When Does Discipline Become Child Abuse?

Young female child holding a stuffed animal while an adult's finger is pointed at her

Ian Nolan / Getty Images

News stories about physical abuse to children often raise questions about what constitutes child abuse. In the United States, there are federal laws that outline the definitions of abuse, but ultimately, each state creates more specific laws. What constitutes child abuse in one state may not be considered abuse in another state.

States also implement laws about what is allowed in local school districts. Although many experts have warned against the dangers of corporal punishment, paddling students is still allowed in public schools in 19 states. Statutes outline when physical restraint and seclusion are able to be used.

Each state varies slightly in how abuse is reported, investigated, and addressed within the legal system.

Most states recognize four main types of abuse: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect.

Physical Abuse

In federal terms, physical abuse is generally defined as “any non-accidental physical injury.” That may include burning, kicking, biting, or striking a child. Some states include threatening a child with harm or creating a situation where harm to a child is likely as part of their definitions of physical abuse.

Local laws differ on the specifics. For example, California’s law states, “Serious physical harm does not include reasonable and age-appropriate spanking to the buttocks where there is no evidence of serious physical injury.” Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s law states, “Parents/teachers/other persons can use ordinary force as a means of discipline, including but not limited to spanking, switching and paddling.” 

Emotional Abuse

Not all states consider mental or emotional abuse to be part of their child abuse definitions. The states that do consider emotional abuse to be maltreatment usually define it by injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of a child based on an observable change in behavior, emotional response, or cognition.

For example, a child who becomes depressed, anxious, or begins exhibiting aggressive behavior as a result of being called names by a parent may be considered emotionally abused.

Sexual Abuse

Every state includes sexual abuse as part of the definition of child abuse. Some states list specific acts that are considered abusive as well as ages. Laws about statutory rape and the age of consent vary greatly from state to state. Sexual exploitation is considered part of the definition of sexual abuse in most states, which includes sex trafficking crimes and child pornography.


Neglect is defined by the failure to provide a child with food, clothing, shelter, medical care, safety, and the supervision necessary to prevent harm. Some states also include “educational neglect” which refers to the failure to provide a child with access to appropriate education. Some states exempt parents who are unable to financially provide from a child. While in other states, the inability to pay still constitutes neglect.

States vary on their definitions of medical neglect. Some states define it as a failure to provide medical or mental health treatment. Other states define it as withholding medical treatment or nutrition from disabled infants with life-threatening conditions. There are also some exceptions to the medical neglect rules when it goes against a family’s religious beliefs.

Parental Substance Abuse

State laws differ on whether parental substance abuse should be considered as part of the child abuse definition. Currently, 14 states consider it to be child abuse if a pregnant mother uses drugs or drinks alcohol during her pregnancy. Manufacturing and selling drugs while a child is present is illegal in 10 states. Being under the influence of controlled substances to the extent that it impairs a parent’s ability to care for a child is considered abuse in seven states.


Some states have a definition of abandonment that is separate from neglect. Abandonment usually includes situations where a parent’s whereabouts are unknown or when a child is left in potentially dangerous circumstances. Abandonment may also include failing to maintain contact or provide reasonable support to a child.

Was this page helpful?
4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect in Federal Law.

  2. Gershoff ET, Font SA. Corporal Punishment in U.S. Public Schools: Prevalence, Disparities in Use, and Status in State and Federal Policy. Soc Policy Rep. 2016;30

  3. California Welfare and Institutions Code Sections 300-304.7 Article 6. Dependent Children--Jurisdiction (2005).

  4. 10A OK Stat § 10A-1-1-105 (2014).