Child Abuse

Causes of Child Abuse

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Of course there are many causes, and lots of research has been done on this issue for decades.

I can't cover everything, including the contributions of poverty, war, discrimination, exploitation, slavery, the 'war on drugs' and mass incarceration; or parents' and other adults' struggles with substance abuse, their own childhood experiences with abuse or other forms of violence. (For fairly a comprehensive resource from the U.S. government, see Factors that contribute to child abuse and neglect.)

Here I focus on why particular, unique and complex people choose (however deliberately or impulsively) to emotionally, physically and/or sexually abuse or otherwise harm children. While this is a relatively narrow focus, I try to address many of the complexities and subtleties involved.

Why do People Abuse Children?

This is a very important question, asked by many people. And it's a question – a search or quest, even – that some will struggle with for years.

There's no simple answer

I can’t simply answer this question for you. But I can offer, based on years of experience and study, some information and some thoughtful reflections on this sensitive issue.

I will make some basic points, and some more subtle and complex ones, that I hope you will find useful.

Before I say more, I have a recommendation: As you read this page, allow yourself to be aware of any strong emotions that this question stirs up in you and, if the feelings get too strong, take a break or do whatever else you might need to calm down.

This question always involves strong feelings, both in those who have been hurt by physical or emotional abuse, or by unwanted or abusive sexual experiences in childhood, and in people who care about them. It’s also normal for such strong feelings to influence our thought processes, and to prevent us from thinking clearly or even to prevent us from absorbing information.

And so, as with everything else you can explore on this website, it’s important to pace yourself, and to give yourself all the time you need, including to put this page and this issue aside for a while, if that makes sense.

Why Ask Why?

Let’s begin with some thoughts about why people, including you, might ask this important question, and what they might hope to gain from finding such understanding.

Most people have several reasons for asking this question

For most people, there are several reasons for seeking to understand why another person chose to sexually use or abuse them. These may include:

  • Fearing they somehow brought it on themselves, and hoping that understanding the other person will prove it wasn’t their fault.
  • Still loving the person who used or abused them, and hoping that understanding why they did it will bring healing to their relationship.
  • Hoping that understanding why the person who used or abused them will help them to prevent other children (perhaps their own), from ever being sexually abused.
  • Feeling that life is unfair, unjust, random and/or meaningless, and hoping that understanding how someone could sexually abuse a child will bring some order and meaning to life.
  • Focusing on the other person, including why they did it, can be a way of avoiding one’s own responsibility, as an adult, for dealing with harmful effects in one’s own life, including self-destructive and harmful behaviors. (We mention this possible reason with no criticism of those to whom it applies. It’s not uncommon, and totally understandable, among those still struggling with major negative effects.)

Importantly, people may not be fully aware of some reasons why they’re asking why the other person (or people) did this to them. They may not recognize some hopes they have for the benefits that such understanding could bring. That’s totally normal. Over time the full significance of this question in your life may become clearer – or completely change as other aspects of your life change.

Whatever your situation, interest in honestly exploring this difficult question is a sign of courage. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that strong feelings may come up, and that it’s a good idea to pace yourself and take care of yourself.

Wanting to Understand (or Not) Depends on One’s Experiences and Feelings

In discussions of this issue, strong divisions often arise between different people – even between people used or abused by the same person. One person may want to “forgive and forget,” another may be enraged and focused on seeking justice or revenge, and another may cycle (repeatedly) through a whole range of thoughts and feelings about the person who abused them.

Such differences and divisions totally make sense, and are normal. There is no one perspective that is right for everyone all the time. Of course, that doesn’t make the different perspectives, needs and strong feelings easy to handle, especially when they’re among family members.

Whether someone is interested in trying to understand why the individual(s) who sexually used or abused them did so, and what kinds of understandings or perspectives come most easily to them, depends on several factors. Here are some very important ones:

  • Who was (and is) the person who used or abused you.
  • Whether he or she is still in your life.
  • The nature of his or her relationship with you, then and now.
  • How dependent you were on them, or continue to be.
  • How long you knew them.
  • How you felt about them before the physical/emotional/sexual experiences happened.
  • How you felt about them after the physical/emotional/sexual experiences (began).
  • How much you have suffered and lost as a consequence of what happened.

For example, if you didn’t know them, or always disliked or even hated them, you may have little stake or interest in understanding what could have led them to do what they did to you. You could probably care less what was going on inside them, or what their childhood was like.

On the other hand, if it was someone you looked up to – or even loved, especially if you still love them – the wish to understand why they hurt you may be much stronger. The answer to this question will feel very important.

Remember, what is true for you, in your situation, may be completely different from the experience of someone else, even someone who was used or abused by the same person.

