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Talking about trauma for services

Types of child abuse

Child abuse and neglect occur in different situations, for a range of reasons. Children rarely experience one form of abuse at a time. Recent research by McGill University (2015) showed that emotional abuse of a child may be as harmful as physical abuse and neglect, while child sexual abuse often occurs together with other forms of maltreatment. Click here to read the full article.

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Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse or maltreatment, also known as psychological abuse or maltreatment is the most common form of child abuse. It is also experienced by children witnessing domestic violence. While many parents are emotionally abusive without being violent or sexually abusive, emotional abuse often accompanies physical and sexual abuse. It includes acts of omission (what is not done) e.g. emotional neglect e.g. not expressing or showing love and affection and commission (what is done) e.g. rejection, humiliation, insults, setting unreasonable expectations or restricting opportunities for the child to learn, socialise or explore. Each can negatively impact a child’s self-esteem and social competence.

Some parents do not see the child as a separate person, and fulfil their own needs and goals, rather their children’s. Their parenting style may be aggressive, and include shouting and intimidation. They may isolate or confine the child, or they may manipulate their children using more subtle means, such as emotional blackmail. Emotional abuse and neglect were the primary reason for a child being investigated for maltreatment in 2014-15 (AIHW 2016).

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

What are the characteristics of emotionally abusive parents? 

Some parents who have their own unresolved trauma can find parenting challenging, and have difficulties with attachment, emotional regulation, boundaries and discipline. 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; Siegel and Hartzell, 2003). Research findings suggest that some emotionally abusive parents have negative attitudes towards children, perceive parenting 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. 

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 antisocially or too maturely for their age, experience difficulties with school attendance and achievement, find it hard 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 can be defined as ‘any serious act or omission by a person having the care of a child that, within the bounds of cultural tradition, constitutes a failure to provide conditions that are essential for the healthy physical and emotional development of a child’. (CFCA Resource Sheet, 2016) Notifications of neglect constitute a significant proportion of referrals to child protection services. Neglect refers to circumstances in which a parent or caregiver fails to adequately provide for a child's needs: e.g. provision of food, shelter and clothing, access to medical care when necessary, providing love, care and support, adequate supervision, appropriate legal and moral guidance, regular school attendance. 

Sometimes, a parent might not be physically or mentally able to care for a child. This may occur as a result of their own illness, injury, depression, anxiety or substance abuse. Neglect can sometimes be associated with socioeconomic status. Many parents don’t have the resources to meet a child’s need. Their financial hardship might also put them into contact with welfare services, which scrutinise their parenting practices, and so, are more likely to make a report. This has meant that poor families and communities have previously been stigmatised; however it is important to recognise that emotional abuse and neglect occur in all families, rich or poor.

There are several categories of neglect: supervisory neglect, emotional neglect, physical neglect, medical neglect, educational neglect and abandonment (Scott, 2014). 

Signs in childhood (these signs are similar to those for emotional abuse) are dependent on the age of the child.  Babies and young children may not seem to have a close relationship to their parent or caregiver, may be overly anxious and lack confidence, may be aggressive or overly affectionate to strangers and people they don’t know well. Older children may speak or act inappropriately for their age, be socially isolated, including isolated from their parents, have few social skills, and struggle to control their intense emotions or outbursts. 

Physical abuse

Physical abuse refers to ‘any non-accidental physical act inflicted upon a child by a person having the care of a child’. It is not always a result of intent to hurt a child but sometimes can be justified as being a form of discipline. However when it is fear based, and involves unpredictability or lashing out in anger, it constitutes physical abuse.  Physical abuse is the type of abuse most likely to be accompanied by another form, specifically emotional abuse or neglect. When a parent or caregiver ‘makes up’ an illness it is also considered physical abuse (Bromfield, 2005; World Health Organization [WHO], 2006).

Adults who physically abuse children may have unrealistic expectations of their child, not understanding the child’s needs or how to interact with them. This can be fuelled by their own health, relationship, child abuse histories or manifest with emotional or behavioural challenges including anger management issues. (Miller-Perrin and Perrin, 2013)

Overall, 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.

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).

Domestic and Family violence

Domestic and family violence is a pattern of abusive behaviour in an intimate relationship, which features coercion and control, which that over time puts one person in a position of power over another, and causes fear. It can incorporate a range of abuses including but not limited to: physical, sexual and emotional assaults; stalking; isolating the person from friends and family; financial abuse; spiritual/cultural abuse; legal abuse; damage to personal property; threats of harm to pets and loved ones; psychological abuse e.g. manipulation, denial etc.

Women are more likely to experience violence from intimate partners than men; they can also experience violence from ex-partners. It does need to be noted, however that women can and do commit violent offences in families although not as commonly as males. It occurs in all cultures, religions, socio-demographic groups and any sort of intimate relationship. It is particularly damaging to children who either experience or witness it.  

Signs in childhood

Children living in a family violence environment are living in a situation of fear, anxiety and unpredictability. They experience emotional and psychological trauma similar to children experiencing other forms of child abuse and neglect. Some will be directly targeted and may experience physical or sexual abuse as well as neglect.

A child witnessing family 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. (World Health Organization, ‘World Report on Violence and Health’, ed. By Krug, Etienne G., et al., Geneva, 2002). 

Sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse describes any incident in an adult, adolescent or child uses their power and authority to engage a minor in a sexual act, or exposes the minor to inappropriate sexual behaviour or material. 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 themselves. Sexual abuse involves contact and non-contact offences.

Sexually abusive behaviours can include the fondling of genitals, masturbation, oral sex, vaginal or anal penetration by a penis, finger or any other object, fondling of breasts, voyeurism, exhibitionism and exposing the child to or involving the child in pornography (CFCA Resource Sheet, 2015: Bromfield, 2005; US National Research Council, 1993).

How many children are sexually abused? 

Up to 8 percent of males and 12 percent of females experience penetrative child sexual abuse and up to 16 percent of males and up to 36 percent of females experience non-penetrative child sexual abuse (Price-Robertson, Bromfield & Vassallo, 2010).  Adult retrospective studies show that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men were sexually abused before the age of 18 (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, 2006. 

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).

Who sexually abuses children? 

Most sexual abusers are male although females also do perpetrate abuse (McCloskey & Raphael, 2005).  Some offenders are serial perpetrators – high risk, others opportunistic (due to lack of control) and some situational (Irenyi, Bromfield, Beyer, & Higgins, 2006). Most adults who sexually abuse children are not mentally ill and do not meet the diagnostic criteria for "paedophilia" i.e. are sexually attracted to children.

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 often experience poorer mental and physical health than other adults (Draper et al., 2007). They are more likely to have a history of eating disorders, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide attempts. Sexual abuse is also associated with difficulties in interpersonal relationships, self-esteem, completing an education and maintaining employment.  

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 (Salter M., 2012).

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 disability.