The Different Types Of Child Abuse And Their Effect On Children

Updated October 7, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The definition of child abuse has changed dramatically over time to fit a changing society. Where once hitting your child with a belt or a switch was considered the norm, we now consider this behavior a form of abuse. Spanking, only recently considered a valid method of punishment, is generally (although not always) considered abuse by parents, teachers, and others. But physical violations are not the only abuse that children suffer from. It's important to be able to define not only physical abuse, but also emotional abuse and sexual abuse, as well as neglect, so that they do not negatively impact a child both in childhood and later in life. 

Still Dealing With Unresolved Pain From Abuse In Childhood?

The Truth About Physical Abuse

If you've ever heard that someone was abused, you probably thought of physical violations. For example, being hit, kicked, or otherwise injured by someone in your life are all forms of physical abuse. Such abuse can be extremely damaging, not only to the physical well-being of a child, but to their spirit as well. Physical abuse doesn't have to be extensive, nor does it have to occur frequently. Even if it happens only once, it is a problem, and something should be done about it before it becomes a more serious issue.

The definition of physical abuse states that any intentional act that causes injury or trauma to someone else is abusive. This means that anytime someone lays a hand on you intentionally and it causes you any kind of pain, it is abusive and far from okay. For children especially, it can be difficult to stop physical abuse, even if it's noticed by someone outside of the family.

Warning signs of physical abuse may include unexplained or strange bruises, broken bones, or other injuries, including burns or scratches. But there may be other signs as well, such as strange behavior in the child. The child may appear more withdrawn than usual or may wear clothes that seem strange for the day, such as long shirts in the middle of summer. Some youth become more boisterous or outgoing in an attempt to hide the abuse, no matter what kind of pain they may be suffering.

The Truth About Emotional Abuse

Emotional and psychological abuse is more subtle than physical abuse, and it generally results in making the victim feel worthless, stupid, or inferior. Children have the hardest time explaining this type of abuse or even understanding what it is in the first place. After all, if you've been told something about yourself long enough, it's easy to simply accept it as fact, especially when it comes from someone who is an authority figure.

The definition of emotional child abuse is a little more complicated than that of physical abuse. Emotional abuse essentially entails one person subjecting another to any type of behavior or treatment that is likely to result in some type of psychological trauma. If someone says or does something intended to hurt you or make you feel bad about yourself, it's considered a violation of trust. When someone does these things to you repeatedly, it is considered psychological or emotional abuse.

Youth who are emotionally abused may react by emotionally abusing other children. They may be more prone to name-calling, insulting, or mocking other students. They may also be prone to violent or extreme outbursts as they get older.  However, warning signs appear in different forms, and children experiencing childhood abuse may appear self-conscious and withdrawn or have few social skills, resulting in a lack of friendships. They may not appear to have a close relationship with their families or may constantly seek approval from them and others. In truth, there are many different ways that an emotionally abused child may act, and it's difficult to identify a victim using a list of behaviors alone.

The Truth About Sexual Abuse

Any type of undesired sexual behavior directed from one person to another is considered sexual abuse. When one of those people is a child, any type of sexual behavior is a violation, no matter what excuses an abuser may make. It's important to note that absolutely nothing that a child does, says, or thinks about is "asking for" or "giving permission for" sexual abuse (or any type of abuse, for that matter). 

Though all types of abuse are horrible, it's child sexual abuse that we seem to see most frequently in the news. This is also the type of abuse that people seem to respond to with the most outrage. It is important to note here is that all types of abuse can be equally damaging. A child who is emotionally abused has many of the same risk factors later in life as one who is sexually or physically abused.

Still Dealing With Unresolved Pain From Abuse In Childhood?

Sexual abuse can start as early as the first few months of life and may continue on into adulthood, or as long as the abuser is allowed to get away with what they are doing. It may start out in ways that seem harmless, such as an adult providing extra attention to a child or being extremely involved in the child's life. However, these actions are generally a type of "grooming" that the abuser uses to prepare the child for what they are going to do in the future. 

When the attention, gifts, or involvement turn into touching or other sexual acts, the child may feel that they invited the behavior themselves by allowing the abuser to continue. The child may feel like they have to accept these sexual acts because it's "payment" for the attention and gifts. Abusers may even tell the child that the interactions are a secret they must keep.

The child then keeps the secret and the abuse is allowed to continue, causing even more harm and trauma.

Signs that a child is being sexually abused may include:

  • Overt sexual behavior that is inappropriate and strange for their age.
  • Increased withdrawal.
  • Sudden regression, such as bedwetting.
  • Extreme anger or sadness.
  • Extreme clinginess.
  • Sudden mood or personality changes.
  • Strange fears of certain people or places.
  • Bruising or chafing in the gentical area.

These are only a few of the many symptoms that may show up, and sometimes signs occur only after some time has passed.

