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Types of child abuse

Child abuse and neglect occurs in a range of situations, for a range of reasons. Children are rarely subject to one form of abuse at a time. Adults can experience a range of psychological, emotional and social problems related to childhood abuse.

Research by McGill University (published October 14, 2015) showed that emotional abuse of a child may be equally harmful as physical abuse and neglect, while child sexual abuse often co-occurs with other forms of poor treatment. Click here to read the full article.

Read more about:

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse refers to the psychological and social aspects of child abuse; it is the most common form of child abuse.

Many parents are emotionally abusive without being violent or sexually abusive, However, emotional abuse invariably accompanies physical and sexual abuse. Some parents who are emotionally abusive parents practice forms of child-rearing that are orientated towards fulfilling their own needs and goals, rather than those of their children. Their parenting style may be characterised by overt aggression towards their children, including shouting and intimidation, or they may manipulate their children using more subtle means, such as emotional blackmail.

Emotional abuse does not only occur in the home. Children can be emotionally abused by teachers and other adults in a position of power over the child. Children can also be emotionally abused by other children in the form of "bullying". Chronic emotional abuse in schools is a serious cause of harm to victimised children and warrants ongoing active intervention.

  • How many children are emotionally abused or neglected? One American survey found that a quarter of the sample of undergraduate students reported some form of emotional abuse by their parents. Another quarter reported other forms of emotional abuse outside the home, such as bullying (Doyle 1997).
  • Who is most likely to be emotionally abused?Boys and girls are equally likely to be victims of emotional abuse by their parents, and emotional maltreatment has been reported to peak in the 6- to 8- year old range and to remain at a similar level throughout adolescence (Kaplan and Labruna 1998).
  • What are the characteristics of emotionally abusive parents?Research findings suggest that emotionally abusive parents have negative attitudes towards children, perceive parents as unrewarding and difficult to enjoy, and that they associate their own negative feelings with the child's difficult behaviour, particularly when the child reacts against their poor parenting methods. *Emotional abuse has increasingly been linked to parental mental health problems, domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse, being abused or having been in care as children (Iwaneic and Herbert 1999).

Signs in childhood

From infancy to adulthood, emotionally abused people are often more withdrawn and emotionally disengaged than their peers, and find it difficult to predict other people's behaviour, understand why they behave in the manner that they do, and respond appropriately.

Emotionally abused children exhibit a range of specific signs. They often:

  • feel unhappy, frightened and distressed
  • behave aggressively and anti-socially, or they may act too mature for their age
  • experience difficulties with academic achievement and school attendance
  • find it difficult to make friends
  • show signs of physical neglect and malnourishment
  • experience incontinence and mysterious pains.

Signs in adulthood

Adults emotionally abused as children are more likely to experience mental health problems and difficulties in personal relationships. Many of the harms of physical and sexual abuse are related to the emotional abuse that accompanies them, and as a result many emotionally abused adults exhibit a range of complex psychological and psychosocial problems associated with multiple forms of trauma in childhood (Glaser 2002).

Significant early relationships in childhood shape our response to new social situations in adulthood. Adults with emotionally abusive parents are at a disadvantage as they try to form personal, professional and romantic relationships, since they may easily misinterpret other people's behaviours and social cues, or misapply the rules that governed their abusive relationship with their parent to everyday social situations (Berenson and Anderson 2006).

Neglect

Complaints of neglect constitute a significant proportion of notifications and referrals to child protection services, However, there is no single definition of child neglect in Australia. It is generally understood that "neglect" refers to a range of circumstances in which a parent or caregiver fails to adequately provide for a child's needs:

  • through the provision of food, shelter and clothing
  • by ensuring their access to medical care when necessary
  • by providing them with care, love and support
  • by exercising adequate supervision and control of the child
  • by showing appropriate moral and legal guidance
  • by ensuring that the child regularly attends school

