Child Abuse

Child abuse is an area that has been treated very differently over the years. For example, in the past, a girl or woman who was raped would have been blamed for the crime, thinking that they were leading the person on. In some cases, they would have been sent away from their home and their family. If a child occurred as a result of the rape, in the UK for example, the baby would not be allowed to be baptised or buried in consecrated ground – in a church yard. It is widely considered that child sexual abuse was “discovered” in the 1970s. This means that modern forms of treatment, definition and aetiology were first discussed. However, historians have pointed out that sexual abuse of children occurred before this, but different terminology was used. For example: moral corruption, molestation, tampering, ruining, outrage, and immorality.

In the late 19th century in Victorian England, for example, wide spread campaigns existed to try to stamp out child prostitution, incest and the age of consent. The term ‘sexual abuse’ was used in 1864 by William Balfour, which suggests that it had already been considered. Victorians obviously recognised immoral behaviour, such as child prostitution, but the modern definitions of child sexual abuse did not occur at that time.


Today, the term child abuse covers a wide range of behaviours:

  • Neglect – not feeding a child properly, not providing them with adequate clothing or shelter, failing to provide a clean and safe environment and so on
  • Physical Abuse – hitting, smacking, thumping, whipping etc.
  • Sexual Abuse – rape, forcing a child to complete sexual acts e.g. oral sex, child pornography etc.
  • Mental Abuse – shouting, insulting, degrading, not allowing them to go out, not allowing them to make friends etc.

The list of possible abuses is potentially endless.


Who Gets Abused?

Research has found that some children are more likely to be abused than others. Ross and Lewis (1981) - parents who rely on physically coercive methods to deal with defiance are at serious risk of becoming child abusers, particularly if their children are defiant. So it may be that the child is defiant, even after a smack say, pushing the parent to go farther.

Eagland and Sroufe (1981) found that babies who are emotionally unresponsive, irritable, hyperactive or ill are at far more risk of being abuse than healthy, quiet babies who are easy to care for. Klein and Stern (1971) found that premature babies who are more likely to have the characteristics suggested by Eagland and Sroufe represented 25% of the abused children they studied, but only 8% of babies in the general population were born prematurely. This doesn’t mean 25% of premature babies will be abused; it means that in the group studied by Klein and Stern they were, and that premature babies are more likely to have the characteristics that “trigger” abusive responses in some caregivers – not all!


Who are the Abusers?

Unfortunately, there are still situations where children are physically, mentally and sexually abused by their parents, caregivers, family members, family friends, teachers etc. etc. You can not say “Who is an abuser?” – anyone could be an abuser. This is not to scaremonger, but you cannot recognise abusers. However, not everyone is an abuser. In the modern age, it is very difficult for parents and carers of children to strike a balance between protecting a child from danger and overprotecting them so that they fear everyone and everything. It is one thing to say to a child something like “All men are nasty, so stay away from them” – What damaging impact would that have on their future life? Would girls fear men as they grow older, refrain from relationships with men, be unable to talk to men? or would boys hate themselves because they are men and therefore nasty? It is very difficult. This section intends to discuss what child abuse is, and the effects it can have on the child. It is not intended to scare or over emphasise the issue of child abuse – but to inform.

People who are child abusers come from all social groups, all races, both sexes, all ethnic groups and many may appear as typical loving parents – but they may have a tendency to become extremely irritated with their children, leading them to abuse their children. Only 1 in 10 abusers has a serious mental illness that would be difficult to treat (Kempe and Kempe, 1978). Frodi and Lamb (1980) showed videotapes of children crying and children smiling to a group of abusive and non-abusive mothers. In the abusive mothers, they were more likely to experience strong physiological changes to the crying than the non-abusive mothers. They were less willing to respond or react to smiling infants either, so a smile might be enough to trigger an abusive parent.

Some abusers have been abused themselves and may never have learned how to give or receive affection. They may have only learned a certain type of parenting and continue in that way. That is not to say that all victims of abuse become abusers themselves – this is not the case. The suggestion from research is that some caregivers are almost primed to become abusive if their children annoy or irritate them. However, the child is never to blame for their abuse!


Triggers of Abuse can be 

  • Socialization Experiences and Situational Stresses of Abuser
  • Psychotic States Child-produced Stress
  • Cultural influences
  • Precipitating Events (eg. Child cries, misbehaves, Has an accident,  Irritates the parent)


Can be:

  • Emotional abuse
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual Abuse
  • Withdrawal or ignoring the child (e.g. refusing to feed, cloth, care for their needs)



Stranger Abusers

In some situations, the abuser is an opportunist who will try to find a child in a public situation. There are some basic rules we can try to teach children to protect them from stranger-abusers. These are:

  • If a child is approached by a stranger - it would be best to say something like, “You should never talk to strangers – men or women – unless your mother/father/grandmother/child minder etc. speaks to them first”.
  • If a stranger asks them to go somewhere with them, get into a car or so on – they should refuse and say they can only go if their mother/father etc. comes with them.
  • If a stranger tries to grab them – encourage your child to run screaming as loudly as they can for help.
  • If a stranger does grab them – encourage them to scream as loudly as they can and fight as much as they can to attract attention.
  • Many parents now take children to self-defence classes, where they are taught to do just this – scream, run, fight, and some other methods of defending themselves and attacking an attacker – such as always hit them in the stomach or genitals. This will hurt the attacker more than you. If you hit someone in the head – there is bone in a person’s head and this could potentially injure the child, perhaps breaking their hand. If this happened, they would find it even harder to fight back – so go for the stomach or genitals.
  • In some countries, you can now buy bracelets to put on your child’s wrist stating their name and who to contact if lost.
  • Some people will put stickers on their children saying things such as – “If I’m lost, phone “mobile phone no””. This type of things may help a lost child to find their parents and hopefully prevent them meeting an abuser if one were to be there at the same time.


In recent years, there has been a growing awareness of child abuse. It is reported more in the media and reported more by victims of abuse. Most of us are aware that the issue exists. Child abuse has always existed, but it has not been so widely reported and children were often not encouraged to tell anyone that they were being abused. Even today, children may not report their abuse, but hopefully organizations such as the NSPCC and Child line in the U.K. are encouraging more victims to come forward.


Any child is at risk of abuse, but environmental and social triggers, coupled with the parent’s upbringing and attitude to discipline and the child’s personality can join together and unfortunately lead to the abuse of a child. We will consider more on modern therapies for sexual abuse in later lessons.


Relevant Courses

Family Counselling


Child Psychology


Developmental Psychology