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Understanding trauma and abuse

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Testimonials

“It was the most friendly, welcoming, understanding and informative call I think I've ever had. It helped me find answers to help my wife whom I love dearly, who walked out on a twenty year marriage and four children because her past abuse was coming up. Thanks a lot, just hope it's not too late for my situation.”

ANONYMOUS

“The most significant impact of the work that Blue Knot Foundation did was that it helped heal a rift between family members – I was stuck in the middle initially and felt alone, but Blue Knot Foundation provided me with a lot of support and resources. I felt well supported.”

ANONYMOUS

“I think Blue Knot Foundation is a fantastic support organisation for people who have experienced childhood trauma/abuse, for their families/close friends and for professionals who would like to learn how to more effectively work with these people.”

Psychologist Melbourne

“I came here today to support my friend but found it all so informative. I too was abused as a child but have always tried to ignore it... This workshop has me thinking, questioning and wondering!!”

ANONYMOUS

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.

Read more about:

Childhood Emotional abuse


Emotional abuse is also called psychological abuse (maltreatment). It is the most common form of child abuse. It is also experienced by children witnessing domestic violence. Emotional abuse often occurs together with physical and sexual abuse. Many parents and caregivers however are emotionally abusive without being violent or sexually abusive.

Emotional abuse includes acts of omission (emotional neglect - what is not done) e.g. not expressing or showing love and affection. It also includes acts of commission (what is done) e.g. rejection, humiliation, insults, setting unreasonable expectations or restricting opportunities for the child to learn, socialise or explore. Both acts of commission and omission can negatively affect a child’s self-esteem and ability to engage with others.

Some parents don’t see their child as a separate person. They use their child to meet their own needs and goals rather than those of their children. Their parenting style may be aggressive, and include shouting and intimidation. They may isolate or confine their child; they may also use emotional blackmail to manipulate their children. This is more subtle.

Emotional abuse doesn’t only occur in the home. Teachers and other adults in a position of power can emotionally abuse children. So can other children – we call this "bullying". Chronic emotional abuse in schools is a serious problem. It causes a lot of harm and requires active strategies to address it.

Why do parents emotionally abuse their children? 

Many parents have their own histories of trauma. This can make parenting harder. It can affect their ability to attach securely with their children and to regulate their own emotion. Setting boundaries can be difficult for some parents. So is using discipline. The emotional abuse of children is linked to parental mental health problems, domestic violence, drug and alcohol misuse and being abused or having been in care as children (Siegel and Hartzell, 2003). Research suggests that some emotionally abusive parents have negative attitudes towards children. They can find parenting unrewarding and difficult to enjoy. They can also associate their own negative feelings with their child's difficult behaviour, particularly when their child reacts adversely to their poor parenting. 

What do children who have been emotionally abused experience?

From infancy to adulthood, emotionally abused people are often more withdrawn and disengaged than others. They can struggle to understand people and predict they will do. This makes it hard for them to respond appropriately.

Emotionally abused children are often unhappy, frightened and distressed. They can be aggressive, antisocial or too mature for their age. Some have don’t make it to school regularly or achieve as well as other children. They can find it hard to make friends. Some are physically neglected or malnourished. Others can be incontinent or have pains, which can’t be explained.  

What do adults who were emotionally abused as children experience?

Adults, emotionally abused as children, are more likely have mental health problems and difficulties in personal relationships. Many adults have a range of complex emotional and social problems as a result of the different traumas which occur with emotional abuse in childhood (Glaser, 2002).

Our early childhood relationships, especially those with our parents or caregivers, shape the way we respond 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. They can misinterpret social cues and behaviour, or apply the rules from their abusive caregiver relationship to everyday social situations (Berenson and Anderson 2006).

Childhood Neglect


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 are a significant proportion of referrals to child protection services. Neglect occurs when a parent or caregiver fails to adequately provide for a child's needs: e.g. food, shelter, clothing, medical care, love, care and support, adequate supervision, appropriate legal and moral guidance, regular school attendance. Neglect can be classified into supervisory neglect, emotional neglect, physical neglect, medical neglect, educational neglect and abandonment (Scott, 2014). 

Sometimes, a parent or caregiver is not physically or mentally able to care for a child. This can occur because of their own illness, injury, depression, anxiety or substance abuse. Sometimes a child is neglected because their parent or caregiver doesn’t have enough resources to meet the child’s needs. This can bring them into contact with welfare services, which scrutinise their parenting practices. They are then likely to be subject to a report. In the past poor families and communities have been stigmatised as a result. However emotional abuse and neglect occurs in all families, rich or poor.

What are the signs of neglect in childhood?

The signs are similar to those for emotional abuse. They depend on the child’s age.  

Babies and young children may not seem to be close to their parent or caregiver. Some children appear over-anxious and lack confidence. Others are aggressive and too affectionate to strangers or people they hardly know.

Older children may speak or act inappropriately for their age. They may be socially isolated, including from their parents. They may also have poor social skills, and struggle to manage their often intense emotions or outbursts. 

