The causes of child abuse are multi-faceted and can't be narrowed down to a single cause. Oftentimes, there are multiple factors at play. For instance, a father may be an alcoholic and part of a family system that is caught up in a cycle of abuse that spans generations of the family. In this case, the alcoholic may be a contributing factor to the dysfunction, but there is also the generational factor to consider.
Thus, in analyzing the causes of child abuse, it's easier to break it down into sub-categories which put children at risk for abuse and neglect. These include the social-economic causes of child abuse, the family environment, parental profile, and child-related characteristics. The term "causes of child abuse" is in reality talking about the conditions which may make child abuse more likely.
The U.S. government's Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect (NIS-3) found that compared to families with incomes over $30,000 a year, children in families with incomes less than $15,000 a year:
To give you some idea of what "poor" means in the U.S., the 2009 poverty level in the United States for a family of 4 is $22,050. The 2009 poverty level for a family of 2 is $14,570.
The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform makes the case that sometimes economic conditions and the way the laws are written unfairly tarnish the poor with abuse claims. For example, if a single mother of two confined to a wheelchair lost her housekeeping help due to state or federal budget cuts, her filthy house could become grounds to take her children away. She would thus be "neglecting" her children and they may end up being put up for foster care adoption. However, it was because she could not afford to keep house, not because she intentionally neglected her children.
The line for what constitutes child abuse is different across cultures. For instance, the standards for what constitutes accepted forms of physical punishment differs across the world. For instance, in 2008, I was flying on a plane back from South Korea to the United States and happened to strike up a conversation with a Korean-American girl sitting next to me. She told me that if a high school student in Korea came in drunk to class, the teacher would be well within his rights to "beat him up" with his fists. Obviously, this would be unacceptable in the U.S.
Sometimes, institutionalized practices and/or norms end up making the environment hospitable for child abuse. For instance, cultural and societal norms protecting female circumcision (also referred to as female genital cutting or female genital mutilation) "institutionalize" this practice in certain parts of the world. In the United States FGC became a federal crime effective April 1997. Typically, FGC is performed by women with no medical training (and no anesthetic) and involves removing the clitoris and possibly sewing up the girl or woman's vagina. The clitoris is the part of the woman's vagina responsible for feelings of sexual pleasure. You can already see why it's such a barbaric form of child abuse.
But it's the institutionalized attitudes of the society that allow it to happen. Some of these attitudes include believing it will ensure their daughters are seen as "pure" by potential husbands and will ensure she remains faithful to her husband in the future.
When domestic violence is present, one parent may not be able to protect the child from another parent's abusive behavior because that parent is also being abused. Children may be harmed while trying to protect a parent from domestic violence or as a result of the violence.
The NIS-3 study found that children of single parents were at higher risk of physical abuse and of all types of neglect and were overrepresented among seriously injured, moderately injured, and endangered children. Typically, a single parent family has less income than a two-parent household and the single parent is trying to do the job of two parents. Thus, in the worst cases, their lack of adequate social and economic supports may make the conditions ripe for abuse.
In the United States, immigrants bring their cultural heritage with them, including how to parent children. What may not have been considered child abuse in their home country could be construed as abuse in the U.S. In addition, child-rearing practices that are more punishment-oriented create a greater risk of child abuse.
Teenage parents are at high risk for abusing their children because they themselves are not fully developed adults. They are not as well-equipped to respond to the needs of their children because theirs may have not been met.
Parents with low self-esteem are more susceptible to abusing their children because they often see themselves as worthless and may take out their feelings of inadequacy on their children.
Parents with a past history of abuse may repeat their own experiences with their children if they did not come to terms with it and learn new coping strategies and skills.
Parents with drug and alcohol problems are at a much higher risk of abusing their children. Parents with drug and alcohol problems are 3 times more likely to physically or sexually assault their children than those parents without such problems.
Parents suffering from depression or a psychiatric illness are at a much higher risk of abusing and/or neglecting their children's needs.
Parents with abusive "secrets" to keep may shun community contact and have few family connections to provide other means of social support needed by the children.
An entitlement mentality of "This is the way I was raised and I turned out just fine" as a way to justify abusive parenting tactics.
According to the NIS-3, girls are 3 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than boys. However, boys were 24% more likely to be seriously injured than girls and were 18% more likely to be neglected than girls.
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