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What is Child Abuse?

Understanding Child Abuse and Neglect


Updated April 30, 2010

What is child abuse? Many people with borderline personality disorder (BPD) report child abuse or maltreatment in their past, but some are unsure about whether their experiences constituted abuse. While there is no one agreed upon definition of abuse, here are some ways that abuse is defined.

What is Child Abuse – The Legal Definition

Let’s start with the legal definition of child abuse and neglect. While the exact definition of child abuse and neglect vary from state to state, the U.S. has federal standards that define child abuse and neglect as:

  • 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; or

  • An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm

If you live outside of the U.S., the legal definition of child abuse may be different.

What is Child Abuse – Types of Abuse and Neglect

In most cases, four types of child maltreatment are recognized. These are: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.

Physical abuse is any act by a parent or caregiver that results in intentional injury. It is important to note that in most cases spanking as a disciplinary measure is not considered abuse if it does not cause the child to sustain an injury.

Sexual abuse is any act in which a child is engaged in or coerced to assist in any sexual conduct or simulation of sexual conduct. Examples of child sexual abuse are not limited to sexual assault or fondling -- if an adult exposes himself to a child, takes pictures of a child without clothing (for sexual purposes), or coerces a child to engage in sexual conduct with others, this is also considered sexual abuse.

Emotional abuse includes persistent criticism, threats, insults, and the withholding of love and emotional support. While emotional abuse does not leave physical scars, there is mounting evidence that this type of abuse can have serious psychological impact.

Neglect is when a caregiver fails to provide for the basic needs of a child. This can include failing to provide food, shelter, safety, medical care, basic education, and emotional support. Neglect can also include instances in which a child is left alone without proper supervision.


Child Welfare Information Gateway. What is Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved May 4, 2009, Published 2008.

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