’s mental, emotional, and/or physical welfare
 

What is Neglect?

 
Definition: When a parent/guardian/adult-in-charge fails to provide for the child’s basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, medical care, supervision) to the point that the child’s health, safety, etc. are threatened and/or harmed.
 
Some Examples: 

Physical neglect: Abandoning the child/teen, refusing to accept custody of the child/teen, not providing for basic needs like nutrition, hygiene, and/or appropriate clothing

Medical neglect: Delaying or denying recommended quality comprehensive health care (by licensed providers) for the child/teen

Inadequate supervision: Leaving the child unsupervised (this depends on length of time and child’s age/maturity at the time), not protecting the child from safety hazards, not providing adequate caregivers, and/or engaging in harmful/dangerous behavior around the child/teen

Emotional neglect: Isolating the child/teen, not providing affection or emotional support to the child/teen, and/or exposing the child/teen to domestic violence or chaotic substance use

Educational neglect: Failing to enroll the child/teen in school and/or homeschool, ignoring the child/teen’s special education needs, and/or allowing for continued interruptions in the child/teen’s education

 

How Can You Tell?

 

Physical Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Bruises
  • Welts
  • Burns/scalds
  • Fractures
  • Cuts
  • Scarring
  • Bite marks
  • Effects of poisoning, like vomiting, seizures, etc.
  • Breathing issues from drowning, choking, etc.
 

Changes in Behavior as *Possible* Signs of Physical Abuse

  • Child/teen is wary of adults or a certain adult
  • Child/teen is violent to other children/teens and/or animals
  • Child/teen is aggressive and/or emotionally distant
  • Child/teen can’t remember or can’t explain how they got injured
 

Physical Signs of Emotional/Psychological Abuse

  • Bed wetting
  • Physical complaints, like headaches, nausea, etc. without physical causes
  • Delays in the child/teen’s physical and/or mental growth and development 

Changes in Behavior as *Possible* Signs of Emotional/Psychological Abuse

  • Increased risk for self-harm, eating disorders, anxiety, and/or depression
  • Unusual attachments: overly friendly to adults they don’t know, detached from parents, etc.
  • Child/teen is overly compliant with no boundaries
  • Child/teen is aggressive to other children and/or animals
  • Child/teen has unusual emotional outbursts
  • Child/teen has issues with social skills
  • Child/teen is scared/afraid of their parent(s)/guardian(s)
  • Child/teen has negative internal monologue (talks down to themselves, is mean in their own heads, overly high self-expectations, etc)
  • Sudden changes in speech and speech pattern, like stuttering or not talking at all

Physical Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Torn bloody clothes
  • Bruises
  • Redness, swelling, and/or bleeding in genital/anal area
  • Blood in urine and/or feces
  • STDs/STIs
  • Excessive itching and/or pain in genital and/or anal area
 

Changes in Behavior as *Possible* Signs of Sexual Abuse

  • Child/teen engages in age-inappropriate sexual play with toys and/or other children/teens
  • Child/teen has unusual/age-inappropriate sexual knowledge and/or behavior
  • Child/teen makes comments about secrets: having them, keeping them, etc.
  • Child/teen develops an eating disorder
 

Physical Signs of Neglect

  • Child/teen is not appropriately dressed for the weather outside (no winter clothes, etc.)
  • Child/teen does not seem to have socially-appropriate grooming/hygiene habits
  • Child/teen is left alone to the point that their physical, emotional, educational, social, etc child development needs are not met
  • Child/teen appears to be malnourished
  • Child/teen has current or chronic skin issues and/or rashes
  • Child/teen’s medical needs are not being handled
 

Changes in Behavior as *Possible* Signs of Neglect

  • Child/teen steals food and/or other necessities due to need
  • Child/teen appears overly hungry for attention based on what’s usual behavior for their age group and/or cultural background
  • Child/teen forms unusual attachments: overly friendly to adults they don’t know, detached from parents, etc.
  • Child/teen has poorly developed social skills
  • Child/teen has issues with personal hygiene/grooming

The Role of Community Accountability Here

 
A solid community has a shared set of values, boundaries, etc that are mutually created in order to serve everyone in that community especially the most marginalized. Strength comes from a shared vision that includes everyone equally. Like I’ve said before in my last piece on community accountability, a community that does not encourage each other to grow and push each other towards positive change is a community that will rot from the inside out. This individualistic mess isn’t healthy. Obviously.
A lot of what many of us think about doing in response to child abuse and neglect is after the fact and doesn’t actually deal with the systemic roots of the issue.
 

What Am I Supposed to Do?

(Reminder that my main focus is Black people.)
 
Some suggestions:

Having an awareness of socialization and the various systemic oppressions (not just race). Read Black political theories from all backgrounds, genders, sexualities, etc. Learn about child development, mental health wellness, sociology, public health, etc. from Black writers/thinkers with an awareness of various systemic oppressions

Using that awareness to inform your politics, how you move in the world, the kinds of support you give, etc. That awareness not only helps us address current abuse and neglect, but also guides us in figuring out how to provide support to families who are strained and are at risk of repeating intergenerational traumas

Changing the narrative about what is “normal” in our communities, giving parents other alternatives for discipline (for example) and connecting with their children from within our cultures, encouraging healthier dynamics in interpersonal relationships, and encouraging activities that push personal growth like psychotherapy, etc.

Donating money, giving out resources, sharing paid opportunities if possible, etc. directly to individuals in your communities who need it

Listening to what the people in those situations say they need and providing just that kinds of support

Consider how you can support the youth in your communities. Find a way to ask them what they need and how you and other adults can help.

Consider how you can support the families and parents in your communities even with basic things like clothing swaps (when it’s safe), giving money for food or laundry, rent parties (again, when it’s safe)

……………………………………………………………………..

 
When we live in a society that so used to being reactionary and responding after something negative has already happened, it may seem very anti-climatic to talk about interpersonal and community-level support as solutions for child abuse and neglect. But it’s actually much more effective to lead more with prevention and then some reactionary actions as needed. Starting with support addresses roots of the issue and is something everyone in the community can participate in. Making the lives of stressed and struggling Black parents, families, and/or youth in the face of systemic oppression easier will only make our lives and futures easier. Like I’ve said before, there are so many adults walking around with unhealed pain and traumas, affecting their adult lives, because they were once Black children who were forced to deal with it alone. Returning to a community-minded/village-minded way of viewing our relationships with each other is key. And everyone has their specific role to play. Some of us are good with kids and know people with children who could use some babysitting help. But that’s not everyone’s bag and that’s ok. You could give money directly to families in need via crowdfunding. You could buy school supplies for people. You could post healthcare resources. Or help someone get a better job so the money situation isn’t as strained. You could link people to free (ideally) or affordable legal services. When all the children/teens are everyone’s kids, it’s possible that people would start to pay closer attention to the laws being passed that affect them, even the LGBTQAI kids. The path to freedom includes working through our own pain/traumas, unpacking socializations, and making sure that we support future generations, not passing our pain for them to carry on.
It’s easier said than done. And it’s years and years and year of work and personal growth. But it’s worth it.

One response

  1. I am grateful that I’ve found your post on child neglect. Childhood is indeed the period when memories are formed emotionally and socially. These life experiences helped us to become mature individuals. But today, many children are suffering from child neglect due to child abuse and other factors. Seeking the help of child psychologists should be addressed if the child is showing signs and symptoms to prevent child neglect/abuse at home.

    Like

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