What Is Considered Child Abuse?

sjhuls/AdobeStockUsing extended periods of isolation as punishment is considered child abuse in most states. Source: sjhuls/AdobeStock

One of the most common reasons that parents delay seeking mental health counseling for their children is the fear that at some point in the course of treatment, their children will be removed from their homes without warning by a protective services agency. However, most caregivers use disciplinary strategies that do not meet legal definitions for child abuse or neglect, and a quick look at the law can go a long way in easing parental fears.

What is Legally Considered Child Abuse or Neglect?

Laws vary widely from state to state, but in general, the following types of behavior are considered child abuse or neglect:

  • Striking your child with an object, a fist, or another part of your body with the intention of harm (with the exception of “reasonable parental discipline;” see below).
  • Making believable threats to kill or severely harm your child.
  • Using excessive physical restraint or extended periods of isolation as a means of controlling your child’s behavior.
  • Leaving your child unsupervised (when they are below an age specified by your state), or with a person incapable of appropriately supervising your child, even if your child is asleep.
  • Allowing your child to witness or participate in illegal (including underage) drug or alcohol abuse. This includes exposure to alcohol or other drugs in the womb.
  • Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol with your child in the car.

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energepic/PexelsDriving under the influence while your child is in the car is considered child abuse in most states. Source: energepic/Pexels
  • Allowing your child to witness or be the target of domestic violence.
  • Knowingly allowing your child to be physically, emotionally, or sexually harmed.
  • Engaging your child in sexual contact or activity of any kind. Any sexual contact between a child below the age of consent (which varies by state) and an adult, significantly older child, or another child below the age of consent is considered statutory rape, and must also be reported.
  • Exposing your child to, or involving your child in the production of, pornographic material. This includes engaging in sexual activity in your child’s presence.
  • Being unwilling to meet your child’s basic needs for food, shelter, clean water, and a safe environment (examples of unsafe environments include: your child living in cars or on the street, or in homes where they are exposed to poisonous materials, convicted sex offenders, temperature extremes or dangerous objects such as weapons or drugs). In some states, financial inability to meet your child’s needs is not considered neglect unless you have been offered, and have declined, financial assistance to meet these needs.
  • Being unwilling to seek out or provide your child with medical treatment that is essential to his or her ability to function, recover from an illness or injury, or continue living (except when religious beliefs prohibit a medical treatment).
  • Being unwilling to allow your child to obtain appropriate educational instruction (such as intentionally preventing your child from attending school, failing to seek assistance if your child refuses to attend school, or failing to educate your child after stating that he or she will be homeschooled).
  • Abandoning your child, or failing to establish a significant relationship with your child when you have the means to do so.
  • Failing to make reasonable and timely efforts to locate your child if they are missing.
  • Taking any other intentional action that poses a threat to your child’s life or physical well-being, or that results in significant physical or emotional harm to your child.

This list does not include all actions that may be considered child maltreatment, abuse, or neglect under your state laws. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services maintains an excellent search engine where you can look up the child welfare laws in your home state.

Noah Silliman/UnsplashFailing to make reasonable and timely efforts to locate a missing child is considered child abuse in many states. Source: Noah Silliman/Unsplash

Is it Legal to Spank My Child?

Most states allow parents to discipline their children by spanking, which is defined as an open-handed strike with a hand to a child’s buttocks. In some states, this definition of spanking is the only legal form of corporal punishment; others simply state that only “reasonable” or “moderate” disciplinary methods may be used. This means that some of the forms of punishment you may have experienced as a child—such as being spanked with a wooden spoon, whipped with a belt, or hit with a shoe—may no longer be legal means of disciplining children in your state. Additionally, it should be noted that if any kind of corporal punishment results in significant injury to your child—such as bruises, cuts, or an inability to sit down—then it will be considered child abuse, even if the method itself might otherwise be legal.

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But Isn't Counseling Confidential?

Although counselors are committed to confidentiality, all mental health professionals are considered "mandated reporters," which means that they are required by law to report suspected child abuse or neglect to appropriate state authorities, such as the Department of Children and Families or Child Protective Services. Similarly, your child's teachers, daycare staff, and pediatrician are also mandated reporters in most states. Any of these individuals may make a report based on statements made by you or your child, visible evidence of physical injury or malnutrition, or symptoms that indicate abuse or neglect (such as inappropriate sexual knowledge, sudden regression in development, or unusual fears without explanation). You can learn more about reporting laws in your state here .