Child abuse can be defined as any mistreatment of a child that results in physical injury, death, sexual exploitation, psychological harm or emotional distress. It can also be a failure to provide for the physical and emotional needs of a child. The four main types of child abuse are as follows:
Physical child Abuse
Physical child abuse usually involves an injury or the intentional infliction of pain, but it doesn’t have to be high level violence to classify. Physical abuse may be a slap, a shove, kicking, beating, punching, burning, scalding, shaking or cutting. It can be said to be any abusive action that touches a child physically and causes harm or distress. It is often intentional, but not always. A parent who is emotionally unable to cope with the demands of disciplining a child may lash out in anger and frustration. Or, a parent who has themselves grown up in an abusive environment may be blindly following the pattern of their own upbringing. Some parents are unable to draw the line between abuse and normal discipline.
Emotional/psychological child abuse
Emotional and psychological child abuse is far harder to see from the outside. It can, however, be even more damaging. Emotional abuse of a child can lead to a deconstruction of a child’s personality as he or she loses all confidence in the world. A parent, carer or person in authority is the centre of a child’s universe, so when this relationship is abusive the child really feels he or she has nowhere to turn. A person who is emotionally abusive towards a child can remove the child’s perception of normality. The child is unable to follow a normal set of rules and never knows when he will have pleased or displeased the adult, nor understands why. Emotional abuse may take the form of belittling or name calling, shouting or threatening. An abusive parent may also withdraw affection from a child, refusing to speak to him or her or withdrawing physical comforts like hugs and closeness.
It also, sometimes, means forcing a child to live in an abusive environment where he or she is witness to acts of violence or emotional abuse towards his mother or other family member. As a result, the child sees the world as an unpredicatable and unsafe place from which he has no escape. A child who is constantly told that he or she is worthless, stupid, fat, lazy or ugly quickly begins to believe this. And, as it’s much harder for a child to find avenues of escape or support than it is for an adult, they tend to remain in a secretive, abusive world for far longer.
Sexual Child Abuse
Sexual abuse of a child is another form of physical abuse, and will always impact on a child’s emotional/psychological wellbeing to some degree. It can happen to boys and girls alike, and to children of any age. It may happen in the home, or in an institution. The sexual abuse of a child can involve physical contact, such as inappropriate touching, forced oral sex or penetrative sex, but it can also involve non contact forms of abuse. A child who is made to witness sexual acts or view pornographic material is also being sexually abused.
Neglect is a very common form of child abuse. Neglect is a failure to provide for a child’s needs, be they emotional or physical. It may involve not providing enough food, warmth, shelter or clothing. It may also be a case of not giving the child a secure and safe emotional base. Neglect may or may not be an intentional abuse. Some abusive adults may use neglect to control a child’s behaviour and emotions. However, it can equally be unintentional if a parent lacks the emotional maturity to understand a child’s needs. Neglect can also result from poverty.
Because children are so vulnerable and less able to recognise the abuses perpetrated on them than adults, it is vital that those who are around them are able to spot the signs of child abuse. The different forms of child abuse may result in varying symptoms, but knowing what to watch out for is essential
Signs of physical child abuse
A child who is being phsyically abused may have obvious signs of injury such as cuts, bruises, burns or welts. If these are seen regularly, abuse must be suspected. It can be a tough call, as children do fall or hurt themselves in the normal way of things, but regular injuries of this type need to be noted. Asking the child how he obtained the injuries can be telling. If he is unable or unwilling to explain, or seems uptight or gives an unrealistic explanation, abuse may be behind it. A child who wears long sleeved or high necked clothing even in warm weather may be trying to cover up injuies. Another warning sign of physical child abuse is flinching from sudden movements by others as though expecting to be hit.
Signs of emotional child abuse
A child who becomes withdrawn, anxious or fearful may be being abused emotionally. Sudden changes in personality or behaviour can also be signs. It is also worth noting that a child who appears to regress to babyish behaviour, thumb sucking or rocking, perhaps, may be experiencing psychological damage from emotional abuse at home.
Signs of sexual child abuse
If a child is being sexually abused he or she may show obvious signs of discomfort sitting or walking. They may become reluctant to undress or change in public. Conversely, child victims of sexual abuse can become excessively interested in sex, talking about it, looking at pornography or even becoming sexually active or sexually abusive to others.