One of the contentious aspects of "neglect", as a category of child abuse, is that it is closely related to socioeconomic status. Many parents lack the money and support to meet the standards outlined above. Parents in financial need are also more likely to be in contact with welfare services, which in turn are more likely to scrutinise their parenting practices, and therefore more likely to make a report of abuse or neglect. As a result of these factors, poor communities and poor families have often been stigmatised as epicentres of child abuse and neglect. In fact, when adults in the community are asked to make retrospective reports, emotional abuse and neglect occurs in all families, rich or poor.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse has been a normal aspect of domestic life in Australia for a long time. Physical assaults that would be serious criminal offenses if committed by one man against another - for instance, hitting, slapping, or striking with an object - have been legally and socially sanctioned when committed by a man against his wife and child, or by parents against their children. Today, incidents of domestic violence committed against both women and children remain at epidemic proportions, although there is increasing recognition within the Australian community of the prevalence and harms of violence against women and children.

Whilst community attitudes to violence against women and children have changed for the better, Australian policy-makers have failed to outlaw physical assaults against children by caregivers. According to the 2007 report of the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, Australia is one of a number of countries that has failed to prohibit violence against children, and has failed to commit to legislative reform. In particular, the legal defences of "reasonable correction" and "reasonable chastisement" are still available to adults who are charged with violent offenses against children in many jurisdictions.

  • How many children are physically abused? A large sample of American families found that 2.4% of children had been kicked, bitten, punched, beaten up, burned, scalded, or threatened or attacked with a knife or a gun by their parents. An additional 8.5% had been hit with an object by their parents (Straus and Gelles 1990).
  • What are the characteristics of parents who physically abuse children? Characteristics of physical child abusers include emotional impairment, substance abuse, lack of social support, presence of domestic violence and a history of childhood abuse (English, Marshall et al. 1999).
  • What are the characteristics of physically abused children? Boys and girls are equally likely to be physically assaulted by their parents, and whilst research suggests that physical abuse peaks when children are aged 4- to 8-years old, physical assault resulting in death occurs most often to infants and toddlers (Kaplan and Labruna 1998).

Signs in childhood

Physically abused children find it difficult relating to their peers and the adults around them. The constant threat of violence at home makes them perpetually vigilant and mistrustful, and they may be overly domineering and aggressive in their attempts to predict and control other people's behaviour. They are also vulnerable to "emotional storms", or instances of overwhelming emotional responses to everyday situations (Berenson and Anderson 2006). These "storms" can take the form of profound grief, fear, or rage.

Physically abused children may also have problems with:

  • academic achievement
  • physical development and coordination
  • developing friendships and relationships
  • aggression and anger management
  • depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.

Signs in adulthood

Adults physically abused in childhood are at increased risk of either aggressive and violent behaviour, or shy and avoidant behaviour leading to rejection or re-victimisation. This polarised behaviour is often driven by hyper-vigilance and the anticipation of threat and violence even in everyday situations. Men with a history of physical abuse in childhood are particularly prone to violent behaviour, and physically abused men are over-represented amongst violent and sexual offenders (Malinosky-Rummell and Hansen 1993).

Family violence

Family violence, or domestic violence, usually refers to the physical assault of children and women by male relatives, usually a father and husband/partner. In these situations, a man uses violence to control his partner and children, often in the belief that violence is a male perogative ("I'm a guy, I can't control myself"), or that his victims are responsible for his behaviour ("You bought it on yourself"). Whilst women may also be perpetrators of family violence, they are usually "fighting back" against a physically abusive partner, and it is unusual for violent women to inflict the same scale of harm as violent men. 

  • How many children witness domestic violence?The only Australian population-based survey on domestic violence found that 2.6% of women who currently had partners had experienced an incident of violence in the previous 12 months, and 8.0% had experienced violence at some stage in their relationship.*From these figures, we can surmise that a significant minority of Australian children witness family violence.
  • Who commits domestic violence? Research overwhelmingly suggests that family violence is enacted by men against women and children.* Whilst women can and do commit violent offences within families, rates of female-initiated violence are much lower than male violence, and it is rarely as severe and brutal.

Signs in childhood

A child witnessing family violence, and domestic violence, is at risk of:

  • Behavioural and emotional difficulties
  • Learning difficulties
  • Long-term developmental problems
  • Aggressive language and behaviour
  • Restlessness, anxiety and depression*

Signs in adulthood

Adults exposed to domestic violence as children can carry with them a legacy of trauma-related symptoms and developmental delays. Women who grew up in an environment of family violence are more likely to be victimised in adulthood, whilst men who grew up in a violent environment are more likely to commit violent offences in adulthood (Edleson 1999).

