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Definitions of abuse Print E-mail

Child abuse happens in many different ways, but the result is the same- serious physical or emotional harm. Physical or sexual abuse may be the most striking types of abuse, since they often unfortunately leave physical evidence behind. However, emotional abuse and neglect are serious types of child abuse that are often more subtle and difficult to spot. Child neglect is the most common type of child abuse.

All types of child abuse and neglect leave lasting scars. Some of these scars might be physical, but emotional scarring has long lasting effects throughout life, damaging a child’s sense of self and ability to have healthy relationships.


Emotional child abuse
“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. This old saying could not be further from the truth. Emotional child abuse may seem invisible. However, because emotional child abuse involves behaviour that interferes with a child’s mental health or social development, the effects can be extremely damaging and may even leave deeper lifelong psychological scars than physical abuse.

Emotional abuse, according to Richard D. Krugman, "has been defined as the rejection, ignoring, criticising, isolation, or terrorising of children, all of which have the effect of eroding their self-esteem."

Emotional abuse includes the failure to provide a developmentally appropriate, supportive environment, including the availability of a primary attachment figure, so that the child can develop a stable and full range of emotional and social competencies commensurate with her or his personal potential, and in the context of the society in which the child dwells. There may also be acts toward the child that cause or have a high probability of causing harm to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. These acts must be reasonably within the control of the parent or person in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power. Acts include restriction of movement, patterns of belittling, denigrating, scapegoating, threatening, scaring, discriminating, ridiculing, or other non-physical forms of hostile or rejecting treatment (WHO, 1999).


Neglect & Negligent Treatment
Neglect is the inattention or omission on the part of the caregiver to provide for the development of the child in all spheres: health, education, emotional development, nutrition, shelter and safe living conditions, in the context of resources reasonably available to the family or caretakers and causes, or has a high probability of causing harm to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development. This includes the failure to properly supervise and protect children from harm as much as is feasible. (WHO, 1999)


Sexual Abuse
Child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend, is unable to give informed consent to, or for which the child is not developmentally prepared and cannot give consent, or that violate the laws or social taboos of society. Child sexual abuse is evidenced by an activity between a child and an adult or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power, the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other person. This may include but not is limited to:

  • the inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity.
  • the exploitative use of a child in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices.
  • the exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.
    (WHO, 1999)

Aside from the physical damage that sexual abuse can cause, the emotional component is powerful and far reaching. The layer of shame that accompanies sexual abuse makes the behaviour doubly traumatising. While news stories of sexual predators are scary, what is even more frightening is that the adult who sexually abuses a child or adolescent is usually someone the child knows and is supposed to trust. Children may worry that others won’t believe them and will be angry with them if they tell. They may believe that the abuse is their fault, and the shame is devastating and can cause lifelong effects.

Physical Abuse
Physical abuse of a child is that which results in actual or potential physical harm from an interaction or lack of interaction, which is reasonably within the control of a parent or person in a position of responsibility, power, or trust. There may be single or repeated incidents (WHO, 1999).

Physical Abuse can involve:

  • Severe physical punishment
  • Beating, slapping, hitting or kicking
  • Pushing, shaking, throwing
  • Pinching, biting, choking or hair-pulling
  • Terrorising with threats
  • Observing violence


Definitions of in care
Care is provided for a child who must live away from his or her biological family. It can be provided by or through a government or non-government agency or in a foster home, including the home of a relative of the child. Commonly the term is children ‘in care’. The use of the term ‘out of home care’ is also common.

What is abuse in care?
The definition of abuse in care is broader than that applied to a child protection and intervention context. Among other things the duty of care relationship strengthens the obligation to prevent harm, broadens the context to breaches of standards of care, considers the actions of an individual within a broader context of various agencies and officers, and works with systemic issues that contributed to abuse.

Abuse in care will include neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of a child or young person in care. This may be by a staff member, a volunteer, a carer or someone known to the carer, or another child or young person. The responsibility for protecting children from abuse always rests with adults.