Signs of neglect
A neglected child may be dressed in ill fitting, dirty or inappropriate clothing. They may give off body odour, be excessively hungry or lose weight. A child whose needs are not met at home may be frequently absent from school, or clearly left unsupervised for periods of time.
The true facts and figures about child abuse and its extent can be very difficult to ascertain. Child abuse is something that is frequently hidden, with the abusers going to great lengths to cover up the signs of abuse. Children are less able than adults to recognise abuse and much less likely to report it. All this means that the statistics we have are almost certainly inaccurate, with the true figures probably far higher. However, much is known about child abuse that gives at least a picture of the problem and can help people to spot it and do something to help.
- A child who witnesses domestic violence or abuse of any sort in the home is likely to become emotionally or psychologically damaged, even if the abuse is not aimed at the child.
- As many as 5 children die every day as a result of child abuse.
- More than 3 out of every 4 cases of child abuse involve children who are under the age of 4.
- The majority of abusive parents have a history of being abused themselves.
- As many as 90% of children who are abused know their abusers. Around 68% are actually abused by a family member.
- 1 out of 3 girls and 1 out of 5 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse during childhood (up to the age of 18).
- Somewhere around 30% of abused children go on to abuse their own families later in life.
- Records show that the abuses suffered by children can be broken down as follows: Neglect 62.8% ; Physical abuse 16.6% ; Sexual abuse 9.3%; Emotional/psychological abuse 7.1% ; Medical neglect 2.0%; Other 14.3%. In this case, ‘other’ may be defined as abandonment, exposure to drugs or any other situation not outlined in the above categories. However, as in many cases of child abuse the knock on effects almost always entail some degree of emotional damage, the figures should be regarded as a guide only.
- Children who are abused in the home are more likely than others to commit crimes in later life.
What to do if you are a child who is being abused
If you are suffering abuse, there may be a trusted adult that you can turn to in the first instance. However, if you are being abused by a family member, it can be difficult for another member of your family to accept or believe the situation, so it may be better to turn to a teacher, a friend’s parents or your doctor or minister.
If you are a victim of child abuse who feels that there is no person in your immediate life who you can turn to, it is important for you to know that there are organisations and professionals who will help you. Phone numbers and website addresses are given under the Resources section at the end. However, there may be extra services in your area that you can find by doing internet searches. You will not be judged or ignored. No one will belittle your fears or concerns and you will always be taken seriously. It’s also important to understand that when you turn to a help organisation for a problem of child abuse, your safety will be treated as paramount. You will be advised on how to protect yourself, and can be given a place of safety to escape to if necessary. Counselling can be provided for you too, to help you to recover from the effects of abuse. Children at risk can also call emergency services or go to the police or their local accident and emergency department of the hospital.
What to do if you suspect that a child you know is being abused
The role of the outsider is more important than ever when it comes to cases of child abuse. This is because children may be too young to be able to find help themselves, or may be too frightened. So, being on the lookout for signs of child abuse can save lives. If you suspect that a child you know is being abused in any way, there are several things that you can do. If the child is old enough and you have a good relationship with her, you can make time to talk to her and let her know that you are always there to listen.
However, if it is apparent that abuse is taking place, it is best to contact the professionals who can handle the case safely for all concerned. You can, of course, make sure that the child knows that she can find a place of safety with you while things are resolved. For help and advice, you can turn to your doctor, social worker, domestic violence or childline helplines and websites (given under Resources below). Or, if the danger is immediate, call emergency services. Your anonymity will be protected if you wish, in most cases there is no need to give your name.
Treatments and solutions for child abuse
Children who have been abused may be taken into care or placed in foster homes. However, if the abuse is not severe and the authorities believe that it can be resolved within the family with professional help, this is also possible. Treatments for abused children usually involve specialist counselling sessions.
Help for parents who may be being abusive without intending to be so can include parenting classes and financial support where appropriate. Parents who are exhausted by the demands of raising a disabled child, for example, may neglect their other children as a consequence. Cases like this can be sympathetically dealt with, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if this is what’s happening in your family. Respite care may be offered and can make all the difference.