What Is Child Abuse? Child Abuse Definition

Definition of child abuse includes any act that causes physical or emotional harm to the child. Get in-depth child abuse information.

Child abuse is a major problem in the United States. How big? Over three million reports of child abuse were filed with Child Protective Services around the country in the fiscal year 2010. In human terms, over 1500 children under the age of 18 died that year from child abuse and child neglect. 1

Sadly, child abuse most often involves the biological parent of the child but it may also be at the hands of another caregiver or family member.

Definition of Child Abuse

Child abuse is defined both at the state and federal level. Normally, child abuse and neglect are defined together and often occur in the same situation. At the federal level, the definition of child abuse and neglect includes:2

  • Any 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
  • An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm
  • Each state may then further define additional child abuse types and standards. Multiple types of child abuse often occur to the same child. Child abuse types defined at the state level often include:
  • Physical abuse – actions, such as hitting or burning, that result in any type of bodily harm to the child
  • Sexual abuse (also defined at the federal level) – includes sexual contact and exploitation
  • Emotional abuse – behaviors that impact a child's emotional development or self-worth
  • Substance abuse – exposure to drugs, being around drugs or drug-impairment of the caregiver

Child abuse is not only defined as acts that happen directly to a child. Child abuse can occur:

  • Prenatally, such as when a mother exposes an unborn child to drugs
  • To the child directly, such as in the case of physical abuse
  • In the environment, such as in the case of manufacturing methamphetamine in the presence of a child

Generally, child abuse is defined in relation to a parent or other caregiver and not in relation to acquaintances or strangers.

Defining Child Abuse vs. Punishment

Child abuse is, in some cases, hard to define as some may fear it interferes with a family's preferred childrearing techniques. Physical punishment, such as in the case of spanking or paddling, is not considered child abuse as long as the discipline does not in any way harm (including bruise) a child.

Experts remind parents that punishment is just one form of discipline and that punishment should be used alongside positive methods of discipline, such as praise or rewards for good behavior, for the most effective results.3

article references

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2021, December 17). What Is Child Abuse? Child Abuse Definition, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: December 30, 2021

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

More Info