The word abuse means to misuse, to harm or to threat with cruelty. When we speak about child abuse or abusive relationships, we are referring to the ways in which someone intentionally uses their power and control to hurt, harm or impact another. Abuse can be something that happens once, or repeated times. It is never the victim’s fault if they are abused. All forms of abuse have the potential to seriously impact a person’s physical and mental health.
Abuse of children can take a number of forms: physical, sexual or emotional. These can take place in person, for example within a family, or online. Children can also suffer from neglect. This is where a child’s physical and/or emotional needs are consistently not met by their caregiver(s). Sometimes, a child might suffer more than one form of abuse. They are likely to be confused about what is happening and fearful about disclosing, or telling someone else about what is happening, or what happened to them.
Physical abuse is when someone deliberately physically hurts or harms a child, for example by hitting, kicking, shaking, burning, poisoning or using some other method.
Sexual abuse involves intentionally involving a child in a sexual activity. That can happen clothed or undressed, in person or online. Sexual abuse can follow a trajectory, beginning with grooming. Grooming is the process in which an abuser seeks to build a relationship and trust in someone so that they are in a better position to further manipulate, control and physically sexually assault their victim. Grooming can take the form of befriending a child or even the child’s parents or caregiver(s) to gain increasing access to their victim. Grooming itself is a form of abuse.
Emotional abuse is sometimes called psychological abuse and can involve intentionally trying to humiliate, isolate, ignore or scare a child. For example, repeated criticism of a child, stonewalling them, not allowing a child to express their own personality or not allowing a child to have friendships are all forms of emotional abuse.
Neglect is the repeated failure to provide for a child’s basic needs including their physical and medical needs, emotional and educational needs.
Bullying, child trafficking, criminal exploitation, child sexual exploitation and female genital mutilation are also other ways of speaking about the forms of abuse that a child may face.
It’s really important to remember that Adults can be impacted by abuse too. That could be because, as a child, they experienced abuse or neglect (often called non-recent or historic abuse) and the effects of that abuse continues to impact their life through disturbing thoughts, emotions and memories, poor physical and/or mental health and struggling with parenting or relationships. Adults may also be impacted if a child they know has been a victim of abuse. And adults are also abused by others. This can be within a relationship (we often call this domestic abuse) or by someone else through a physical or sexual assault or through bullying and intimidation.
Speaking to someone (disclosing) about abuse you suspect may be happening, abuse you have seen or abuse you have experienced yourself can feel daunting. Many people wait a very long time before they are able to speak about historic abuse, and emotions such as shame and fear can feel overwhelming when thinking about disclosing abuse. There are specialist organisations who can support those who are concerned about current and / or historic abuse. For example, NSPCC and the National Association of People Abused in Childhood. Many people also find working with a therapist can be a really important step towards healing.