Family & Relationships: Child Abuse Research Paper Starter

Family & Relationships: Child Abuse

(Research Starters)

As a general definition, child abuse comprises any physical or verbal behavior that is violent, negligent, demeaning, or invasive to a child. There are several different types of child abuse including physical abuse, psychological abuse, and sexual abuse. Child neglect is also considered to be a type of child abuse. In many cases, the child abuse is part of a general pattern of domestic violence (any action by one member of a family that causes physical harm to one or more members of his/her family). There are a number of signs and symptoms to watch for that may indicate an underlying pattern of child abuse. Further research is needed not only to define the various facets of child abuse, but also to better understand its antecedents and to develop ways to prevent it.

Keywords Abuse; Caregiver; Child Abuse; Culture; Domestic Violence; Neglect; Physical Abuse; Psychological Abuse; Sexual Abuse

Child Abuse


In her review of the history of child abuse, Carolyn Hilarski [M1](2008) discusses the evidence of child abuse through written history. In some ways, child abuse is a matter of legal definition. Looked at through the lens of twenty-first century sensibilities, actions that today would be considered outrageous examples of child abuse were at various times legally sanctioned and culturally accepted (e.g., at one point in time, a lying child could legally have his/her tongue cut out). However, as long ago as ancient Mesopotamia, the fact of child abuse was recognized and laws were put into effect to reduce its incidence. For example, children, wives, animals, and slaves at that time were all considered to be property of the male head of household. Disrespectful children could be sold into slavery, physically punished, or even dismembered. However, there were limitations to what could be done to a child. For example, the code of Hammurabi limited enslavement of children to a period no greater than three years. Similarly, in ancient Greece, infanticide was considered immoral unless the child was considered to be sickly. However, death by exposure to the elements was an acceptable practice for a female child, an injured child, or one with a birth defect. During the Roman empire, male heads of household also had complete control over their entire family, and youths who disobeyed their fathers could be mutilated or even murdered. Further, most ancient Romans also considered pederasty to be an inconsequential sexual activity. During the Middle Ages, children were still sold into slavery or prostitution, murdered as infants, or forced to work as young as three or five years of age. At that time, killing or deserting infants continued to be common practice. Child abuse continued basically unabated through times considered to be much more civilized. For example, in colonial America, the cultural norm was to rear children under the philosophy of "spare the rod, spoil the child." The "Stubborn Child Law" in colonial Massachusetts allowed children to be put to death for any sort of noncompliant behavior. During the Industrial Revolution, many young children were forced to work twelve to fifteen hour days or abandoned, and girls were frequently at risk for rape and boys at risk for sodomy.

Despite the pervasiveness of child abuse throughout the ages, however, it has been long recognized that it is unacceptable behavior. The Code of Hammurabi circa 1750 BCE attempted to stop the practice of exposing children to the elements or selling them into slavery. During the Christian era, Constantine outlawed the exposure of infants and Justinian's legal codes forbade the sale or enslavement of children or the abandonment of infants, and made these actions punishable by death. Despite such advances, however, routine infanticide persisted until well into the nineteenth century.

Contemporary Definition of Child Abuse

Civilization has progressed since the time that infants were routinely exposed on mountainsides to die. For most cultures and societies today, the practices of infanticide, enslavement, and even child labor are in the past. Yet, child abuse continues in many forms. In general, child abuse today is considered to comprise any physical or verbal behavior that is violent toward or demeaning or invasive of a child. Further, this general definition encompasses several different types of child abuse. The abuse of a child can be physical, psychological, or sexual in nature.

• Physical abuse includes any physical behavior that is violent toward another person (e.g., assault, battery, inappropriate restraint).

• Psychological abuse (also called emotional abuse) includes any verbal or other nonphysical behavior that is violent toward or demeaning or invasive of another person. Psychological abuse is the intentional infliction of mental or emotional anguish through the use of threats, humiliation or shaming, emotional control, withholding of affection or financial support, or other verbal or nonverbal means.

• Sexual abuse is the violation or exploitation of another person by sexual means. In the case of children, sexual abuse includes all sexual contact between a child and an adult.

• In addition, neglect (i.e., the failure to meet the basic needs of a person in one's care) is also considered to be a form of child abuse.

In many cases, the abuse of a child is part of a general pattern of domestic violence, which encompasses any action by one member of a family that causes physical harm to one or more members of his/her family. Domestic violence is typically an escalating pattern of violence by a spouse or intimate partner in which violence is used to express power and exert control over the other person.


In many ways, the effects of child abuse are clear, particularly when the abuse is physical. However, although broken bones may heal, repeated beatings, intimidations, incest, and any other forms of child abuse have long-lasting psychological effects on an individual not only in childhood, but throughout his/her lifetime. For example, children who have been the victims of domestic violence may demonstrate more aggressive or oppositional behavior as adults, and are more likely to experience anxiety disorders or depressive symptoms or have social problems or cognitive difficulties (Jouriles, McDonald, Slep, Heyman, & Garrido, 2008). The co-occurrence of domestic violence and child abuse can occur in a number of different ways. In some families, there is a single perpetrator (e.g., the father or mother) who abuses both the other parent and the child. In other families, the perpetration of violence and abuse is sequential, for example, with the father abusing the mother and the mother, in turn, abusing the child. In still other situations, there are dual perpetrators with one parent abusing the other parent and both parents abusing the child at the same time. In some families, there is just a general pattern of marital violence with both parents abusing each other and the child or both parents abusing each other and one parent abusing the child. In other cases, child abuse or domestic violence may be perpetrated by a sibling, a stepparent, an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, or other close friends or caregivers.

Causes of Child Abuse

Several plausible hypotheses have been posited to explain the underlying causes of child abuse and domestic violence in families. The first hypothesis is that some individuals are naturally more aggressive than others. Although this theory is possible if the domestic violence is perpetrated by one individual in the family toward all other members of the family, it does not well explain the other scenarios of domestic violence. This theory is based on general theories of crime and violence, which suggest that aggressive individuals tend to be indiscriminately aggressive and do not discriminate between potential targets (e.g., spouse versus children). Another common explanation for the coexistence of child abuse and domestic violence is that both types of events are precipitated by stressful events in the perpetrator's life. According to this theory, an accumulation of stressful situations and circumstances within the perpetrator's life and a lack of adequate coping skills can lead to higher levels of aggressive behavior for all dyadic relationships within the family. This hypothesis has been at least partially borne out in the research literature, which shows that factors such as economic or parenting stress are typically correlated with both domestic violence and child abuse. A third explanation for the coexistence of child abuse and domestic violence that is frequently offered is that one type of abuse causes or sets the stage for another type of abuse. In this variation of the spillover hypothesis, it is hypothesized, for example, that violence and abuse in one relationship (e.g., between spouses or intimate partners) can spillover and result in violence in other relationships within the family (e.g., mother to child). Although each of these explanations is plausible for some of the domestic violence and child abuse scenarios discussed above, the relationship is a complex one, and more than one explanation may be operating at the same time. At this time, the...

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