What is child abuse?

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What is child abuse?

Child abuse happens when an adult mistreats or neglects a child. The person who abuses is misusing their position of trust and authority. This could be a parent, guardian, paid caregiver or sibling.

Children depend upon adults to protect them, support them and help them survive. Being abused damages their sense of safety. It also makes them more likely to be abused and exploited in the future.

Child abuse is a silent crime. It can happen in all cultures, social classes, and religions.  Also, children with disabilities are more at risk for abuse.

What forms does child abuse take?

A child can be abused in different ways. Following are just some examples:

Physical abuse

Physical abuse means inflicting physical harm on a child's body. It may involve abusing a child a single time, or it may involve a pattern of incidents. Some examples are:

  • Shaking, choking, biting, kicking or burning a child

  • Handling a child roughly when helping them with dressing and going to the bathroom

  • Using force or restraint in any other harmful way.

Often the parents feel they need to physically punish or discipline the child. They may also think what they are doing is good for the child. An example of this is female genital mutilation (also known as "female circumcision").

Physical abuse sometimes leaves the child with a permanent disability. For example, a child may end up deaf, become paraplegic or have brain or spinal cord injury.

Sexual abuse

This happens when an adult or adolescent uses a child for sexual purposes. It can also mean exposing them to sexual activity or behaviour. It can include:

  • touching and kissing a child's breasts or genitals

  • inviting the child to touch someone else sexually

  • having sex with a child family member

  • forcing a child into prostitution or pornography.

Child sexual abuse is usually repeated, and can go on for a long time. It is also emotionally abusive.

Sexual abuse is against the law in Canada. Yet it is probably the form of abuse that people report the least.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse includes other acts that can harm a child's sense of worth. It is usually part of a long-term problem.

It harms a child's self-confidence when an adult insults, rejects or humiliates them often. Other examples of emotional abuse include:

  • Isolating a child - keeping them away from other children, or removing their wheelchair or hearing aids.

  • Intimidating or terrorizing a child - locking children in closets or basements, threatening or shouting at them, making them fear the adult.

  • Exploiting a child - having them do things children don't normally do, like working when they should be in school.

  • Making unreasonable demands - telling them to play outside without getting dirty. Telling them to change their homosexual orientation if they want to stay living at home.


Neglect means not giving the child what they need to develop. It can hurt the child both emotionally and physically. A parent or caregiver is neglecting a child when they:

  • don't make them feel loved, wanted, safe and worthy

  • don't let them see a doctor or take personal care of themselves

  • don't intervene when the child is at risk of harm

  • deny them an education

  • deny food, clothing and shelter, even though they can afford to provide them

  • leave the child alone at home too often. Parents are responsible for watching over their children until they are at least 16.

Witnessing woman abuse

Seeing a woman being abused makes children feel less worthy. It keeps them in a constant state of anxiety and fear.

It can affect them just as badly as being abused directly. They may also be hurt trying to protect their mother, or be used as hostages.

When a woman is abused by her partner, her children learn that:

Ritual abuse

People generally understand ritual abuse to be extreme abuse that goes on for a long time. In this case the adults use their religious or political beliefs to defend the abuse.

Ritual abuse often includes:

  • mind control

  • torture

  • murder

  • child pornography

  • prostitution. 


Peter Jaffe et al., Similarities in Behavioural and Social Maladjustment Among Child Victims and Witnesses To Family Violence, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 50, 1986, 142.

Resource details:
Prepared for the Canadian Health Network by Education Wife Assault and the National Clearinghouse on Family Violence.

Type/Format of Resource: FAQs

Category/Topic of interest: Child Abuse

Population Group: Friends & Family; Victims / Survivors; Social Service Providers

Language of Resource: English

Year of Publication: pre 1995

Contact Information:
    Program Manager 
    Springtide Resources
    t- 416-968-3422
    f- 416-968-2026

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