But What Are The Building Blocks and Definitions Of Child Abuse And Maltreatment?

It is easy to take for granted what we know and understand as a definition of child abuse. Child abuse as a concept really only came into existence after the Second World War. Prior to this the concept of child cruelty only existed, and the threshold test for child cruelty would make most people’s toes curl by today’s standards. Child abuse definitions and standards have changed and developed over time. Here we look at what generally we define, and how we can explore them further.

Abuse and neglect are forms of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting, by those known to them or, more rarely, by a stranger. They may be abused by an adult or adults, or another child or children.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates the symptoms of, or deliberately induces, illness in a child.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional maltreatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. These may include interactions that are beyond the child’s developmental capability, as well as overprotection and limitation of exploration and learning, or preventing the child participating in normal social interaction.

It may involve seeing or hearing the ill-treatment of another. It may involve serious bullying, causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of maltreatment of a child, though it may occur alone. That is why when children are made subject to a plan of child protection, they are registered under emotional abuse as well as one other form of child abuse as well, in general.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, including prostitution, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, or non-penetrative acts. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, sexual online images, watching sexual activities, or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.


Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. Neglect may occur during pregnancy as a result of maternal substance abuse. Once a child is born, neglect may involve a parent or carer failing to:

• provide adequate food, clothing and shelter (including exclusion from home or abandonment)

• protect a child from physical and emotional harm or danger

• ensure adequate supervision (including the use of inadequate care-givers)

• ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment.

It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.

Domestic abuse is:

Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between people who are or have been intimate partners or family members or in a close/ tied relationship, regardless of gender or sexuality. This may be any person and family members are defined as mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister and grandparents, whether directly related, in-laws of step-family.”

The definition has been widened by the authorities to incorporate violence by family members as well as between adults who are or were intimate partners. It should also be noted that this could include a vulnerable person, adult or child, who is living in an environment where they are witnessing domestic abuse. All victims of domestic abuse should be treated with compassion and according to their own individual needs, without making assumptions or stereotyping.

The Impact of Emotional Abuse

There is increasing evidence of the adverse long-term consequences for children’s development where they have been subject to sustained emotional abuse. Emotional abuse has an important impact on a developing child’s mental health, behaviour and self-esteem. It can be especially damaging in infancy.

Underlying emotional abuse may be as important, if not more so, than other more visible forms of abuse in terms of its impact on the child. In families where the child experiences a low level of emotional warmth and a high level of criticism, negative incidents may have a more damaging impact on the child.

Domestic abuse, adult mental ill health problems, substance misuse or racism from a caregiver, may feature in families where children are exposed to emotional abuse, and in extreme cases can lead to suicide

The Impact of Sexual Abuse

Disturbed behaviour including self-harm, inappropriate sexualised behaviour, sadness, depression and loss of self-esteem, have all been linked to sexual abuse. Where children with a disability are concerned these behaviours have sometimes mistakenly been attributed to their disability without any real assessment of their cause. The adverse effects of sexual abuse may endure into adulthood.

A number of features of sexual abuse have been linked with severity of impact, including:

– the extent of premeditation

– the degree of threat and coercion

– sadism, and bizarre or unusual elements

It would be misleading to suggest that most children who are abused will go on to become abusers themselves. However, adults who do sexually abuse may themselves have been exposed as children to sexual abuse, domestic abuse and discontinuity of care.

Sexual abuse occurs in all communities and is acceptable in none.

The Impact of Neglect

Severe neglect of young children is associated with major impairment of growth and intellectual development. Neglect can affect a child’s ability to cope with boundaries, routines, basic daily living and self-care.

Persistent neglect can lead to serious impairment of health and development, and long-term difficulties with social functioning, relationships and educational progress. Neglect can also result, in extreme cases, death of children.

Domestic Abuse

Domestic abuse is likely to have a damaging effect on the health and development of children. Where it is identified, there may need to be an initial assessment.

Children living in families where they are exposed to domestic abuse have been shown to be at risk of injury, behavioural, emotional, physical, cognitive functioning, attitude, views of gender and relationships and long-term developmental problems.

Everyone working with families should be alert to the frequent interrelationship between domestic abuse and the abuse of children.

The Impact of Physical Abuse

Physical abuse can lead directly to neurological damage, physical injuries, pain and disability or, at the extreme, death. Harm may be caused to a child both by the abuse itself, and by the abuse taking place in a wider family or institutional context, of conflict and aggression.

Physical abuse has been linked to aggressive behaviour, emotional and behavioural problems, and educational difficulties. Where a child is disabled, injuries or behavioural symptoms may mistakenly be attributed to his/her disability rather than the abuse. Professionals need to guard against attributing the possible indicators of abuse to racial, cultural or religious stereotypes.

Let Us Know Consider the Effects Of Child Abuse On An Imaginary Child.

This is a case study. This is an imaginary one. But it is a realistic experience that any child could go through.

It is easy to forget that child abuse affects children in the real world. Children living in every day families, children alike average normal children in average schools – not imaginary children in an imaginary world. Let us call this imaginary child “David.”

David is a delightful, charming young man with lots of hobbies. He likes clothes, shoes, aeroplanes, maths, toy soldiers and certain colours.

David is 8, and has been in foster care for two and a half years. He has been separated from his siblings for eighteen months. He gets video messages, and can speak to them on a web cam once every three months, although they do not have face-to-face contact.

David has stable foster carers who have a lot of time for David. He has major attachment problems, is on the autistic spectrum and some emotional and behavioural issues. He needs a lot of help, support and encouragement. David gives affection and warmth in his own ways.

Due to his age, gender, and complex needs, it was felt better to secure his foster placement long-term and place his young siblings for adoption.

David’s behaviour had sometimes harmed and distressed his young siblings, and he has come on leaps and bounds since being placed on his own.

Given what we know of the detail of what child abuse and neglect is, can we really imagine what David has been through? Can we imagine what has gone on leading to his life to lead him to this point? What is the role of anyone working with David to help him and understand him? How do we empathise with his experiences?