What is Child Abuse?

Child abuse and neglect is also known as child maltreatment

It is behaviour which is not accidental and which is not considered ‘normal’ (outside of norms of conduct). It can be caused by parents, caregivers, other adults or older adolescents. Child abuse causes serious risk of physical or emotional harm.

Child abuse behaviours can be intentional or unintentional. They can include acts of omission. This means not doing certain things which are necessary for the child. They also include commission. This means deliberate acts (CFCA Resource Sheet, 2015). Children rarely experience only one form of abuse at a time.

It is important to also note acceptable that behaviour in one social group may not be acceptable in another (Tucci, Saunders, & Goddard, 2002). It varies between cultures.

What are the types of child abuse?

Emotional abuse:

Caregivers and adults fail to nurture a child. The child does not receive the love and security they need. A child’s environment and relationships with caregivers are unstable. The caregiver/s may use threats or force. They may also be unable to support a child’s healthy development.

Sexual abuse:

A child is involved in any sexual activity with an adult, or with another child. The person committing the activity is in a relationship of responsibility, trust and power over the child. It includes, but is not limited to, manipulating, forcing or threatening a child into sexual activity, prostitution and child pornography.

Neglect and negligent treatment:

A child’s essential needs are not met. These include the need for love, nutrition, clothing, warmth, shelter, security, protection, medical/dental care, education and supervision.

Organised abuse:

This is very complex. It can involve multiple children. It can also involve multiple forms of abuse. It can occur in family groups or perpetrator networks. The terms: ‘organised abuse’, ‘sadistic abuse’ and ‘ritual abuse’ have been used to describe organised abuse.

Physical abuse:

A child is subjected to injury to their body which is not an accident.

Family violence:

This refers to the use or threat of violence by one partner to control another partner, children or family members.

How common is child abuse?

Child abuse is common:

It’s probably more common than we think. That’s because it often goes unreported. It’s often secret. There’s a lot of stigma around it. It’s often treated with silence. We do know how many cases of abuse are reported and substantiated (proven) each year. However, these aren’t the real numbers of children abused every day. Many children are scared of telling anyone (disclosing). Many don’t disclose. Often, when they do disclose they’re not believed.

There are now mandatory reporting laws all around Australia (Higgins, Bromfield, & Richardson, 2007).  These laws make certain professionals legally obliged to report any child they suspect is being harmed or is at risk of harm (AIFS, 2017).

There laws are different in different states and territories:

2018-19, 170,200 (30 per 100,00) Australian children received child protection services. These include investigations, care and protection orders and/or were in out-of-home care. One in thirty-three children received child protection services. Sixty-eight percent of these were repeat clients. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were 8 times as likely as non-Indigenous children to receive child protection services. Children from very remote areas were more likely than those from major cities to have a substantiation (AIHW, 2020).

Click below to go to the Australian Institute of Family Studies mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect resource sheet from June, 2020.

Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect

Click below to go to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare child protection Australia publication 2018–19.

Child Protection Australia Publication

Understanding Abuse

In seven studies, Andrews found that in 75% of children knew their offender. In 40% of cases the offender was a family member (Andrews et al., 2002).

In a study of 384 survivors of abuse by family members (Palmer et al., 2001) 45% reported physical, emotional and sexual abuse combined; physical and emotional (21%); sexual and emotional (17%); sexual only (11%) and emotional only (6%). The perpetrator was reported as biological father (34%), biological mother (19%), stepfather, adoptive father and foster father (8%); stepmother, adoptive mother and foster mother (5%); both parents equally (7%); other relative (14%); and sibling (10%).

Briere & Scott (2006) identified six key areas in which child abuse affects psychological function as an adult:

Emotional reactions are easily triggers:

Adults who experienced child abuse can be overwhelmed with reminders of their abuse. These reminders can occur from everyday situations, words, or experiences. Intense feelings of guilt, shame, grief or anger can be triggered. These can last a long time. These “emotional storms” can make the day-to-day life frightening and unpredictable.

Way abuse affects thinking and memory:

Being abused is overwhelming for children. They do not understand abuse and can’t protect themselves. They are trapped. Often they have little memory of their abuse. Even though memories of what happened may be “split off” from awareness, the trauma still deeply shapes a survivor’s thinking patterns and ways of relating.

Negative beliefs about themselves:

Children who are abused develop negative beliefs about themselves, their place in the world and other people. These beliefs can persist as an adult. They can affect their relationships and how they feel about themselves. It can be hard for survivors to develop close relationships. This is because they can be too defensive, aggressive, scared or shy to fully connect with other people.

Developing a narrative about one’s abuse:

For many adults, abuse is a part of their life history. Making sense of it is challenging. Why did it happen? What does it say about my family? What does the abuse say about me? These are common questions for many.

Body memories of abuse:

Child abuse often involves fear, betrayal and powerlessness. A child cannot understand or explain these experiences. Such experiences become “implicit”. This means that they are largely unconscious and cannot be spoken in words. They can be “body memories”.  When the memory returns, it does so with the physical sensations, movements and emotional force of the original experience. These experiences are called “flashbacks”. They can be terrifying.

Difficulty regulating their emotions:

Survivors are often easily overwhelmed by everyday situations and relationships. They often develop “avoidant” coping styles. This helps them feel less pain from their past abuse. It also helps them escape their present-day discomfort. Survivors often avoid social situations and personal relationships. Many self-medicate through alcohol or drugs, or self-harm to numb down or ‘release’ their pain.

In one study child abuse was associated with between 26 and 32% of adolescent and adult psychiatric disorders (Green et al., 2010). 76% of adults reporting child physical abuse and neglect experience at least one psychiatric disorder in their lifetime and nearly 50% have been diagnosed with three or more psychiatric disorders (Borger et al., 2005).

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Understanding Trauma and Abuse