What Is Child Abuse

  • Child abuse can be physical, emotional or sexual.

  • All child abuse involves the misuse of power.

  • Misuse of power takes place when people take advantage of the authority or power they have over vulnerable people.

  • Vulnerable people include adults with physical or mental disabilities and children (a child is a person under age 19).

Physical abuse is the use of physical force or an action that results, or could result, in injury to a child or youth. It is more than reasonable discipline. Sometimes injury is caused by over-discipline. Injuring a child or youth is not acceptable, regardless of differing cultural standards on discipline.

In 97 per cent of reported cases of physical abuse, parents are the perpetrators (Wolfe).

The perpetrators of physical abuse are approximately 1.5 times more likely to be male than female (Wolfe).

Over 90 per cent of parents report the use of physical force in the discipline of their children.

Emotional abuse is a pattern of hurting a child's feelings to the point of damaging his or her self-respect. It includes verbal attacks on the child, insults, humiliation and rejection. A child or youth who is emotionally harmed may demonstrate severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal and/or self-destructive behavior.

Sexual abuse occurs when an adult or someone more powerful than a child or youth uses the child or youth for sexual stimulation or gratification. Sexual activity between children or youth may also be sexual abuse if older or more powerful children or youth take sexual advantage of those who are younger or less powerful.




Physical neglect is the failure of caregivers to provide a child's or youth's basic needs (food, clothing, adequate shelter, supervision and medical care) to the extent that the child's or youth's health or safety is threatened.

Physical neglect is often difficult to identify and prove. While there may be a link between physical neglect and poverty, neglectful guardians can be found in every level of society. Physical neglect may not be intentional but rather the result of insufficient resources or other circumstances.




Most abused or neglected children never come to the attention of authorities. Statistics are therefore not indicative of actual rates of child abuse or neglect (Hopper, 1997). In Canada, national statistics on all types of child abuse are not available, and each province has different methods of reporting child abuse cases.

Statistics on child sexual abuse are more widely reported.

North American statistics indicate that one in six boys are sexually abused before age 16 (Hopper, 1997). Studies of college males have reported prevalence rates as high as 28 per cent (Hopper, 1997). For instance, a study done in Calgary of men aged 18 to 27 revealed a prevalence rate of 15.5 per cent and that 6.9 per cent of participants had experienced multiple episodes of sexual abuse.

The prevalence of sexual abuse of girls is significantly higher than that of boys. Approximately one in three girls are sexually abused before age 18 and one in four by age 14 (Russell, 1983). A similar study with women reported a prevalence rate of 32 per cent, though the multiple episode rate was identical to that of the men studied (Bagley, 1991).




Most people who provide care are loving and skilled; however, there are some who abuse. A 1996 study of 16 states in the U.S. indicated that abuse in day care, foster care, or other institutional care settings represented about two per cent of all confirmed cases (Wang and Daro, 1997). Abusers look like everyone else. Except for abusing children, they act like everyone else. That's why it is difficult for an organization to identify abusers or potential abusers.

Abusers may be parents, relatives, neighbors or friends. They may also include those who work with children or youth as staff or volunteers. Strangers, who are often the most feared and the most publicized, represent only about eight per cent of sexual abusers. Among child sexual abusers, more than 98 per cent are male.

Studies have found that over half of sexual assaults committed against children occur in the homes of victims or suspects; however, abusers also prey on children at schools, health care facilities and playgrounds. They can also be attracted to employment and volunteer work where children or youth are present.


Most people who provide care are loving and skilled; however, there are some who abuse.

What we do know is that abusers can come from any background, race, religion, culture, age or gender, and any intelligence, education or income level. They are often emotionally damaged, and it is common for abusers to have been abused themselves. Many feel shortchanged, frustrated or powerless and use different excuses to justify abusing children.

Many child abusers hold positions of trust, are skilled, get good performance appraisals in their work, and are perceived by others as being committed to children and families.

Studies indicate that many child sexual abusers abuse children over an extended period before they are caught and convicted. Many abusers who live among us as parents, grandparents, volunteers, and leaders in the community have not been identified or charged with their offences. The offences for which they are actually convicted may well be only the tip of the iceberg. In addition, convicted child abusers often commit child abuse again after they are released from prison.



The most important benefit of child abuse prevention measures is that children are better protected from physical and sexual abuse.

But others benefit as well:

  • preventive measures can help parents to evaluate and choose programs and services for their children
  • employers with good child abuse prevention policies may attract highly motivated and dependable employees and volunteers
  • criminal record checks may discourage child abusers from applying for a job
    preventive programs can improve the reputation of an organization
  • preventive measures can help protect employers, employees and volunteers against false allegations of child abuse



Myths Facts
Child sexual abuse is more common in cities and occurs rarely in rural areas where people know each other. Child abuse takes place equally in rural and urban areas.
Child molesters are strangers who look different and act oddly. Most abusers are known to their victims. Many appear stable and hold responsible positions.
 Child sexual abuse is only committed by adults.  Among males in custody or on probation for a sexual offence in British Columbia in 1993, one in six was a youth.
Children "ask" for these actions by being "seductive" or by "consenting" to the sexual acts.  Children are never responsible for being abused; when an adult instigates sexual contact, informed consent is impossible for a child.
Alcohol or drugs are usually to blame. This frequent defence by child sexual abusers is rarely the cause. The abuser may use alcohol and drugs to lower inhibitions.
Child sexual abuse is rare and only involves girls.
Research suggests that 30 per cent of girls and 15 per cent of boys are subjected to some form of sexual abuse by the age of 18.
Child sexual abusers are all homosexuals. Abusers can be homosexual or heterosexual.
Child sexual abusers are mostly lower income. Abusers come from all income, education and intelligence levels

For more, see Information To Survive By

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