No Simple Answers, But Some Common Features

There are no simple reasons for why a parent or other adult is physically or emotionally abusive to a child, or for why someone misuses a position of power or influence to to be sexual with a child. The answers are not only complex, but as different as the people and situations involved.

However, when parents or other adults are physically or emotionally abusive to a child, there are some common features:

  • In the moment, and sometimes afterward, the adult believes that the child "deserves" or "needs" to be treated in that way.
  • Whatever capacities the adult may have to understand and empathize with the effects of experiences of physical or emotional violence on the child (e.g., powerlessness, fear, pain and shame), are not available to the adult while being abusive (or later believing the behavior was justified).
  • Both while engaging in the abusive and attacking behavior, and while justifying it later, adults are attempting – in a very unhealthy way – to defend themselves against their own unwanted, vulnerable and painful feelings (e.g., powerlessness, incompetence, shame, being disrespected or humiliated, etc.).

Similarly, across every situation in which sexual exploitation or abuse of a child happens, there are also some common features:

  • A person with power or influence over a child develops a sexual interest in the child.
  • Whatever internal and external barriers or “stops” that would otherwise prevent him or her from betraying the child’s trust, are overcome.
  • The person acts on their sexual fantasies and impulses toward the child.

Understanding Is Not About Excuses or Forgiveness

It’s important to be very clear about what the effort to understand is not.

Attempting to understand why someone behaved in a harmful way is absolutely not about making excuses for their behavior. Nor is it about denying or minimizing the negative effects of what happened on your life.

Ultimately, bad choices that harm children

Understanding is very different from finding excuses. Excuses are reasons why the person is not responsible. Understanding can shed light on the conditions that may have motivated someone to be physically or emotionally attack a child, or to be sexual with a child. But ultimately, the other person – at least if they were an older teenager or adult – did make choices which resulted in them giving in to motivations and impulses that they knew, at some level, were wrong and would be harmful to a child. In the case of sexual abuse, the person had to make several choices over time.

It is in everyone’s interest for those who physically, emotionally or sexually abuse or misuse children to be held accountable. That includes the person who uses or abuses a child. Only by taking genuine responsibility for their own actions, as well as responsibility for never doing it again, and by sincerely attempting to make amends (not necessarily directly with the child or adult the child has become, who may want nothing to do with them), can those who have physically, emotionally or sexually abused a child truly heal themselves.

Also, attempting to understand why someone abused a child is not about forgiveness. Nor is helping someone attempt to understand why about encouraging forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift, both to oneself and the other person. It is only meaningful, and real, when given freely and willingly.

You may now be ready to forgive a particular person who has hurt you. Or you may not want to consider forgiveness until you have done some serious emotional work and soul-searching within yourself. Maybe you’ll never have any interest even in considering forgiveness. It’s completely up to you.

Whatever your situation and your path, please remember this: demands, threats, manipulation, tricks and guilt can never bring genuine forgiveness. In fact, when someone tries to force or manipulate you into forgiving them or someone else, they are mostly trying to help themselves – not you.

Forgiveness must be freely chosen

For example, they may be trying to relieve their own guilt, or to free themselves from uncomfortable questions (raised by your experiences and needs), like how is it that their family or organization (e.g., church) allows some people to harm others without being held accountable. Sometimes such attempts to compel forgiveness are abusive in their own right.

Understanding Is Not About ‘Demonizing’

While understanding is not about excuses or forgiveness, neither is it about 'demonizing' the other person.

Like making excuses, demonizing can provide the illusion of understanding, as well as the illusion of emotional resolution about what happened. This is revealed by the simplistic stereotypes that go along with demonizing those who are sexual with children. For example, on TV, radio and other media we continually hear people who sexually abuse children described as nothing more than 'monsters' and 'predators.'

Such labels may express totally justifiable anger, even rage, about what those people have done. But they provide zero understanding of why those individuals sexually abused and harmed children in the ways they did.

Also, like making excuses, demonizing others is an extreme way of responding to such experiences that – for totally normal and understandable reasons – many people get stuck in. (This usually happens before one truly acknowledges what happened and attempts to deal with its effects, or early in that process.)

Again, these extreme responses may be a necessary phase for many people. But they should not be confused with genuine understanding. At best, they can shed light on reasons that may cause one to feel sympathy or pity for the other person (making excuses), or reasons that only focus on the person’s worst qualities and result in contempt or hatred (demonizing).

People Who Abuse Children Are Complex, And Confused

The reality is that those who physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abuse children – whoever they are, and whatever they have done – are, like everyone else, complex human beings. They have good qualities as well as bad qualities. They have positive motivations as well as negative ones. They have parts of themselves that are dangerous and parts of themselves (however walled off) that can be caring. They have basic human needs for respect and love, and for some control over how they seek to meet their needs.