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse describes any incident in an adult engages a minor in a sexual act, or exposes the minor to inappropriate sexual behaviour or material. Sexual abuse also describes any incident in which a child is coerced into sexual activity by another child. A person may sexually abuse a child using threats and physical force, but sexual abuse often involves subtle forms of manipulation, in which the child is coerced into believing that the activity is an expression of love, or that the child bought the abuse upon themself. Sexual abuse involves contact and non-contact offences.

  • How many children are sexually abused? Approximately one third of women surveyed in Australia have reported sexual abuse in childhood (Flemming 1997; Glaser 1997; Mazza, Dennerstein et al. 2001). Approximately 10% of Australian men report sexual abuse in childhood (Goldman and Goldman 1988).
  • Who is most likely to be sexually abused? Whilst all children are vulnerable to sexual abuse, girls are more likely to be sexually abused than boys. Disabled children are up to seven times more likely to be abused than their non-disabled peers (Briggs 2006).
  • How often is sexual abuse reported to the authorities? In one study of Australian women, only 10% of child sexual abuse experiences were ever reported to the police, a doctor, or a health agency (Flemming 1997).
  • Who sexually abuses children? Across all community-based studies, most abusers are male and related to the child (Flemming 1997). Most adults who sexually abuse children are not mentally ill and do not meet the diagnostic criteria for "paedophilia".

Signs in childhood

Sexually abused children exhibit a range of behaviours, including:

  • Withdrawn, unhappy and suicidal behaviour
  • Self-harm and suicidality
  • Aggressive and violent behaviour
  • Bedwetting, sleep problems, nightmares
  • Eating problems e.g. anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa
  • Mood swings
  • Detachment
  • Pains for no medical reason
  • Sexual behaviour, language, or knowledge too advanced for their age

Signs in adulthood

Adults sexually abused as children have poorer mental health than other adults. They are more likely to have a history of eating disorders, depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. Sexual abuse is also associated with financial problems in adulthood, and a decreased likelihood to graduate from high school or undertake further education (Silverman, Reinherz et al. 1996).

Organised sexual abuse

Organised sexual abuse refers to the range of circumstances in which multiple children are subject to sexual abuse by multiple perpetrators. In these circumstances, children are subject to a range of serious harms that can include child prostitution, the manufacture of child pornography, and bizarre and sadistic sexual practices, including ritualistic abuse and torture.

  • What are the circumstances in which children are subject to organised sexual abuse? Many children subject to organised abuse are raised in abusive families, and their parents make them available for abuse outside the home. This abuse may include extended family members, family "friends", or people who pay to abuse the child (Cleaver and Freeman 1996). Other children are trafficked into organised abuse by perpetrators in schools, churches, state or religious institutions, or whilst homeless or without stable housing.
  • Who is most likely to be sexually abused in organised contexts? Children who are vulnerable to organised abuse include the children of parents involved in organised abuse, and children from unstable or unhappy family backgrounds who may be targeted by abusers outside the family. 
  • Who sexually abuses children in organised contexts? Organised abuse, like all forms of child abuse, is primarily committed by parents and relatives. Organised abuse differs from other forms of sexual abuse in that women are often reported as perpetrators. Research with female sexual abusers has found that they have often grown up in environments, such as organised abuse, where sexual abuse is normative, and, as adults, they may sexually abuse in organised contexts alongside male offenders (Faller 1995).

Signs in childhood

Young children subject to organised sexual abuse often have severe traumatic and dissociative symptoms that inhibit disclosure or help-seeking behaviour. They are often very withdrawn children with strong suicidal ideation. They may exhibit disturbed behaviours while at play or when socialising with their peers or other adults. 

Signs in adulthood

Organised abuse, and ritual abuse, is a key predisposing factor the development of Dissociative Identity Disorder and other dissociative spectrum disorders. Adults with histories of organised abuse frequently have long histories of suicide attempts and self-harm, and they often live with a heavy burden of mental and physical illnesses.

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