The Truth About Child Neglect

The definition of child neglect varies from state to state, but generally occurs when caregivers are not providing the resources to meet a child’s needs, whether that’s adequate food, supervision, emotional support, or educational support. Types of neglect include:

  • Physical neglect– not providing nourishing food, abandonment, consistently leaving a child in the care of others
  • Medical neglect– denying a child adequate health care
  • Inadequate supervision– long periods without supervision where a child is not capable of caring for themselves, exposure to safety hazards like loaded guns or unsanitary living conditions
  • Environmental neglect– a lack of environmental safety (similar to above)
  • Emotional neglect– isolation, a lack of affection, abuse of another parent
  • Educational neglect– ignoring special education needs, chronic truancy, no enrollment in school

Rates of child neglect are higher than every other type of abuse and can impact all areas of a child’s development. In families experiencing marital problems, domestic violence, single parenthood, or financial issues, the chance for neglect is higher, and a strong social community is a key prevention tool.

Child Abuse in Later Life

Contrary to what many of us have been told, those who have been abused as children are actually not guaranteed, or even overwhelmingly likely, to become abusers themselves. Rather, a child who has been abused have a 30-40% chance of becoming an abusive parent. It is not only because of the abuse that the child goes on to do similar things in their own adulthood. Rather, research has found that children who feel unloved or unwanted are more likely to become abusive to their own families, whether they were abused as a young child or not. However, prevention programs and organizations are critical in averting abuse before it ever occurs.

Even more important is whether the child (now adult) understands that what their parents did to them was wrong. If the child is able to acknowledge and understand that they did not deserve the abuse, it's less likely that they will go on to abuse their own children. These factors help to mitigate the continuing cycle of abuse that, otherwise, could become an even worse epidemic than it already is.

It is not only what they may do to their own children that keeps an abused child from living a healthy adult life. Abuse damages far more than the physical body, even if it is mostly physical. Indeed, abuse damages the soul and the spirit. It makes a person feel weak, unimportant, stupid, useless, or any other number of terrible things that an abuser might have said to justify their behavior. With these distortions of themselves clouding their self-esteem, it's no wonder why abused children have trouble during their later years as well.

If You Suspect Child Abuse

If you believe a child may be experiencing abuse or neglect, contact the appropriate human services to report it. Each state has different reporting numbers, and you can find your state’s information here. The Child Welfare Information Gateway provides information that will guide you through the reporting process. This paves the way for an investigation to ensure children are in a safe environment, with all their needs being met. The Children’s Bureau helps fund investigations and follow-up treatment to help prevent future abuse and neglect.

The Psychological Effects

The abuse that children suffer throughout their early years can cause irreparable harm to their personal development. They may have trouble seeing anything positive in themselves, because if they were good, smart, and important, then why would their abusers have treated them as they did? It is important to stress that nothing the child did caused them to be abused. The fault lies entirely with the abuser, no matter what they may have said or done to try and excuse their behavior.

To learn a great deal about the long term effects of child abuse and neglect, you can visit the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Here are just a few statistics to get started. Those who are abused in their early years are almost twice as likely to wind up in prison. They are also nearly 9 times as likely to become involved in some type of criminal activity. They are 25% more likely to have a teen pregnancy, and nearly 80% will meet the criteria for at least one psychological disorder by the time they reach age 21. Finally, they’re at a higher risk of substance abuse later in life. All of these issues, however, can be avoided if the youth is able to reach out for help. Having someone in their life to help them– even after they become adults– can dramatically turn their life around.

Alternative Solutions

If you've suffered any type of abuse as a child and you feel as though it's affecting your life, therapy is highly recommended. If, however, you're not ready to speak with a counselor, consider some of these alternative solutions to gain back control over your life:

Forgive Your Abuser

Forgiving your abuser is much easier said than done, but it may help you come to peace with your past and move on with your life. You don't have to communicate with them; in fact it is often healthier to cut off communication. However, if you can find it within yourself to forgive them for the damage they caused, understanding that they may have been a victim in their own childhood, it may help with your recovery.

Talk to Someone

It's never easy to talk about dark events that have caused intense pain and grief. 

Still Dealing With Unresolved Pain From Abuse In Childhood?

Identify the Root of Your Trauma

You may be unsure as to what exactly caused your trauma in the first place. Sometimes it can be difficult to go down that road again, but identifying the root of the problem can help you begin your personal healing process.

Seek Help

The effects of child maltreatment and abuse can cause you to have trouble fully enjoying your life. With help, however, it's entirely possible that you can overcome the feelings of depression, loneliness, low self-esteem, and much more that can cause child abuse to haunt you even long after the actual abuse has ended. The National Center for Child Abuse lists a number of resources that abuse survivsors can turn to. In addition, BetterHelp offers discreet online counseling with licensed professionals who care about you. No matter how severe your trauma is, we've got your back. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counsellors from people who have experienced similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Kristin is amazing. She is so dedicated to helping get to the root cause of my anxiety, depression, and PTSD. She is the first counselor to continue to motivate and accommodate my extremely hectic schedule. She really is a lifesaver! She has given me strength to believe in myself and want to continue to get stronger. If you're someone who feels you have hit every roadblock possible I strongly recommend working with Kristin!"

"Dr. Baggs has been very helpful in helping me deal with anxiety, and I've been overall satisfied with the experience. She's helped me work through and understand trauma from my childhood, as well as help me realize I'm on the right path to getting help and improving my life. Overall a very good experience."


Child abuse is hurtful, traumatizing, and wrong. Its effects on children can last decades, which is why it's important to seek out professional help as soon as possible. Though you may have had little control as a child, you have all the power in the world today to begin your road to recovery. All you need are the right tools. Take the first step today.

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