Childhood Physical abuse


Physical abuse is ‘any non-accidental physical act inflicted upon a child by a person having the care of a child’. It is not always intended to hurt the child and is sometimes justified as ‘discipline’. Physical abuse is based on fear. The adult or caregiver lashes out angrily; it is unpredictable. Physical abuse is the most likely form of abuse to accompany another form e.g. emotional abuse or neglect.

Adults who physically abuse children may have unrealistic expectations of them. They might not understand the child’s needs or how to interact with them. This can be fuelled by their own health issues, relationships and childhood trauma and abuse histories. Some parents have challenges with managing their emotions, their anger and their behaviour (Miller-Perrin and Perrin, 2013).

Physical abuse has been a ‘normal’ part of home life in Australia for a long time. Criminal physical assaults such as - hitting, slapping, or striking with an object - have been tolerated legally and socially when perpetrated 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 are increasing movements for change.

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 has failed to prohibit violence against children, and 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. 

What are the signs of physical abuse in childhood? 

Physically abused children can find it difficult to relate to their peers and to the adults around them. They live with the constant threat of violence at home. This keeps them on high alert – vigilant. They can find it hard to trust. Some children become bossy and aggressive. They are trying to predict and control other people's behaviour because their world is so out of control. Some children can be vulnerable to "emotional storms", or overwhelming emotional reactions to everyday situations (Berenson and Anderson 2006). Their overwhelming emotions vary from grief, to fear, or rage.

Physically abused children may also struggle academically. Their physical development and coordination can be delayed. Many have trouble building friendships and forming relationships. They can also struggle with managing their anger. Some tend to be aggressive. Others are depressed and anxious, or experience low self-esteem.

What are the signs of physical abuse as an adult? 

Adults physically abused as children are often more likely to be aggressive and violent. Alternatively, they may be shy and avoidant making them targets for rejection or re-victimisation. This is because they often remain on high alert and hypervigilant. They are used to danger, and can see threat, danger and violence in everyday situations. Men who were physically abused as children are particularly likely to be violent. They are over-represented amongst violent and sexual offenders (Malinosky-Rummell and Hansen, 1993). 

Domestic and Family violence in childhood

Domestic and family violence is a pattern of abusive behaviour in an intimate relationship. It uses threat, force, control and fear. Over time one person is in a position of power over another. It can include different sorts of abuse such as: 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 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. Women however can and do commit violent offences in families as well. This occurs in all cultures, religions, socio-demographic groups. It is particularly damaging to children who either experience or witness it.  

What are the signs in childhood of growing up with family violence? 

Life for children growing up with family violence is unpredictable. Children live in fear and are anxious. They experience emotional and psychological trauma similar to children experiencing other forms of child abuse and neglect. Some will be experience violence directly and others may be physically or sexually abused or neglected.

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.

What signs do adults show from growing up with family violence?

Adults exposed to domestic violence as children can experience developmental delays and trauma-related symptoms. Women growing up with family violence are more likely to be victimised in adulthood; men growing up in a violent environment are more likely to commit violent offences in adulthood (World Health Organization, 2002). 

Childhood Sexual abuse

Child sexual abuse describes any incident in which 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. Sometimes sexual abuse involves subtle forms of manipulation. This can include making the child believe that the act is an expression of love, or that they are responsible for the abuse. Sexual abuse involves contact (where there is actual physical contact) and non-contact offences (where there is no physical contact between the offender and the child).

Sexual abuse includes 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).

A study by van Loon & Kralik (2005a) with female survivors of child sexual abuse found child sexual abuse often occurred with emotional abuse and physical violence. Many participants experienced repeated abuse over many years. Most women recalled their earliest memories of sexual abuse between 5 and 8 years. Study participants reported compounding social issues such as divorce, family violence, alcohol and drug addictions, and mental illness. In most cases the family presented as “normal”. Family relationships were characterised by intimidation, fear, shame, blame, secrecy and isolation, to protect the family from scrutiny. The victims were silenced by fear. Perpetrators didn’t take responsibility for their abusive actions. Children were often blamed for provoking, or enjoying the abuse. 

When children tell, the perpetrator often denies it. Often the perpetrator is believed over the child. When a child does tell an adult and the adult does nothing, the child then often decides that he/she is not worthwhile, or must be to blame. This stops the child trusting adults. It also silences and isolates them. And leaves them angry and distressed.   

Research suggests that most cases of child sexual abuse are never disclosed to authorities (Martin & Silverstone, 2013). Although some children disclose immediately, many children wait until adulthood. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse found that on average people wait 24 years before they disclose to anyone, and that some victims never disclose (Commonwealth of Australia, volume 4, p.9, 2017). 

What are the dynamics of child sexual abuse? What is grooming?

It is important to understand the dynamics of child sexual abuse. This includes an understanding of grooming. Sexual abuse usually occurs in secret. It is a primary betrayal which causes shame and self-blame. This means that the child often feels responsible for their abuse. Of course a child is never to blame for being sexually abused. The child is powerless and often depends on the perpetrator to have their needs met.

What are the phases of grooming?

Grooming occurs in phases.

The first phase is targeting - choosing a child/ren with access and opportunity. The choice of children depends on the perpetrator.

