Understanding Abuse

Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm. Children may be abused in a family or in an institutional or community setting; by those known to them or, more rarely, by a stranger.

There are four types of abuse as officially defined in government guidance: physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect.

Physical Abuse
Emotional Abuse
Sexual Abuse
Spiritual Abuse
Who causes harm to children?

Physical Abuse

Physical abuse may involve hitting, shaking, throwing, poisoning, burning or scalding, drowning, suffocating, or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. Physical harm may also be caused when a parent or carer fabricates or induces illness in a child whom they are looking after.

Physical abuse shapes and influences the child’s behaviour, and their emotional and educational development. It may vary in degree of injury, whether directly or indirectly, from physical injuries, neurological damage, disability or even death.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is the persistent emotional ill-treatment of a child such as to cause severe and persistent adverse effects on the child’s emotional development. It may involve conveying to children that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate, or valued only insofar as they meet the needs of another person. It may feature age or developmentally inappropriate expectations being imposed on children. It may involve causing children frequently to feel frightened or in danger, or the exploitation or corruption of children. Some level of emotional abuse is involved in all types of ill-treatment of a child, though it may occur alone. Emotional abuse significantly harms a child’s mental health, behaviour and self-esteem. It can be particularly damaging in infancy.

Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse involves forcing or enticing a child or young person to take part in sexual activities, whether or not the child is aware of what is happening. The activities may involve physical contact, including penetrative or non-penetrative acts. They may include non-contact activities, such as involving children in looking at, or in the production of, pornographic material or watching sexual activities, or encouraging children to behave in sexually inappropriate ways.

Children who have been or who are currently being sexually abused may display a wide range of behaviours, including inappropriate sexual behaviour and sexual knowledge inappropriate to age. A child’s ability to cope with the aftermath of a discovery or disclosure of sexual abuse is strengthened by the support of a non-abusing adult who believes the child. The reactions of other adults who interact with a child during this time can also have an impact on the child’s ability to cope with what is happening.


Neglect is the persistent failure to meet a child’s basic physical and/or psychological needs, likely to result in the serious impairment of the child’s health or development. It may involve a parent or carer failing to provide adequate food, shelter and clothing, failing to protect a child from physical harm or danger, or the failure to ensure access to appropriate medical care or treatment. It may also include neglect of, or unresponsiveness to, a child’s basic emotional needs.

Long-term neglect is likely to cause far more developmental delay and impairment than any other form of abuse. In extreme cases severe neglect can lead to the death of a child. A distinction must be made between neglect caused by financial poverty which can be alleviated by financial help and that caused by emotional poverty. These may co-exist, but relief of the former does not lead to relief of the latter.

Spiritual Abuse

The term ‘spiritual abuse’ is not one of the official definitions of abuse but is sometimes used to describe some of the particular features of abuse arising within religious organisations. ‘Spiritual abuse’ is increasingly being used to describe those situations where an abuse of power takes place in the context of a faith community. The following is a widely used definition of spiritual abuse:

“Spiritual abuse occurs when someone uses their power within a framework of spiritual belief or practice to satisfy their own needs at the expense of others.”

However, the term is sometimes used more loosely to refer to the ways in which children can suffer harm through the beliefs and practices of a Christian church or other faith community. Lord Laming’s report into the death of Victoria Climbié highlighted the way in which belief in the demon possession of children can lead to harmful and abusive practices in some churches. It is questionable whether it is helpful to categorise this separately as ‘spiritual abuse’. It could be argued that what is happening is that religious belief and practice are being used to justify and condone the physical and emotional harming of children. The Government guidance Safeguarding Children from Abuse linked to a Belief in Spirit Possession (HM Government 2007) addresses a very specific aspect of religious practice which can become abusive to children.

There are a number of ways in which practice in churches can lead to the abuse or neglect of children:

  • a belief in demon possession resulting in the labelling and naming of a child as ‘evil’ or a ‘witch’

  • placing pressure on children to make decisions that are not appropriate to their age or developmental stage

  • creating an environment in which children are discouraged from asking questions or holding alternative views

Who causes harm to children?

It is important to recognise that children and young people can be subject to harm in any and every setting. It is important for those working with children and young people to be aware that harm may be perpetrated by both males and females and by other children and young people.

The person who brings harm to children and young people:

  • is most often someone known to the child (i.e. parent, carer, sibling, other relation, family friend or neighbor)

  • is often an adult with whom the child or young person has a valued relationship and may be in a position of trust and responsibility within an organisation to which a child belongs or has contact

  • can be of any background – social, economic, cultural, ethnic etc.

  • may act in isolation or together with other adults

  • can be another child or young person. Children and young people who abuse other children are likely to be children or young people who have considerable needs of their own, sometimes as a result of abuse, neglect, disruption and instability they themselves have experienced. The risk they pose to other children should not be overlooked