Types of Child Abuse & Neglect

Child abuse comes in many forms, but the the emotional effect on the child is the common theme.  Children need consistency, guidelines and rules with order, and the knowledge that their parents are looking out for their safety.  Abused children cannot predict how their parents will act.  Their world is an unpredictable, frightening place with no rules.  Whether the abuse is a slap, a harsh comment, stony silence, or not knowing if there will be dinner on the table tonight, the end result is a child that feels unsafe, uncared for, and alone. 

Child neglect

This is the most common type of child abuse—where there is a pattern of failing to provide for a child's basic needs, whether it be adequate food, clothing, hygiene, or supervision.  Child neglect is not always easy to spot.  Sometimes, a parent might become physically or mentally unable to care for a child, such as with a serious injury, untreated depression, or anxiety.  Other times, alcohol or drug abuse may seriously impair judgment and the ability to keep a child safe.

Older children may not show outward signs of neglect, becoming used to presenting a competent face to the outside world, and even assuming the role of the parent.  But at the end of the day, neglected children are not getting their physical and emotional needs met.

Emotional child abuse

Contrary to this old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” emotional abuse can severely damage a child’s mental health or social development, leaving lifelong psychological scars.  Examples include:

  • Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating a child.

  • Calling names and making negative comparisons to others.

  • Telling a child he or she is “no good," "worthless," "bad," or "a mistake."

  • Frequent yelling, threatening, or bullying.

  • Ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment, giving him or her the silent treatment.

  • Limited physical contact with the child—no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection.

  • Exposing the child to violence or the abuse of others, whether it be the abuse of a parent, a sibling, or a pet.

Parents’ or caretakers’ acts or omissions that cause or could cause serious conduct, cognitive, affective, or other mental disorder such as torture, close confinement or the constant use of verbally abusive language.  You may see a parent who verbally terrorizes the child, who continually and severely criticizes the child, or who fails to express any affection or nurturing.

   Physical child abuse

With physical abuse comes physical harm or injury to the child.  And it may, but not always, be the result of a deliberate attempt to hurt the child.  It can also result from severe discipline, such as using a belt on a child, or physical punishment that is inappropriate to the child’s age or physical condition.

Many physically abusive parents and caregivers insist that their actions are simply forms of discipline.  But there is a big difference between using physical punishment to discipline and physical abuse.  The point of disciplining children is to teach them right from wrong, not to make them live in fear.   If a child is physically abused you may see frequent and unexplained bruises, burns, cuts, injuries; the child may be overly afraid of the parent's reaction to misbehavior.

Physical abuse vs. Discipline  With abuse, unlike forms of discipline, the following elements are present:

Unpredictability.  The child is constantly walking on eggshells, never sure what behavior will trigger a physical assault.  The child never knows what is going to set the parent off.  No clear boundaries or rules.

Using fear to control behavior.  Abusive parents may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to “keep their child in line.”  However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals.

Lashing out in anger.  Physically abusive parents desire to assert control and act out of anger.  The angrier the parent, the more intense the abuse.

Sexual abuse

Guilt and shame are the common components involved with child sexual abuse.  It's important to recognize that sexual abuse doesn't always involve body contact.  Touching is not a requirement to classify a sexually abusive situation.  Simply exposing a child to sexual situations or material is sexually abusive.

While news stories of sexual predators are scary, what is even more frightening is that sexual abuse usually occurs at the hands of someone the child knows and should be able to trust—most often close relatives.  And contrary to what many believe, it’s not just girls who are at risk.  Boys and girls both suffer from sexual abuse.  1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.  In fact, sexual abuse of boys may be under-reported due to shame and stigma.

Physical sexual abuse occurs when a parent or caretaker commits a sexual offense against a child or allows a sexual offense to be committed, such as rape, sodomy, engaging a child in sexual activity, engaging a child in -- or promoting a child’s — sexual performance.   Signs of abuse include knowledge or promotion of sexual behavior way beyond what is expected for the child's age; a young child might have sudden, unusual difficulty with toilet habits; there may be pain or itching, bruises or bleeding in the genital area. The child might even tell you, often replacing a friend in the story in lieu of themselves to cover for the feelings of shame or guilt. 

   The problem of shame and guilt in child sexual abuse                                                                

Sexually abused children are tormented by shame and guilt. Believing that they are responsible for the abuse or somehow brought it upon themselves, the abused child often begins to exemplify self-loathing and sexual problems as they grow older—often either excessive promiscuity or an inability to have intimate relations.

The shame of sexual abuse makes it very difficult to come forward. They worry that others won’t believe them.  They believe others will be angry with them, or that it will split their family apart.  Because of these difficulties, false accusations of sexual abuse are not common.  If a child confides in you, take them seriously.  Don’t turn a blind eye! 

There are several books available that can be used by parents and professionals to talk to children about their body and abuse.  Please click here for a list.