Abuse: Invisible scars from childhood


Child abuse is physical, sexual and/or psychological maltreatment of children especially by a parent, a caregiver or a close relation, and can occur in a child's home, or in the organisations, schools or communities the child interacts with.

Types of child abuse

A child can suffer abuse in different forms. An abused child often suffers from more than one type of abuse at the same time. Some types of abuse more frequently seen are: 

  • Physical abuse refers to the harm and injury deliberately inflicted upon a child e.g., striking, kicking, beating or any action that leads to physical injury. 
  • Sexual abuse is to use or pressure children to engage in sexual acts or imitation of such acts.
  • Psychological and emotional abuse: It is the behaviours, speech, and actions of parents, caregivers, or other significant members in a child’s life that can have a negative mental impact on the child. Emotional abuse is a consequence or a part of physical and sexual abuse but it can also occur as a distinct entity. Examples of emotional abuse include: name calling, insulting, threatening violence and/or withholding love, support, or guidance 

Consequences of Abuse

How childhood abuse affects an individual depends on the frequency, kind and severity of abuse, age at which the child was abused, who the abuser was, current exposure to the abuser, whether or not they had a dependable, loving adult in their life, how long the abuse lasted and  if there were any interventions to help them. 

Childhood abuse and trauma change brain structure and chemical function. It can also affect the way children behave and function socially. Some of the negative impacts of child maltreatment can include:

  1. Medical and Physical Consequences

    Abuse may result in serious health problems and can adversely affect a child’s growth and development. Some of the physical consequences of abuse include: central nervous system damage, physical defects and injuries, and serious speech problems 
  1. Cognitive and Intellectual Consequences

    There are many negative effects of childhood abuse and neglect on how the brain develops.  According to research there are clear differences in the brain regions that help balance emotions and impulses, as well as self-centred thinking, between those who had suffered childhood trauma and those who had not. 

    Since victims of abuse and trauma have altered brain structures they might suffer from some cognitive and language deficits, particularly in the area of verbal intelligence and intellectual development. In addition to that they might have lowered intellectual functioning, problematic school performance (e.g., low grades), deviant patterns of processing social information (aggressive behaviour) and reduced attentiveness to social cues. Abused children are  more inclined to be hostile and are less able to manage personal problems. 
  1. Behavioural Consequences
    Childhood emotional abuse is linked to difficulty making and maintaining strong relationships. It can lead to problems in school and at work as well as to criminal and deviant behaviour.

    Children who are emotionally or physically abused and are not helped can become abusers or criminals as adults. They might also experience higher risk of alcohol and drug abuse.

    Negative consequences of abuse on children also include heightened levels of depression, hopelessness, reduced self-esteem and emotional stability. Studies have reported evidence of higher incidence of suicide attempts and self-mutilation in children who were victims of abuse. 

Helping with abuse

If someone suspects a child has been abused, they should contact their parents or a local child protective agency for help. Whatever the nature of the abuse, it should be reported immediately. Delaying a report decreases the child's chances for full recovery.

If he or she has been abused, a child will benefit from the services of a qualified mental health professional. Parents and other members of the family may also be trained by a therapist on providing the support and comfort the child needs. 

With early intervention and treatment, negative outcomes such as suicidal ideations, violent behaviour, drugs or alcohol abuse and depression may be avoided. 

Advice for children:
  • A child who is being seriously hurt or harmed should tell a trusted adult right away.  No matter what the abuser says, ask for and get help as soon as possible.
  • If you cannot tell an adult or are afraid of their reaction there are always external sources for help such as support groups online and national telephone helplines. 
  • If you know someone else who you think is being abused, you can help by telling your parents or caregiver

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