People who physically or emotionally abuse children are confused – certainly while engaged in such harmful behavior, and often much of the time in between. They are confused usually about several things, including what is good and bad for the child, what is healthy and helpful 'discipline,' and their own motives for engaging in such behaviors.

Several types of confusion are common

Those who sexually abuse children are also deeply confused about what they really need, at least in the realm of sex, as well as very destructive in their attempts to meet such 'needs.' Whatever else might have contributed, massive confusion is required for someone to believe they have the right to use a child sexually (let alone that a child wants or benefits from such experiences).

In the case of children who sexually use or abuse other children, the confusion is caused by sexual abuse they have experienced themselves, as well as general confusion and misunderstandings that children have about sex.

There’s No Single Path to Abusing a Child

Because people who use and abuse children are complex human beings, with complex lives, there is no single path that leads them to do so. This is true whether they were an adult when they physically, emotionally or sexually abused a child, or whether they were an older or more powerful child.

As noted above, when an adult physically or emotionally abuses a child there are some common features involved. And there are some key questions to consider when attempting to understand why unique individuals physically or emotionally abuse children:

  • Were they severely disciplined or otherwise physically or emotionally abused as children themselves?
  • Were they emotionally neglected, and never helped to deal in healthy ways with the vulnerable emotions that, in adulthood, their own children can provoke?
  • Are they able to acknowledge and experience compassion for the emotional pain and harm they experienced when they were hurt as a child (including via physical and/or emotional abuse)?
  • Have they been taught, and do they (sometimes) still believe, that beating or verbally degrading children are appropriate and healthy methods of 'disciplining' children?
  • Do they have the skills required to experience vulnerable emotions without immediately attempting to escape them, for example with angry outbursts or alcohol, drugs or some other addiction?
  • What else is happening in their life (e.g., stresses of poverty, unemployment) or relationships (e.g., conflict with spouse, lack of friends) that reduces internal and external barriers to thinking it's OK to physically or emotionally attack a child and to engaging in such behavior?

When it comes to attempting to understand (which ultimately may not be possible) why particular, complex people have sexually used or abused as child, again, there are some key questions to consider:

  • What are the confusions they have about their needs, especially why they believe they 'need' to be sexual with a child?
  • How have their own life experiences – especially but not only sexual experiences – and how they have responded to those experiences, contributed to such massive confusion?
  • What is the unique combination of (confused) beliefs, motivations and rationalizations that made it possible for them to sexually use a child?
  • How have their own life and experiences (again, not only sexual), and how they responded to those experiences, helped to bring about such beliefs, motivations and rationalizations?
  • Which internal and external barriers to sexually abusing a child were overcome, and how (e.g., use of alcohol, use of child sexual pornography, extreme stress or other circumstance that contributed to their 'giving up’ on resisting their sexual fantasies or impulses toward children)?

In addition, there are some general principles that therapists and researchers, by working with and studying adults who have sexually used or abused children, have learned about why people engage in such behaviors.

Therapists and researchers have learned a lot

Some adults who sexually use or abuse children focus all their sexual energy on children.

Some who sexually use or abuse children maintain sexual relationships with age-appropriate partners, including at the same time they are using or abusing a child.

Most adults who sexually use or abuse children were, during their own childhoods, abused sexually, physically, and/or emotionally, as well as neglected physically and/or emotionally. In reaction to those experiences of abuse, neglect, betrayal and powerlessness, they may have attempted to find feelings of power and control over others – including sexual power over children.

Some people who sexually use or abuse children have high social status in a group – a star athlete, a musician, a boss or manager, a prominent member of a community, even an especially popular person – and become so confused (and 'intoxicated') by constant admiration or praise that they begin to think the rules are different for them.

Most who exploit or abuse children were abused themselves

For some adults who sexually use or abuse children, it’s a one-time behavior that happens during a particularly stressful time, like the loss of a marriage or job, bankruptcy, or the death of a spouse, close friend or family member. Others struggle over time to contain their sexual interest in children, mostly successfully, but with periodic failures. (Alcohol or drug use can diminish the ability to control such impulses, though those are not causes of the behavior.)

Sometimes an unexpected opportunity to be sexual with a child suddenly presents itself and a person (with the potential to engage in such behavior) acts spontaneously and impulsively. This is true for some adolescents, who are dealing with intense sexual desires that are not focused on children, but suddenly sexually use a younger or more vulnerable child.

Finally, and this is extremely important: none of these possible reasons (or any others) can excuse the physical, emotional, or sexual abuse of a child. Nor do they diminish the negative impacts that such experiences can have on the person subjected to them as a child.

The Other Person’s Experience and Understanding Now

Especially if you’re considering talking with or 'confronting' a person who has abused or exploited you, it’s important to understand this: Their experiences and understandings of what happened, both at the time and now, are likely to be very different from yours.

