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The different forms of child abuse

The different forms of child abuse

May 6, 2021

In the last decades the study of the subject of child abuse has experienced a considerable boom .

It has gone from being a question traditionally assumed by society as a normal practice to being an important area of ​​research from the publication of the first investigations of the late twentieth century.

What is child abuse?

The concept of child abuse can be defined as any action from the responsible for the child, either by commission or omission, which puts (or may end up putting) at risk the physical, emotional or cognitive integrity of the child.

One of the determining aspects that are analyzed to assess the existence or not of this phenomenon comes from the study of the environment in which the child develops. There is usually talk of maladaptive environment or harmful when there are various factors such as a destructuring at the family level, which frequently involves aggressive interactions, low affection, a marginal socio-economic level, a dysfunctional school environment at the psychopedagogical level, a social environment lacking interests, cultural-urban resources insufficient, or presence of a conflictive environment in the neighborhood.


A definition of child maltreatment similar to the one exposed is the one that collectsto the General Assembly of the United Nations Organization 1989: "Child abuse is any form of violence, physical or mental harm or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, abuse or exploitation, which occurs while the child is in the custody of their parents, a guardian or any other another person who has you in charge ".

1. Types of child maltreatment

The concept of child abuse has evolved from the Old Age to the present time, from being a practice that in no case was considered reportable, until it was defined as a crime from the last decades of the last century. The initial denial of considering child maltreatment as an untenable phenomenon has traditionally been justified by obeying three main principles: the idea that the child is the property of the parents, the belief that violence and aggression are accepted as appropriate disciplinary methods and the lack of consideration of the rights of the minor as legitimate.


1.1. Physical abuse

Physical abuse has been defined by Arruabarrena and De Paúl as a type of voluntary behavior that causes either physical harm to the child or the development of a physical illness (or risk of suffering). It has, therefore, a component of intentionality with respect to inflicting harm on the child in an active manner.

Different types of physical abuse can be distinguished in terms of the purpose that the parents wish to achieve: as a way of imparting discipline, as an expression of rejection of the child, as an expression of sadistic characteristics on the part of the aggressor or as a result of lack of control in a specific conflictive family situation.

1.2. The emotional abuse

On the other hand, emotional abuse does not present the same objectivity and clarity regarding the possibility of delimiting it. The same authors conceptualize it as the set of behaviors related to an interaction more or less maintained in time and that is based on an attitude of verbal hostility (insults, scorn, threats) as well as in blocking any initiative of interaction on the part of the child towards their parents or caregivers. Being able to limit it as a form of child abuse is complicated.


On the other hand, Emotional abandonment is understood as the absence of answers from parents who are permanently passive in response to the demands or signals that the minor issues about their needs for interaction and behaviors of affection with respect to said parental figures.

The main difference between both phenomena alludes, once again, to the intentionality of the action; in the first case the action is committed and in the second, omitted.

1.3. Child neglect

Child neglect or physical neglect consists of the action to stop attending to the minor to whom the obligation of caring is , either putting a physical distance objectively observable or not. Therefore, this practice is understood as an attitude of omission, although certain authors such as Polansky consider that this act is carried out voluntarily by the parents. The consequences of negligence can be physical, cognitive, emotional or social, according to Cantón and Cortés.

In addition, Martínez and De Paúl have differentiated between the concepts of negligence and physical abandonment.The first phenomenon can be both conscious and unconscious and may be due to aspects such as the ignorance and lack of culture of the parents, not considering these acts as possible causes of psychological harm to the child. On the other hand, the physical abandonment is more oriented to consequences of damage to the organism (bodily harm) and is understood as a case of extreme negligence.

2. Causes of child maltreatment

Traditionally, and until the nineties, the presence of psychopathological alterations in the parents had been unequivocally related to the existence of practices of child abuse in the family nucleus.

After the investigations of recent years, it seems that the explanatory causes point to factors closer to socio-economic aspects and unfavorable contextual circumstances that diminish the network of social support of the minor and of the family in general, generating in the last term tensions in the family system.

