Editor, Focus on Adoption magazine
More on these topics: 

There are four types of child abuse:

Sexual abuse
Child sexual abuse includes a wide range of sexual behaviours that take place between a child and an older person. These sexual behaviors are intended to erotically arouse the older person, generally without consideration for the reactions or choices of the child and without consideration for the effects of the behaviour upon the child. Behaviours that are sexually abusive often involve bodily contact, such as in the case of sexual kissing, touching, fondling of genitals, and oral, anal, or vaginal intercourse. However, behaviours may be sexually abusive even if they do not involve contact, such as in the case of genital exposure, verbal pressure for sex, and sexual exploitation for purposes of prostitution or pornography.

This is failure to provide a child with the basic necessities of life. Neglect can be physical, educational, or emotional. Physical neglect includes refusal of, or delay in, seeking health care; abandonment; expulsion from the home or refusal to allow a runaway to return home; and inadequate supervision.

Educational neglect includes the allowance of chronic truancy; failure to enroll a child of mandatory school age in school; and failure to attend to a special educational need.

Emotional neglect includes such actions as marked inattention to the child's needs for affection; refusal of or failure to provide needed psychological care; spouse abuse in the child's presence; and permission of drug or alcohol use by the child. The assessment of child neglect requires consideration of cultural values and standards of care as well as recognition that the failure to provide the necessities of life may be related to poverty.

Emotional abuse
Emotional abuse (psychological/verbal abuse/mental injury) includes acts or omissions by the parents or other caregivers that have caused, or could cause, serious behavioural, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders. 

Physical abuse
Physical abuse is characterized by the infliction of physical injury as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, burning, shaking or otherwise harming a child. The parent or caretaker may not have intended to hurt the child; rather, the injury may have resulted from over-discipline or physical punishment.

Although any of the forms of child maltreatment may be found separately, they often occur in combination. Emotional abuse is almost always present when other forms are identified.

There is no single, definitive cause of child abuse, and any child, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, cultural identity, socioeconomic status, spiritually, sexual orientation, physical or mental abilities, may be vulnerable to being abused. Child abuse is a complex problem and there are many different contributing factors (individual, familial, social).

It is not always easy to recognize when a child has been abused. Children who have been mistreated are often afraid to tell anyone because they think they will be blamed or that no one will believe them.

There are a significant number of negative short-term effects of sexual abuse that impact a child's functioning.

  • They may lie
  • They may be hyperactive
  • They may show a change in eating habits or change in sleeping habits

Signs of physical abuse:

  • Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained.

Signs of sexual abuse:

  • Fearful behaviour (nightmares, depression, unusual fears, attempt to run away)
  • Abdominal pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, genital pain or bleeding, sexually transmitted disease
  • Extreme sexual behaviour that seems inappropriate for the child's age

Signs of emotional abuse:

  • Sudden change in self-confidence
  • Headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause
  • Abnormal fears, increased nightmares
  • Attempts to run away
  • Signs of emotional neglect
  • Failure to gain weight (especially in infants)
  • Desperately affectionate behaviour
  • Voracious appetite and stealing food

There are several types of psychological treatment that have demonstrated positive benefits for child victims of abuse. These include individual psychotherapy, group-based psychotherapy, and treatments that involve the entire family.

If child abuse is not effectively treated, long-term symptoms may persist into adulthood. These may include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, Disruptive Behaviour Disorder
  • Depression and thoughts of suicide
  • Sexual anxiety and disorders (such as eating or sleeping)
  • Poor body image and low self-esteem
  • The use of unhealthy behaviours, such as alcohol abuse, drug abuse, self-mutilation, or bingeing and purging, to help mask painful emotions related to the abuse

This resource is by no means intended as a substitute for a doctor's advice or diagnosis. Any concerns you may have with regard to your child's health and development should be discussed with a professional in an appropriate field.