Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

What is Child Abuse? Research Categories, Laws, and Opinions

Abuse may be defined differently for different generations and purposes.

Memories of our own childhoods may prompt adults to realize that normal child discipline methods at one point in history may be viewed as abusive treatment at a later time. Talking to our parents and grandparents underlines this fact as we learn about whippings with a willow switch and washing-out of mouths with laundry soap. From this historical perspective, it looks as if many of us were maltreated-- by the standards of today, if not of the past.

Is there any clear definition of abusive treatment, even today? Certainly forms of treatment that produce visible injuries in the form of bruises or burns would generally count as abusive. But can treatment of children be abusive if no marks are left? And what actions are considered part of the statistics about child abuse and neglect? Finally, are such actions necessarily specifically prohibited by state laws?

To try to answer these questions, we can look at a document that was prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for use in "NIS-4", the fourth national incidence study establishing statistical information about child abuse (Sedlak, A., Mettenburg, J., Schultz, D., & Cook, D. [2005]. NIS definitions review.Rockville,MD: Westat ). The NIS-4 categories can give us some idea about the "official" categorization of actions as abusive to children-- including those that do not necessarily leave marks.

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Of course, striking, kicking, burning, biting, or cutting children are included as abusive acts, although some less intense blows may be classified as spanking for punishment. But the NIS definitions include categories that most of us might not think of as necessarily countable as abuse. One such category is "close confinement/ tying/binding". This would include experiences of being locked in a dark closet, as our grandparents may have told us they were. It would also include being kept all or part of the time in a cage, in a crib or bed with a top that fastens, or in a crate or dog kennel. Other experiences belonging to this category would be being tied to a tree or handcuffed to a bedframe, or kept in a bathroom or other small space for long periods of time. These experiences do not necessarily cause cuts or bruises, may be difficult to prove, and are not necessarily mentioned by state laws addressing child abuse.

The NIS definitions also include a category called "Other/unknown abuse". In this obviously catch-all category are actions like withholding or forcing food or liquids, economic exploitation, terrorizing a child, deliberately destroying a child's possession in order to cause distress, and subjecting another child in the household to abuse or neglect. Like some other actions mentioned earlier, many of these were common "parenting" or "disciplinary" techniques in the past and have only fairly recently been considered as abusive treatment.

Two important categories of abusive actions under the NIS definitions are "permitting chronic truancy" and subjecting the child to "unstable custody arrangements". Neither of these categories results directly in physical injury, yet each of them has the potential for long-term effects on a child's development.

Verbal and emotional assault are also among NIS categories. These include belittling or scapegoating a child, ridiculing the child or calling him or her derogatory names. Also in this category are habits of blaming a child for things he or she has no responsibility for, punishing the child for little or no cause, and other hostile or rejecting treatment. Verbal threats of other maltreatment such as abandonment are included under the emotional assault category. Emotional neglect, in the form of inappropriate expectations, forms another NIS category. Caregivers whose treatment falls into this classification might expect an infant to be toilet-trained, or a toddler to be reliably dry at night, or might think that a child of 2 is capable of controlling crying or a tantrum. Caregivers who have the inappropriate expectations described in this category are not just surprised daily, of course, but also convey their disapproval and even disgust to children who have not lived up to these impossibly high standards.

There are several important points to make about the NIS categories and their use to classify abusive treatment of children. One is that many of these categories of abuse are not specifically mentioned in state laws about child abuse-- that is, there is often no law against doing things that are classified as abuse for research purposes. If a parent were accused of obviously dangerous forms of abuse such as cutting or burning a child, matters from the other categories might be brought into consideration by child protective services, but chances are very small that child protective services would get into the picture if a parent were simply reported as having inappropriate expectations. The legal and research categories overlap a good deal less than one might think, and of course they are both likely to have changed over time.

Finally, it is interesting to consider how often average parents actually do things that fit into the NIS categories of child abuse. Last week I posted some comments about the Zero to Three interview research on the knowledge about development displayed by parents of young children. In the report of that survey, a concern that received some discussion was the poor understanding displayed by many parents about children's early emotional development. Many of the parents thought children were much later than they really are in becoming aware of their parents' moods, but also thought that children could control their own feelings and reactions at extremely early ages. While their parenting behavior was within the normal range (i.e., not abusive by most standards), those parents had beliefs about children that put them at risk for treatment that might verge on the abusive.

Not only do perspectives on child abuse change over generations, it seems that even at one point in time there are differences in definitions of abuse for different purposes. These variations should warn us how cautiously we must try to answer questions like "Do abused children grow up to be abusers?". We can make some huge mistakes by jumping to definitions and thence to conclusions.



Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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