Thus, an explanatory model that has had an important empirical support is the one proposed by Parke and Colimer in the seventies and ratified by Wolfe in the eighties. These authors found that the following list of characteristics maintains a significant correlation with the existence of child abuse behaviors in the family system:

  • Scarce parental abilities in stress management and in the care of the child.
  • Ignorance about the nature of the evolutionary development process in the human being.
  • Distorted expectations about child behavior.
  • Ignorance and underestimation of the importance of affection and empathic understanding.
  • Tendency to present high levels of physiological activation on the part of the parents and ignorance of adequate ways of discipline alternative to aggression.

From the psychological to the familiar, social and cultural

On the other hand Belsky, exposed at the same time an ecosystemic approach to explain the causes that lead to the appearance of child abuse. The author defends in his theory that the factors can operate in different ecological levels: in the microsystem, in the macrosystem and in the exosystem.

In the first, the specific behaviors of the individuals and the psychological characteristics of the individuals are distinguished as study variables; in the second, socioeconomic, structural and cultural variables are included (resources and access to them, values ​​and normative attitudes of society, fundamentally); and in the third level, social relations and the professional field are evaluated.

Other authors such as Larrance and Twentyman point to the presence of cognitive distortions in mothers of abused children, while Wolfe is more inclined to base causality on findings that demonstrate negligent behaviors of avoidance and withdrawal of affect. Tymchuc, on the other hand, has found a correlation between limited intellectual capacity and negligent attitude in the treatment of the children themselves, although this does not mean that all mothers with diagnosed mental retardation necessarily apply this dysfunctional behavior.

Finally, from the cognitive perspective Crittenden and Milner proposed in the nineties that there is a significant relationship between the type of information processing received from outside (interactions with the child, for example) and the presence of child abuse. It seems to have been proved that abusive parents present problems of interpretation of the meaning of the behaviors and demands expressed by the child.

Thus, in the face of such perceptive alteration, parents often issue avoidance, alienation or ignorance responses to the minor's request since they elaborate a belief in learned helplessness assuming that they will not be able to incorporate a new, more adaptive and adequate methodology. In addition, according to the study, this type of parents also tend to underestimate the satisfaction of the needs of their children prioritizing other types of obligations and activities ahead of the child.

3. Indicators of child maltreatment

As we have seen, emotional abuse is more complex to demonstrate since the indicators are not so clearly observable as in the case of physical abuse. Anyway, there are certain signals coming from both the minor and the adult abuser that can make the alarms jump and they serve to endow with a more solid base the proof that they are giving this type of behaviors.

3.1. Indicators of child abuse in the victim

In a first set of variables to be evaluated are the manifestations that the lowest as a victim externalizes through his verbalizations and behaviors , for example: maintaining a withdrawn, accommodating attitude, or expressing refusal to share fears and certain experiences with other people close to you; suffer alterations in academic performance and in relationships with peers; present dysfunction in sphincter control, feeding or sleep; show alterations in certain personality traits and mood, or develop sexual disorders.

3.2. Indicators of child abuse in the aggressor

In a second group of factors are those that refer to Parental behaviors that are linked to child abuse practices relatively frequently . These attitudes vary according to age, but in most cases they tend to be directed towards the child rejection actions, isolation and avoidance of contact, ignorance and indifference to the minor's demands, use of threats and fears, exaggerated punishments , denial in the expression of affection, absence of communication, contempt, excessive demands demanding, or blocking the development of an autonomous operation, among others.

3.3. Psychological indicators of child maltreatment

At a third level are the alterations produced in the basic capacities of cognitive learning such as language, symbolic and abstract thinking, emotional self-control and the management of impulsivity in interpersonal relationships. Related to it, can be referred to the educational consequences suffered by the child exposed to emotional neglect , like for example the fact of spending most of the day alone without receiving any kind of attention, frequent absences of unjustified attendance to the school or little participation and family-school collaboration.

3.4. Indicators of child abuse in the family climate

Ultimately in the coexistence area of ​​the family nucleus the observable damages correspond to the presence of affective rejection, isolation, verbal hostility and threats , incommunicado and under parental emotional control as examples of emotional abuse; and persistent lack of responses to the minor's demands and lack of communication regarding signs of emotional abandonment.

