Many of you have clear memories of being abused or neglected as a child. But some people’s memories are not so clear and some question the memories they do have. Even more have not labeled their experiences as abuse or neglect even though it is clearly what they experienced. For this reason I have provided a brief overview of exactly what constitutes childhood abuse and neglect. All these forms of abuse can occur separately but often occur in combination. (For example, emotional abuse is almost always a part of physical abuse).

A word of warning: This overview of the various types of abuse may be triggering for some of you. If you don’t feel you are strong enough at this time to read through this list, please give yourself permission to skip this information. You can always return to it at a later time.

Neglect. Neglect of a child is when a caretaker fails to provide for the child’s basic physical needs (food, water, shelter, attention to personal hygiene) as well as his or her emotional, social, education and medical needs.  It also includes failure to provide adequate supervision.

Emotional Abuse. Emotional abuse is any non-physical behavior or attitude that is designed to control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish or isolate another person. Emotional abuse of a child includes acts or omissions by the parents or caretakers that can cause serious behavioral, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders in the child. This form of maltreatment includes verbal abuse (including constant criticism, belittling, insulting, rejecting and teasing); placing excessive, aggressive, or unreasonable demands on a child that are beyond his or her capabilities and failure to provide the emotional and psychological nurturing and positive support necessary for a child’s emotional and psychological growth and development—providing no or little love, support or guidance.

Psychological maltreatment. While sometimes coming under the heading of emotional abuse, this term is often used by professionals to describe a concerted attack by an adult on a child’s development of self and social competence, a pattern of psychically destructive behavior. In other words, this behavior is often more deliberate and conscious on the parents’ or other caregivers’ part than typical emotional abuse. Under this definition, psychological maltreatment is classified into ten behavioral forms:

  1. Rejecting—behaviors which communicate or constitute abandonment of the child, such as a refusal to show affection.
  2. Isolating—preventing the child from participating in normal opportunities for social interaction.
  3. Terrorizing—threatening the child with severe or sinister punishment, or deliberately developing a climate of fear or threat.
  4. Ignoring—where the caregiver is psychologically unavailable to the child and fails to respond to the child’s behavior.
  5. Corrupting—caregiver behavior which encourages the child to develop false social values that reinforce antisocial or deviant behavioral patterns, such as aggression, criminal acts or substance abuse.
  6. The denial of emotional responsiveness.
  7. Acts or behaviors which degrade children.
  8. Stimulus deprivation.
  9. Influence by negative or inhibiting role models.
  10. Forcing children to live in dangerous and unstable environments (e.g. exposure to domestic violence or parental conflict).

Physical abuse.The physical abuse of a child includes any non-accidental physical injury or pattern of injuries inflicted upon a child (under the age of 18) that may include:

  • Hitting a child so hard (slapping or with punching) that it causes marks or bruises.
  • Beating a child with an object (belt, stick, tree switch, strap, electrical cord, etc.).
  • Burning a child with a cigarette, putting the child’s hand in the fire, etc.
  • Biting a child.
  • Twisting a child’s arm to the point that it causes bruising or fractures.
  • Shaking a child so hard that it causes dizziness, disorientation, headaches, or neck, shoulder or arm pain.
  • Holding a child’s head under the water.
  • Shoving a child against a wall, across the room, or into furniture.
  • Pinning a child down on the floor and not letting him or her get up.
  • Pinching a child so hard that it causes severe pain and or bruising.

Child sexual abuse. Child sexual abuse includes any contact between an adult and a child or an older child and a younger child for the purposes of sexual stimulation of either the child or the adult or older child and that results in sexual gratification for the older person. This can range from non-touching offenses, such as exhibitionism and child pornography, to fondling, penetration, incest and child prostitution. A child does not have to be touched to be molested.

By definition an older child is usually two years or older than the younger child but even an age difference of one year can have tremendous power implications. For example, an older brother is almost always seen as an authority figure, especially if he is left “in charge” when their parents are away. The sister tends to go along with it out of fear or out of a need to please. There are also cases where the older sister is the aggressor, although this does not happen as often. In cases of sibling incest, the greater the age difference, the greater the betrayal of trust, and the more violent the incest tends to be.

Child sexual abuse can include any of the following:

  • Genital exposure. The adult or older child exposes his or her genitals to the child.
  • The adult or older child kisses the child in a lingering or intimate way.
  • The adult or older child fondles the child’s breasts, abdomen, genital area, inner thighs, or buttocks. The child may also be asked to touch the older person’s body in these places.
  • The adult or older child masturbates while the child observes; the adult observes the child masturbating; the adult and child masturbate each other (mutual masturbation).
  • The adult or older child has the child fellate him or her, or the adult fellates the child.
  • This type of oral-genital contact requires either the child to place mouth and tongue on the vulva or in the vaginal area of an adult female (or older female child) or the adult to place his or her mouth on the vulva or in the vaginal area of the female child.
  • Digital (finger) penetration of the anus or rectal opening. Perpetrators may also thrust inanimate objects such as crayons or pencils inside.
  • Penile penetration of the anus or rectal opening.
  • Digital (finger) penetration of the vagina. Inanimate objects may also be inserted.
  • “Dry intercourse.” A slang term describing an interaction in which the adult rubs his penis against the child’s genital-rectal area or inner thighs or buttocks.
  • Penile penetration of the vagina.
  • Showing the child or adolescent pornography, usually for the purpose of initiating the child into sexual contact or to sexually stimulate the child.

Hidden or Subtle Forms of Abuse. Most of you are reading this book because you already know that you were abused in childhood and that you suffer from shame because of it. But in addition to the abuse that you have already identified, I venture to say that you may have also been abused in other, less obvious ways. Below is a description of the lesser known, more hidden forms of abuse. These forms of abuse can be just as shaming as the more obvious, overt forms of abuse.

Subtle forms of emotional Abuse. In parent/child relationships subtle forms of emotional abuse can take many forms, including:

  • Ignoring, or withholding of attention or affection, including “the silent treatment”
  • Disapproving, dismissive, contemptuous or condescending looks, comments and behavior
  • Subtle threats of abandonment (either physical or emotional)
  • Invalidation (not acknowledging the child’s feelings or experience)
  • Making a child feel in the way, unwanted
  • Blaming a child for his parent’s problems or circumstances
  • Projecting his or her own problems or issues onto a child
  • Encouraging a child to be overly dependent on him or her
  • Causing a child to feel inadequate or incapable of taking care of himself or herself