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Child abuse is widely presumed to be harmful to children, and anything with the word “abuse” in the title would certainly seem to fit the bill. But how, exactly, does abuse harm children? This question is more than just a quaint academic side point to the issue. If we don’t have an accurate understanding of what harms children, we can’t respond in helpful ways.

Mechanisms of Injury
Just as bones don’t break without a sufficient amount offeree, harm to children doesn’t magically fall from the sky like pixie dust merely because adults choose to label a particular situation as wrong or abusive. Damage stems from some very down-to-earth principles:

-The Primary Factor-

The most significant measure of a child’s welfare is attachment: the degree of love and affection a child is shown and the connection they develop towards their caregivers. This is the factor that trumps all else. It is from this that a child derives their self-worth and basic sense of security in the world. The stronger a child’s attachment, the better off they’ll be in all areas of life, and the better they can weather adversity. The weaker and more tenuous their attachment, the more problems they’ll develop. Sudden breaks in attachment are devastating to children, easily outdoing all other types of trauma.

Injuries to attachment can occur in several ways. Any abuse that involves aggression from a caregiver (physical or emotional) or which exhibits cruelty or disregard for a child’s feelings will steadily chip away at their sense of attachment, thus harming a child. But ifa child is emotionally neglected, secure, affectionate attachments have never had a chance to develop in the first place, leaving them far worse off. This is why emotional neglect and/or a lack of love shown towards a child can be significantly more harmful than outright acts of abuse: A child who experiences periodic physical abuse from her stressed out but reasonably attentive and loving mother is in far better shape than the rich girl who grows up in a seemingly superior environment but is ignored by her socialite parents and treated rather dispassionately by a revolving collection of nannies.

This is also why the philosophy of Child Protective Services is so horribly misguided, and why (as outlined in our section on When Helping Hurts on the Worst Forms of Child Abuse page) they do more harm to children than the various forms of abuse they claim to protect a child from: Removing a child from their home and then placing them in the gauntlet of revolving caregivers that is state custody inflicts a severe attachment trauma. In one fell swoop they come in and obliterate the child’s foundation of attachment, something years of abuse could only whittle away at and weaken.

-Secondary Factors-

Attachment is the foundational measure that a child’s existence is built around. It is the sun of their solar system, the center of their universe, the core that all other measures of welfare revolve around. Yet beyond that there are secondary elements that can cause injury or harm to a child:

Trauma is defined as an acutely fearful experience that presents a life-death risk to a child. Trauma is obviously unpleasant to experience, and if it overwhelms a child’s coping mechanisms it can lead to lasting harm.

Stress is a natural response to fear, uncertainty, instability, and anything else we find threatening or undesirable. It is the body’s natural response to life’s challenges, and short-term or isolated stress is rarely harmful. In fact, it can even be beneficial, strengthening a child’s psychological immune system in the same way that germs or a cold strengthen their physical immune system. But exposure to long-term or chronic stress in sufficiently high doses is toxic to both mind and body, and is associated with a litany of problems.

Social pain
Outside of attachment, social injury is the next most influential factor. (The two, in fact, are closely related, especially wherein children are concerned.) We evolved as a social species, and so our minds are built to interpret scorn, ridicule, ostracism, or abandonment as something with life-or-death significance, because in the past being cast out from one’s group literally could be a death sentence. Both social pain and physical pain originate from the same areas ofthe brain, and social pain can be just as excruciating as physical pain. (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2004) Levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) spike higher and stay on the brain longer following social stressors than they do for other forms of stress. (Dickerson & Kemeny, 2004)

There are two distinct types of social pain, and it’s important to distinguish between them:

1, Implicit social pain: This is pain inherent to the experience itself, i.e., being teased, ridiculed, degraded, or treated poorly by others. Some examples would include a verbally abusive parent who barks, “You1 such a dumb little shit/’ or a child who is bullied at school. The pain and injury are inherent to the experience itself.

2. Explicit (outside-in) social injury: Explicit social pain is that coming from outside the experience in the form of stigma, scorn, orjudgment from others. It is not a direct result ofbeing mistreated in the experience itselfbut a result of society’s prejudices pushing a painful interpretation of something. For example, sexual abuse rarely involves implicit social pain, in that perpetrators rarely act in cruel, aggressive, or overtly demeaning ways. Yet children frequently suffer explicit social injuries as they encounter the stigma, scorn, and harsh judgment others direct toward such an experience. Other examples of explicit social pain would be the stigma kids feel from having an alcoholic parent or the pain they feel when others condemn an abusive parent (who they happen to love and share a personal connection with).

Violence and/or aggression
Obviously, acts of violence or aggression towards a child or their loved ones (or even just exposure to acts of violence in their presence) can be scary and hurtful. Not only are they physically threatening with the potential to cause acute fear or stress, but it’s emotionally harmful as well, threatening a child’s belief in the general ‘goodness’ of the world.

Living in fear isn’t good for children (or anyone else, for that matter). Children feel fear in response to threatening or abusive people, but there are many other types of fear as well which can be every bit as potent: fear of the unknown, fear of change, fear of failure or not living up to expectations, fear for the wellbeing of their parents, and so forth. To give just one example, the fear children feel for their mom or dad’s welfare whenever a parent is abusing substances will frequently exceed the fear caused by direct acts of abuse.

Conflict, especially unresolved conflict, is extremely harmful to children, irregardless of whether this conflict involves the child directly or is merely present in their environment. We all want to be at peace in our surroundings, and children especially just want everyone to get along. When there’s conflict in our lives it becomes an all-consuming preoccupation, and it’s also a significant source of social pain, even when those involved aren’t intentionally trying to be cruel to each other.