4. Child maltreatment prevention factors

According to the proposal of the Theory of Systems of Beavers and other later authors, a series of dimensions are distinguished that contribute in a determining way to the establishment of an atmosphere of adaptive family relationship and satisfactory as the following:

  • A structure and organization where each of the subsystems is delimited (the relationship between the spouses, the fraternal relationship, etc.) while allowing some permeability between them.
  • The presence of affective behaviors between the members.
  • A functioning circumscribed to the democratic educational style where the behavioral control of the progeny is clearly defined.
  • Stable parental personality traits and clear establishment of the roles they play in the family nucleus.
  • A communicative dynamic based on correspondence , expressiveness, and clarity.
  • A defined relation with respect to systems external to the primary family nucleus (other family members, friends, educational community, neighborhood, etc.).
  • How the performance of the tasks assigned to each member occurs to favor the psychological development of the youngest in the main vital areas (interpersonal relationships, coping difficulties, behavior repertoire, emotional stability, etc.).

From the set of the exposed dimensions it is clear that the family must provide the child with a stable space equipped with the resources that allow him to have his needs as a covered human being, both physical and affective and educational.

More specifically, López points out that There are three main types of needs that the family must safeguard in relation to their offspring :

  • The physiobiological : as food, hygiene, clothing, health, protection against physical hazards, etc.
  • The cognitive : an adequate and coherent education in values ​​and norms, the facilitation and exposure to a level of stimulation that speeds up their learning.
  • The emotional and social : the feeling of knowing oneself valued, accepted and esteemed; the offer of support to encourage the development of relationships with peers; the consideration of their involvement in decisions and family actions, among others.

In conclusion

Definitely, there are many different manifestations of child abuse , far from considering exclusively physical abuse as the only valid and recognizable typology. All of them can lead to the appearance of psychological consequences of intense gravity in the minor, independently of the kind of practice in question.

On the other hand, the assumption that this problem has a multi-causal origin seems clear, although the contextual and socio-economic factors are central to the causal determination of the phenomenon of child abuse.

It should be noted, in the end, the relevance of analyzing in depth how the indications that explain what kind of prevention and protection practices are useful can be applied and effective in order to avoid falling into the appearance of this serious behavioral deviation.

Bibliographic references:

  • Arruabarrena, Mª I. and de Paul, J. Abuse of children in the family. Evaluation and treatment, Ediciones Pirámide, Madrid, 2005.
  • Beavers, W.R. and Hampson, R. B. (1995).Successful families (Evaluation, treatment and intervention), Barcelona, ​​Paidós.
  • Belsky, J. (1993). Etiology of child maltreatment: a developmental-ecological analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 413-434.
  • Cantón, J. and Cortés, M.A. (1997). Ill treatment and child sexual abuse. Madrid: Siglo XXI.
  • Crittenden, P. (1988). Family and dyadic patterns of functioning in maltreating families. In K. Browne, C.
  • Larrance, D.T. and Twentyman, C.T. (1983). Maternal attributions and child abuse. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 92, 449-457.
  • López, F. (1995): The needs of children. Theoretical foundation, classification and educational criteria of children's needs (volume I and II). Madrid, Ministry of Social Affairs.
  • Milner, J.S. (nineteen ninety five). The application of the theory of the processing of social information to the problem of physical abuse to children. Childhood and Learning, 71, 125-134.
  • Parke, R.D. & Collmer, C. W. (1975). Child abuse: An interdisciplinary analysis. In E.M. Hetherington (Ed.). Review of child development research (vol 5). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Polansky, N.A., De Saix, C. and Sharlin, S.A. (1972). Child neglect. Understanding and reaching the parent. Washington: Child Welfare League of America.
  • Tymchuc, A. J. and Andron, L. (1990). Mothers with mental retardation who do not abuse or neglect their children. Child Abuse and Neglect, 14, 313-324.
  • Wolfe, D. (1985). Child abusive parents: an empirical review and analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 97, 462-482.

Reaching Out: Child abuse, the different types and who's at risk. (May 2021).


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