Abuse and neglect

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"Abuse" refers to physical or sexual injury happening to a child that is not an accident. There are many different types of physical and sexual abuse, but all types of abuse are harmful to children.

"Neglect" is the failure or refusal from the parent or caregiver to provide necessary care or meet a child's basic and/or emotional needs. Neglect can also occur when a parent or caregiver fails to protect a child from harm or puts the child in the care of someone else who may harm them. Witnessing violence or other harmful circumstances can also be neglectful.

What is the prevalence of abuse and neglect in children and adolescents?

Children are abused and neglected every day in the United States. Most often, children are hurt by the people closest to them, such as parents, relatives, babysitters, teachers, or coaches. Abuse and neglect can be prevented with education and early intervention. Helping parents and caregivers learn skills to properly care for children and keep them safe is one way to prevent children from being abused or neglected.

Signs and symptoms to watch for

Infants and younger children:

  • Fearful of adults
  • Difficulty separating from caregivers
  • Startling easily or rarely crying at all
  • Refusal to eat or sleep/disruption in sleep/wake cycle
  • Not meeting developmental milestones

Older children:

  • Withdrawn or sudden change in behavior
  • Frequent sadness or tearfulness
  • Difficulty in peer or social relationships
  • Poor school performance
  • Changes in sleep or appetite

Why are abuse and neglect a concern?

When a child experiences a pattern of abuse or neglect, it can result in toxic stress. Toxic stress can affect all areas of a child's life including their physical health, their ability to grow and learn, and their emotional well-being. A severe pattern of abuse or neglect can result in the development of post-traumatic stress symptoms that can affect a child for their entire lives.


A child who has been abused or neglected may need an exam or forensic interview to determine if they have been maltreated. Your primary care physician can help you with forming a plan. Seek help from the police or a local emergency room if you or your child is in immediate danger. Contact the county in where you live to report abuse or neglect by visiting the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families website.

When to seek help

Early intervention is important for recovery and resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and recover from stress and become stronger. Many children and families have experienced abuse and neglect and can heal with the right support and guidance.

Long-term outlook

Children who have been abused or neglected can live healthy and safe lives with early intervention and enough support. Forming healthy, supportive family, and community relationships has been shown to be the most promising factor in a child's long-term recovery and outlook.

Treatment offers hope

If you believe you have been abused or neglected, talk to someone. There are many adults who are trained to help children who are abused or neglected, such as teachers, doctors, and hospital staff. Sometimes, it is difficult for adults to believe that someone could hurt a child. So keep telling someone until you find an adult that is ready to listen. Call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-CHILD to speak with a professional crisis counselor.

Additional resources