Loss of autonomy or control
All of us crave autonomy and a sense of control over our lives. We want to feel empowered over our environment. We seek to be the ‘captains of our own ship’ so to speak. We want others to listen to and respect our desires, and to take our interests to heart. When control is taken away, it’s stressful and scary. This loss of control and the accompanying feelings of helplessness is what often leaves victims of violent rape or assault in such a mental tizzy. Although the need for control isn’t as powerful in children as it is in adults, since kids are used to living with less control to begin with, even small children crave autonomy and control in their world. Babies crave reassurance that their cries will bring attention, and no child likes feeling helpless.

This measure is often overlooked in studies of child welfare, but it plays a prominent role in many adverse situations. Children need a certain degree of stability in their lives in order to function and develop properly. Not only is instability stressful and disruptive, but it stunts children’s development, because kids take fewer risks and withdraw into a shell when they lack a stable foundation. Instability also forces kids to spend so much time re-establishing their lives and “starting over” that it gets in the way of anything else. A new home, a new school, new teachers, making new friends, trying to establish relationships with new caregivers—all of this can be extremely taxing. A number of studies have found that instability in the form of frequent moves can have significant adverse effects on a child.

Vicarious injury:
Finally, children can be injured vicariously by anything that threatens their family, friends, or things they care about. The best example of this is domestic violence. Studies have shown that exposure to domestic violence is as harmful to children as abusing them directly. (Scheeringa & Zeanah, 1995; Perry, 1997; Jenkins & Bell, 1994) Whether the child is the target of the violent act or merely a witness to violence perpetrated against an important person, the fear, stress and terror are all the same.

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No matter what form of child abuse or adverse situation you’re looking at, when children are harmed, that harm can be traced to the presence ofone ofthese mechanisms ofinjury.

Pervasiveness & severity
Obviously, the more severe each of these negative elements are the more potential they have to harm a child. But pervasiveness is a more subtle measure, and even more important to a child’s overall welfare.

If I’m navigating across a 5 acre park with a compass that’s a few degrees off, it probably won’t have a meaningful impact on where I end up. But if I’m sailing across the Pacific ocean from Japan to California with a compass that is a few degrees off, I’m liable to wind up in Antarctica, because this errant tug has a much larger effect when present over longer distances.

Child development works along similar principles. Subtle but persistent deficiencies in a child’s environment often have a far greater impact than periodic abuse or isolated traumas ever could. Big problems such as antisocial behavior often arise through subtle, consistently negative influences in the environment, not any particular significant event or trauma. (Loeber, Keenan & Zhang, 1997)

This is why many of the things we typically ignore, such as deficiencies in parenting or mental illness in a caregiver, can damage children a whole lot more than those less pervasive things we dramatize and dwell on as a society, which tend to be more isolated and sporadic and thus comprise a much smaller portion of a child’s existence. It’s also why our reactions and responses to child abuse are so important: If we respond to abuse or trauma in a prosocial way that quells feelings of hurt and anger, those isolated traumas are unlikely to have any long-term impact. But if we respond in a way that stokes anger or encourages lingering conflict and discord, or which creates a new deprivation going forward (for example, estranging a child from a parent or introducing instability or explicit social pain), then we’ve traded a short-term trauma for a much more damaging long term one, and can even turn otherwise innocuous situations into something severely harmful.


  • Eisenberger, N., Lieberman, M. (2004) “When rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain.” Science, 87:294-300
  • Dickerson, M., Kemeny, M. (2004) “Acute stressors and cortisol responses: a theoretical integration and synthesis of laboratory research.” Psychological Bulletin, 130: 355-91
  • Loeber, R., Keenan, K., Zhang, Q. (1997) “Boys experimentation and persistence in developmental pathways toward serious delinquency.” Journal of Child & Family Studies, 6(3):321 -357
  • Scheeringa, M.S., Zeanah, C.H. (1995) “Symptom differences in traumatized infants and young children.” Infant Mental Health Journal, 16, 259-270
  • Perry, B.D. (1997) “Incubated in terror: Neurodevelopmental factors in the ‘cycle of violence,'” In Children In A Violent Society, ed. J. Osofsky. New York: Guilford Press
  • Jenkins, E.J., Bell, C.C. (1994) “Violence exposure, psychological distress, and high risk behaviors among inner-city high school students.” In S. Friedman {Ed.) Anxiety Disorders in African-Americans (pp. 7o-88). New York: Springer

Additional facts / Statistics:

  • In one study, 18% of children had a psychologically abusive relationship with at least 1 parent figure. (Glass- Kirpatrick, 1989)
  • Other studies have found that approximately 8-9% of women and 4% of men report psychological abuse during childhood that they would classify as severe. (Gilbert et al., 2009) This gender difference is almost certainly due to reporting discrepancies and not actual differences in what kids experience, since boys are trained to “suck it up.”
  • ”’Psychological maltreatment is the most frequently self-reported form of victimization. (Reyone, 2010)
  • Mothers who currently abuse alcohol are more likely to physically abuse children, regardless of past history of maltreatment. (Smyth & Miller, 1997)
  • A National Survey in 1995 found 6% of mothers and 3% of fathers admitted physically abusing their children at least once. (Child Trends, 2002) Actual rates are at least triple this, since most people don’t report such behavior, even in anonymous surveys.
  • A recent survey during the pandemic found that half of all high school students had experienced verbal/emotional abuse by a parent or other live-in adult, which included being sworn at, insulted or put down, and 11% reported experiencing physical abuse. (Rodriguez, 2022)
  • Despite popular perception, child abuse is more often committed by women than by men—58% versus 42%. (Macionis, 2009, p. 388)


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