Recruiting the child is the next phase. This also requires access and opportunity. It often involves manipulating exclusive time with the child, and giving them special treatment - gifts, attention and care. At times the perpetrator has ready access.  

Maintenance is the next phase. The perpetrator/s needs to ensure that the child keeps the secret. This keeps the child the victim.  This plays on the child’s dependency needs. It also uses force and manipulation to make the child believe they are responsible and have chosen their abuse themselves. The child is further won over with gifts and attention. They may also be further threatened to maintain their secrecy. Over time fear and feeling responsible (shame) mean ongoing secrecy.

If the abuser/s is also the primary person/s in a child’s life AND also provides good things, the child comes to believe that they are responsible for the abuse and ends up protecting their secret.

How many children are sexually abused? 

Up to 8 percent of boys and 12 percent of girls who are sexually abused as children are penetrated in some way.  Up to 16 percent of boys and 36 percent of girls who are sexually abused as children are not penetrated (Price-Robertson et al., 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? 

While all children are vulnerable to sexual abuse, girls are more likely to be sexually abused than boys. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was an exception;  in almost two-thirds of survivors in private sessions were men (Commonwealth of Australia, 2017). 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 who are very likely to offend. Other offenders lack control and are opportunistic. Still others are situational offenders (Irenyi et al., 2006). Most adults who sexually abuse children are not mentally ill. Nor do they meet the diagnostic criteria for "paedophilia" i.e. sexually attracted to children.

What are the signs in children who have been sexually abused?

Children who are sexually abused can be: withdrawn, unhappy, suicidal; self-harming; aggressive and violent; bedwetting, have trouble sleeping, experience nightmares; have eating problems e.g. anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa; mood swings; detached; have pains for no medical reason; show sexualised behaviour, language, or knowledge too advanced for their age.

What are the signs in adults who were sexually abused as children?

Adults sexually abused as children often experience poorer mental and physical health than other adults (Draper et al., 2007). They are two to three times more likely to have an anxiety, mood or eating disorder,  four times more likely to attempt suicide, and sixteen times for likely to have a sleep disorder (Chen et al., 2010). Women sexually abused as children are two to three times more likely to suffer a psychiatric or substance abuse disorder. The risk increases with the severity of abuse (Kendler et al., 2000; Ferguson et al., 2008). Some forms of child sexual abuse are associated with up to 8.6 times the likelihood of a diagnosis of Schizophrenia, and are 17 times more likely an experience of psychosis (Cutajar et al., 2010).

Survivors of child sexual abuse are more likely to have eating disorders, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues, substance abuse, self-harm and suicide attempts. Some adults also find relationships challenging, have low self-esteem, and struggle to complete an education and maintain employment.  

Organised abuse

Organised abuse refers to situations in which a number of perpetrators abuse a number of children. In organised abuse children can experience all sorts of serious harms including child prostitution, making of child pornography, bizarre sadistic sexual practices, including ritualistic abuse and torture (Salter M., 2012).

Under what circumstances do children experience organised sexual abuse? 

Many of these children grow up in abusive families. Their parents often make them available for abuse outside the home. Abusers 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 when homeless or without stable housing.

Who is most likely to be sexually abused in organised contexts? 

Children are vulnerable to organised abuse if their parents are involved in organised abuse. Children from unstable or unhappy family backgrounds can also be targeted by abusers outside the family. 

Who sexually abuses children in organised contexts? 

As with all forms of abuse, parents and relatives most often perpetrate organised abuse. Organised abuse is different to other forms of sexual abuse in that women are often perpetrators. Research has found that female sexual abusers have often grown up in environments where sexual abuse is ‘normal’. As adults, they may sexually abuse in organised contexts alongside male offenders (Faller, 1995).

What are the signs of children who have experienced organised abuse in childhood?

Young children often have severe traumatic and dissociative symptoms. This makes them unlikely to disclose. It also makes it harder for them to seek help. Victims are often very withdrawn and can struggle with suicidal thoughts and actions. They may show disturbed behaviours when they are playing or socialising with their peers or adults. 

What are the signs for adults who experienced organised abuse as a child?

Organised abuse, and ritual abuse, are key factors for developing Dissociative Identity Disorder and other dissociative disorders. Adults who experienced organised abuse as a child have frequently battled with suicide and self-harm. They often have mental and physical health challenges.


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“Blue Knot Foundation has a key role to play in the building of community capacity in care provision to those who have experienced childhood abuse and trauma in any environment.”

NIALL MULLIGAN Manager, Lifeline Northern Rivers

“I think Blue Knot Foundation is a fantastic support organisation for people who have experienced childhood trauma/abuse, for their families/close friends and for professionals who would like to learn how to more effectively work with these people.”

Psychologist Melbourne

“It's such a beautiful thing that you are doing. Helping people to get through this.”

ANONYMOUS

“It was only last September when I discovered the Blue Knot Foundation website and I will never forget the feeling of support and empathy that I received when I finally made the first phone call to Blue Knot Helpline, which was also the first time I had ever spoken about my abuse.”

STEVEN

"At last there is some sound education and empathetic support for individuals and partners impacted by such gross boundary violations.”

TAMARA

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