What is Child Abuse?


The word ‘abuse’ comes from the Latin (abut, to misuse) via French via middle English: abusen – improper use.

English definition: to use wrongly, misuse, mistreat. Cruel and inhumane treatment, which includes neglect of children. All share the sense of inflicting injury, often intentionally. As a noun, the word abuse also carries meanings of intentional lack of respect, vilification, mental wounding and deep seated ill-will. (Reference: New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Vol 1., 1993)

Child abuse and neglect can be defined as human-created phenomena which adversely affect a child’s development and/or survival, and which should be preventable (i.e., are not caused by natural disasters). To be deemed ‘abuse’, the treatment of the child must be beyond the norm of usual interaction and be potentially harmful. It may include single events, repeated events, or a pattern of interaction characteristic of the relationship between the abuser (primary caregiver/s) and the child.  While physical and sexual abuse can be described as events, neglect and emotional abuse are functions of the relationship between carers and their children, and the two sub-types may have different effects on brain development. (D. Glaser, U.K. 2000)

In the abuse of children, the abuse of power is inseparable from the outward actions of sexual, emotional, physical, psychological or economic abuses perpetrated on the child’s mind and body. The experience of loss of control and disempowerment on the part of the child cannot be separated from their experience of the abuse itself.

“All children deserve the kind of caregiving that fosters the development of secure attachment and puts them on a trajectory towards social and emotional resilience. Too many children only know the kind of safety that comes intermittently and disappears with a parent’s inattentiveness, defensiveness, disinterest or loss of control. This kind of fleeting, sporadic safety forces children to (create) defenses much too early in life, making them hypervigilant in (the home) setting, where they should be able to relax deeply and feel ‘safe to the bone’ . . . (Dan Hughes, 2012)”


How does the child experience abuse and consequent trauma?


At the heart of trauma, whether from natural disaster or abuse, is loss of personal power, loss of control and loss of safety. If the stressor is a natural disaster, war situation or refugee experience, for example, the child may be fortunate enough to have family support and care, which may lessen the likelihood of severe trauma. But when the source of the trauma is within the family itself, or perpetrated by a trusted person close to the family, then the basic losses described above are compounded by feelings of terror, abandonment, victimisation, helplessness, betrayal, and intense anger and shame.

A Child has little enough power to begin with, and abuse removes even the pretence of the child’s power over her or his environment. The key damage of this experience is to the sense of self, self-identity and self-esteem. The child experiences herself as being ‘nothing’, of no importance, no value, and even worse, as being to blame for the bad things that are happening. This last is due to the natural ego-centricity of the child’s mind, in which they experience themselves as being at the centre of their universe and magically responsible for whatever happens.

In fact the child’s brain is not developed enough to be able make sense of what is happening or to construct a coherent narrative of events. Her or his life will be experienced as totally chaotic, full of isolation, fear and uncertainty. If the abuse is event-based, the child’s state of emotional arousal will be set very high, leading to feelings of being out of control. If the abuse is relationally-based (neglect), the child’s emotional state may be under-activated, leading to withdrawal and disengagement. In either case, the child is likely to develop dissociative strategies to wall off the unacceptable feelings. The subsequent relief at not feeling the pain serves to reinforce dissociation as an effective avoidance tool.

I don’t think the infant knows what the danger may be . . . but the angry face makes her feel threatened by what is happening . . . it is analogous to a sense of doom people experience when no doom is obvious, it just is. And when the mother smiles, (the child) smiles back, knowing that her world is again safe, but she does not know what makes for the feeling . . . the infant reacts as a whole system . . . arms, posture, facial expression, gaze, her physiology changed in reaction to the threat . . . (Ed Tronick, 2009)



This is how the child feels . . .


What the Child feels


This is what the Child wants


“This is my Mummy. The little red dots are all the love I want to give to my Mummy, but she’s not there. She doesn’t see me.”  [client name withheld]


More on Childhood Trauma

Complex-PTSD – Childhood Trauma

The Hidden Experience of Abuse

The Reality of Incest

Long-term Consequences

Further Resources and Reading (Childhood Trauma)


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