The Classification and Results of Child Abuse

Child abuse can be divided into various forms which are physical abuse, mental abuse, and sexual abuse. (For those who just joined us: if you think of something that could be somehow painful or harmful to an adult, it’s definitely harmful to the child. Yes, children are human beings too.)

Physical abuse

Physical abuse means that child’s physical body suffers harm.

It includes beating, spanking, slapping, kicking, dragging, burning, yanking on any body part, unwanted tickling, and so on. Basically, any kind of touch the child doesn’t want and that is harmful to them. It also includes physical neglect through denial of food or medication, and inappropriate personal or medical care.

Mental abuse

Mental abuse (i.e., psychological or emotional abuse) means that child’s mind suffers harm.

Mental abuse includes yelling, manipulating, fear mongering, shaming, creating false guilt, forbidding to feel certain feelings (like anger), convincing that you have to feel certain feelings and act accordingly, name calling, isolation, threatening, imposing false and irrational beliefs, etc. Furthermore, all forms of abuse (e.g., physical or sexual) are mentally harmful, too.

Sexual abuse 

Sexual abuse is the physical and/or mental harm that is related to sex and sexuality.

Sexual abuse includes physical and/or mental components related to child’s sexuality: rape, inappropriate touching, forced nudity, spanking on the buttocks, caregiver’s language and behavior that’s age inappropriate for the child, sexualization of the child, seduction by the caregivers, imposing shame and guilt in relation to sex, any kind of physical, emotional, psychological, or verbal incest/molestation.

Based on how it is enacted, child abuse can be classified into active, passive, and vicarious abuse.

Active abuse means that child’s personal boundaries are actively violated (i.e., the caregiver is too involved and over-controlling). Some examples of that can be spanking, yelling, name calling, molestation, shaming, etc.

Passive abuse means that the caregiver-child bond is not stable or broken (i.e., the caregiver is physically or emotionally too distant or completely unavailable). It includes neglect and abandonment. Some examples are emotional unavailability, not being there for the child, withdrawal of affection, lack of mirroring and validation, and so on.

Vicarious abuse means that the caregiver fails to protect the child or puts them in an environment where the child suffers some form of abuse from others.

What are the results of child abuse?

I have talked about this in my article called "Child Abuse and Its Results in Today's Society" and in my other articles. But, I think, it’s worth mentioning here that children whose true needs are not met, whose boundaries are not respected, who don’t have a healthy bond with their caregivers, who grow in an unhealthy environment later in life suffer from numerous physical, psychological, emotional, sexual, and social problems. And, of course, they don’t know what healthy boundaries look like, what a healthy relationship looks like, and they are prone to abuse, manipulation, exploitation, and unhealthy, stressful living in later life.

The symptoms of maltreatment in childhood are:

Mental wounds. For example, poor understanding of your own and other people’s boundaries, stunted emotional growth, perfectionism, dissociation, emotional numbness, depression, people pleasing, aggression, lack of empathy, dependency or counter-dependency, social anxiety, low or fake self-esteem, chronic guilt, chronic shame, chronic loneliness, lack of structure, irrational thinking, various addictions, and many more.

Physical manifestations. For example: prolonged cortisol secretion (meaning, excessive feeling of stress), body weight issues, joint or muscle pain, skin problems, asthma, sleeping problems, digestive problems, and many others.

From a psychology course:

"Stress weakens the effectiveness of the body's immune system, its natural defence system. The person is then more vulnerable to harmful cells in the body and becomes ill. Stress reactions are the physical, psychological and behavioural responses people display in the face of stressors.

Prolonged, intense stress has also been related to illnesses such as psychosomatic disorders. These are illnesses in which psychological factors play a part in producing actual damage to the body or changes in how the body functions. There are a number of illnesses thought to be psychosomatic such as bronchial asthma, high blood pressure, migraine headaches, stomach ulcers, arthritis, heart disease, hives and other disorders associated with over arousal of the autonomic nervous system."

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  1. I would include forced nudity under sexual abuse as someone who has suffered from that. But that is just one small point, I totally agree with what is included and recognise a lot of this from my own childhood.

  2. Hi, Mia,

    yes, forced nudity is definitely abusive. I edited the article and added it explicitly under sexual abuse.

  3. Glad to have round it -- have shared it on a couple of my groups like, "Were you spanked as a child" and "I was spanked as a child" which are closed groups for people in recovery (though anyone can apply to join). Thanks for this very good article.

  4. As both an adult who is dealing with some issues of abuse in my own childhood (nothing "criminal", but still detrimental) as well as the mother of a toddler, I find this site extremely interesting. I often wonder about the fact that harm can come from actions which the child may perceive as abusive but which are necessary parts of parenting. To take a recent example, my child had a mild diaper rash and did not want to be wiped during a diaper change, yet as a parent I need to make sure that he is clean so that the rash will heal rather than worsen. But the child does not know that; he only knows that I am doing something that is hurting him. Even though I do it with empathy and do everything I can to lessen his hurt, the fact remains that I am directly and volitionally causing him pain. My own parents in this situation would have guilted or manipulated me into going along with it and punished me for protesting. I am careful to allow him his emotions about what is happening and to show empathy for his pain, while retaining my adult context that I must clean him up to spare him more pain in the future. I suppose that as he grows up he will learn that pain is a part of life and that I do not cause it, and that I can be trusted to help him minimize it or manage it as much as possible, and whatever trauma he experiences now will be processed and not have lasting effects. But I still wonder whether childhood is inherently traumatic to some degree, and if so then how is adult-imposed trauma different from naturally-occurring traumas of life?

    1. I have given great thought to the question on infliction of pain for hygiene or medical purposes. Those experiences in very young children will often be interpreted emotionally as dangerous betrayal coming from a loved trusted caregiver and thus traumatic, but I suspect they will come to understand the purpose is not deliberate harming. When it comes to intention this psychologically makes a great difference in the degree of harm happening to them. When forced nudity and deliberate humiliation and pain is in a rather ritualized manner inflicted by a trusted emotionally attached parent/caregiver as in spanking and other forms of punishment the violation is much deeper and damaging and can feel sexually abusive where forced exposure is part of that punishment.


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