The difference between child abuse and neglect is that child abuse typically involves a specific act of aggression toward a child, whereas child neglect is the absence of accepted standards of supervision and care within a household. Child neglect may be considered by some child welfare professionals to be a subset of child abuse. An exact legal definition of child abuse and neglect typically varies by jurisdiction, and laws generally reflect cultural beliefs about the appropriate treatment of children as well as culturally based expectations of appropriate behavior from both parents and children.
Laws in many areas typically classify behavior that is inherently injurious to children as child abuse. Criminalized behavior may include causing physical injury to a child; the use of a child by an adult or older child for purposes of sexual gratification; and in some cases the psychological abuse of a child in the form of threats, name-calling, or other forms of verbal aggression. In some places, all forms of physical violence toward a child may be considered child abuse, to the point of criminalizing various types of corporal punishment, such as spanking. The sexual abuse of children is often a particular target of child abuse laws, and offenders may often find themselves receiving a much harsher punishment than if they had committed a similar crime against an adult.
Child neglect laws, on the other hand, seek to address instances in which a child's parent or guardian does not provide adequate or appropriate care. For example, if a parent does not regularly provide meals to a young child or does not provide him or her with a safe, warm place to live and sleep, that parent may be charged with child neglect. Similarly, parents who do not bring their child to a doctor when very ill may face medical neglect charges.
Some activists and social work professionals are concerned about the conflation of child abuse and neglect. They point out that, unlike child abuse, child neglect may be a symptom of a family dysfunction that is caused by circumstances outside the family's control. For example, neighbors may report that small children are not being properly supervised, and yet upon investigation by authorities it is discovered that a single mother must work multiple jobs in order to support her family and is unable to constantly be home to watch her children. As such, in some areas social service policy may seek to address child neglect in a different way than child abuse by attempting to provide resources to families in which the parents desire to properly care for their children but need additional assistance to do so.