Physical Abuse of the Young

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Human Uniqueness Compared to "Great Apes": 
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Human Universality: 
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Child abuse is broadly defined as physical abuse, which may or may not lead to death of the child. Child abuse is not unique to humans and is likely present in the majority of non-human primates and non-primate animals. Although this behavior is common among primates, certain types of abuse are not documented in other species, such as sex-biased abuse towards female children and verbal abuse. Understanding the basic reasons for this behavior may facilitate improved treatment and counseling programs.

Background Information: 

Child abuse is a well-documented behavior observed in humans and other hominids. Reported incidents, as well as experimental evidence, suggest child abuse leads to differing levels of physical/mental trauma and in some instances might lead to death. Abuse in non-primate societies mostly results from stressful situations or in response to infant physical abnormalities. Therefore, the relevance of child abuse studies in non-human primates to human child abuse is highly debated. Additionally, previous maternal deprivation studies in monkeys are highly criticized, making further studies difficult to conduct.

The Human Difference: 

The cause, extent, and types of child abuse differ among human societies. Child abuse is highly complex, with speculated reasons being stress-induced responses, parental behavioral changes, and external factors. Domestic violence in families appears to predispose higher levels of child abuse. Child abuse can be associated with training the child for a socially accepted behavior. Additionally, several societies show sex-biased abuse towards female children, a trait only documented in humans. Finally, humans are the only documented primate to verbally abuse their offspring possibly leading to severe mental damage

Universality in Human Populations: 

Abusive behavior against children is universal in human populations, although the extent differs between societies. A few societies show selective child abuse against female children. Reports on hunter-gatherer societies show infanticide of one twin or a physically deformed infant. These societal level child abuse phenomena may result from social or religious beliefs.  

Mechanisms Responsible for the Difference: 

In general, child abuse is related to stress and past experiences that manifested as abuse to children. However the specific differences vary among individuals.

Implications for Understanding Modern Humans: 

While child abuse in humans might cause temporary physical trauma, most of the time it results in long-term mental trauma leading to physiological or mental manifestations in a child’s later life. Understanding the basic reasons for this behavior may facilitate improved treatment and counseling programs.  

Occurrence in Other Animals: 

Other animals occasionally show abusive behavior, like child abuse, or child abandonment due to stress or limited resources. In some cases cannibalism of the killed infants is observed. 

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Torture True


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