What may have been a high-impact and life-changing event for you may have been, for them, simply an outburst of anger, or the gratification of a perceived 'need' in the moment. In fact, they may never have even allowed themselves to know that they hurt you, or even think about it. Even if an assault was outright sadistic (that is, involved them taking pleasure in causing you pain), it had far more to do with something going on inside them than with anything at all about you.

Again, while it may feel good (or less bad) to see them as 'purely evil,' people who abuse and harm children are more complex than that. Like all of us, they have different 'parts' of themselves that come out under different circumstances, and some of those parts are capable of doing very harmful things. All of us sometimes think, “I can’t believe I did that,” or “I hate the part of me that does that,” or “I hate myself when I do that, but I just can’t help it sometimes.”

It’s not so different for those who physically, emotionally or sexually abuse children, though of course it’s more extreme and harmful. For example, they may be highly 'compartmentalized' or 'dissociated,' with the part of them that physically or verbally attacks children, or wants to be sexual with children, split off from the positive parts of them that they usually present to the world (and which may enable success in work and some relationships).

Things to consider before attempting a 'confrontation'

Also, like everyone else, those who commit harmful acts, even violent ones, still want to see themselves as good, or at least 'justified' in doing what they did. In many cases, they see themselves as still basically good, except for the 'bad' part of them that leads them to harm others.

In some extreme cases, people are confused enough to believe their harmful behaviors are somehow actually good. This is usually grounded in deeply disturbed and traumatic childhood relationships in which they came to believe that people can be divided into “the weak and the strong,” “victims and perpetrators,” “those who take what they want and those who get taken.” From those experiences, they may eventually come to see themselves as choosing the 'goods' of strength, domination, and taking what they want. The feelings and hopes of the hurt little child are still inside of them, but such vulnerability and their capacity for love have long been suppressed, by others and by themselves, as a 'survival strategy' that ends up harming themselves and others.

To overcome the normal external and internal barriers against using, abusing and harming children, adults often develop elaborate 'rationalizations' of their behavior. They may fiercely deny or blind themselves to the clear negative effects of the behavior. They may even genuinely convince themselves that their actions are loving, and welcomed by children, therefore acceptable and even good.

In some cases, people who sexually use or abuse children feel genuine positive feelings toward the child, including caring feelings. But the sexual fantasies, impulses and behaviors come from a different part of their being, a part that has little to do with the child or the child’s well-being, and everything to do with fulfilling their own compulsive 'need.'

In some cases, the person is extremely immature, terrified of emotional or sexual intimacy with adults and has no idea how to achieve either. They may believe that children are not only safer than adults, but more emotionally and sexually 'pure.'

None of this means that such people don’t know right from wrong. After the fact, if they can ever let go of their rationalizations and other defenses against recognizing the harm they have done, they may feel great remorse for what they have done. For others, the defenses may become so hardened over time that they are unable ever to acknowledge and feel the excruciating truth.

Regardless of the reasons, every adult who harms a child needs to be held fully accountable for the harm they caused. This is true not only for the sake of the child they have harmed (or the adult that child has become), but for the protection of other children they could harm in the future, who will only be safe when the person overcomes their potential to hurt another child. Finally, being held accountable is necessary for their own well-being, because it can never be good for them to physically, emotionally or sexually abuse a child, or for them not to come to terms with what they’ve done and find genuine healing.

Children and Teenagers Who Sexually Use or Abuse Other Children

Finally, a large percentage of all harmful sexual interactions with children are committed by other children or adolescents. Some research suggests that it’s 40 percent or higher.

Most kids who sexually use or abuse other kids are – at least in part – reacting to physically, sexually or emotionally abusive experiences of their own. Also, as children and teenagers without the knowledge or cognitive capacities of adults, they can’t fully understand the impact of what they’ve experienced, let alone what they’ve done to another child. Some are too young even to fully comprehend the difference between right and wrong.

Still, it’s important to emphasize that even when an older child does not understand the effects of his or her actions, the sexual use or abuse of another child, which usually includes a betrayal of the other child’s trust, may still have a deep affect on that other child’s life.

If you’re wondering what’s appropriate vs. concerning sexual behavior in children, we recommend the booklet Understanding children’s sexual behaviors: What’s natural and healthy, by Dr. Toni Cavanagh Johnson. It’s only 26 pages long, written in simple language for parents (as well as educators, etc.), and cheap ($2.50). See also Do Children Sexually Abuse Other Children, a free online ‘guidebook’ written by Stop It Now.

I hope this page, on this very difficult subject, has been helpful to you, and I welcome any feedback on how it might be made better.

Special thanks to my colleague and friend Peter Pollard for helping me to write this page.