What is Child Abuse and How Common Is It?

It is difficult to determine the exact numbers of children who are abused each year. Most cases are not reported to the authorities and once grown most people still keep the abuse secret. Surveys that have been done suggest that child abuse is very common, with some reports suggesting that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 8 boys are abused (ASCA 2004). The fact is that most people suffer some kind of abuse – it is just the type and level that varies. There are many different types of abuse. Gil (1983) describes the following categories: physical; sexual; neglect; emotional neglect; cruel and unusual punishment; corporal punishment and mental suffering.

Physical abuse is when a child is hit, pushed, whipped, bitten, punched, slapped or burned resulting in injuries that are left on their body. Some of these injuries such as scratches, burns, bruises and welts are visible. Others are internal, such as broken bones, fractures or haemorrhaging.

Sexual abuse is when any person, adult or child, forces, tricks, threatens or coerces a child to have any kind of sexual contact with him or her. It may be looking, exposing, talking, telling stories, viewing pornographic pictures or videos, touching, kissing, or full penetration. All of these are abusive. It should be recognised that even if the child consents it is not true consent as the abuser often uses manipulation, guilt, pressure and threats to influence the child, and the child often does not have the power to say no or knowledge of what the consequences will be.

Neglect is when a parent does not feed a child or provide the basic necessities such as clothing, shelter and medical attention when needed. Leaving a child alone when the child is not yet ready to care for him / herself is neglectful since it leaves a child in a potentially dangerous situation.

Emotional neglect is when parent’s don’t take an interest in their child, and do not talk to or hold and hug the youngster, and are generally emotionally unavailable to the child. Alcoholic parents are often neglectful of their children’s needs. Although emotional neglect or abuse may not leave physical scars it has serious consequences for the child.

Cruel and unusual punishment is another form of abuse. These are punishments, which are extreme and inappropriate to a child’s age and ability to understand. For instance locking a child in a closet, making a child duck squat for hours or go without food for long periods of time.

Corporal punishment resulting in injuries is also abuse. Corporal punishment is physical discipline and it includes excessive spanking, kicking or whipping which results in injuries. Spanking can become child abuse when it is done in an out of control way, with enough force to leave injuries. Using instruments to hit, spanking with a closed fist, hitting very young children, and hitting in vulnerable areas (face, head, stomach, back, and genitals) is abuse. Many feel that any physical discipline is abusive.

Mental suffering occurs when a child is psychologically abused. If a parent calls a child names, constantly belittles the child, blocks every effort on the part of the child to accept him or herself, this can cause mental suffering to the child. Threat of abandonment can also make the child anxious and afraid, and is another form of mental suffering.

Compiled many years ago by Dr. Jodi-Anne M Smith, summarised from:

  • ASCA, 2004, Advocates for Survivors of Child Abuse website, www.asca.net.au
  • Gil E, 1983, Outgrowing the pain: a book for and about adults abused as children, Dell Pulishing, USA
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