What Is Abuse?
Amy's finger was so swollen that she couldn't get her
ring off. She didn't think her finger was broken because she
could still bend it. It had been a week since her dad shoved her
into the wall, but her finger still hurt a lot.
Amy hated the way her dad called her names and accused her of
all sorts of things she didn't do, especially after he had been
drinking. It was the worst feeling and she just kept hoping he
Abuse can be physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, or a
combination of any or all of those. Neglect - when parents or
guardians don't take care of the basic needs of the children
who depend on them - can also be a form of abuse.
is often the most easily spotted form of abuse. It may be any kind
of hitting, shaking, burning, pinching, biting, choking, throwing,
beating, and other actions that cause physical injury, leave marks,
or produce significant physical pain.
is any type of sexual contact between an adult and anyone younger
than 18, or between a significantly older child and a younger
child. If a family member sexually abuses another family member,
this is called incest.
can be difficult to pin down because there may not be physical
signs. Emotional abuse happens when yelling and anger go too far or
when parents constantly criticize, threaten, or dismiss kids or
teens until their self-esteem and feelings of self-worth are
damaged. Emotional abuse can hurt and cause damage just as physical
is probably the hardest type of abuse to define. Neglect occurs
when a child or teen doesn't have adequate food, housing,
clothes, medical care, or supervision. Emotional neglect happens
when a parent doesn't provide enough emotional support or
deliberately and consistently pays very little or no attention to a
child. But it's not neglect if a parent doesn't give a kid
something he or she wants, like a new computer or a cell phone.
Family violence can affect anyone. It can happen in any kind of
family. Sometimes parents abuse each other, which can be hard for a
child to witness. Some parents abuse their kids by using physical
or verbal cruelty as a way of discipline.
Abuse doesn't just happen in families, of course. Bullying
is a form of abusive behavior. Bullying someone through
intimidation, threats, or humiliation can be just as abusive as
beating someone up. People who bully others may have been abused
themselves. This is also true of people who abuse someone
they're dating. But being abused is no excuse for abusing
Abuse can also take the form of hate crimes directed at people
just because of their race, religion, abilities, gender, or sexual
It may sound strange, but people sometimes have trouble
recognizing that they are being abused. Recognizing abuse may be
especially difficult for someone who has lived with it for many
years. A person might think that it's just the way things are
and that there's nothing that can be done. People who are
abused might mistakenly think they bring it on themselves by not
acting right or by not living up to someone's expectations.
Someone growing up in a family where there is violence or abuse
may not know that there are other ways for family members to treat
each other. A person who has only known an abusive relationship may
mistakenly think that hitting, beating, pushing, shoving, or angry
name-calling are perfectly normal ways to treat someone when
you're mad. Seeing parents treat each other in abusive ways
might lead a child to think that's a normal relationship. But
abuse is not a normal or healthy way to treat people.
If you're not sure you are being abused, or if you suspect a
friend is, it's always OK to ask a trusted adult or friend.
Why Does It Happen?
If you're one of the thousands of people living in an
abusive situation, it can help to understand why some people abuse
- and to realize that the violence is
not your fault
. Sometimes abusers manipulate the people they are abusing by
telling them they did something wrong or "asked for it"
in some way. But that's not true.
There is no single reason why people abuse others. But some
factors seem to make it more likely that a person may become
Growing up in an abusive family is one factor. Other people
become abusive because they're not able to manage their
feelings properly. For example, someone who is unable to control
anger or can't cope with stressful personal situations (like
the loss of a job or marriage problems) may lash out at others
inappropriately. Alcohol or drug use also can make it difficult for
some people to control their actions.
Certain types of personality disorders or mental illness might
also interfere with a person's ability to relate to others in
healthy ways or cause people to have problems with aggression or
self-control. Of course, not everyone with a personality disorder
or mental illness becomes abusive.
Fortunately, abuse can always be corrected. Everyone can learn
how to stop.
What Are the Effects of Abuse?
When people are abused, it can affect every aspect of their
lives, especially self-esteem. How much abuse harms a person
depends on the situation and sometimes on how severe the abuse
is. Sometimes a seemingly minor thing can trigger a big reaction.
Being touched inappropriately by a family member, for example, can
be very confusing and traumatic.
Every family has arguments. In fact, it's rare when a family
doesn't have some rough times, disagreements, and anger.
Punishments and discipline - like removing privileges, grounding,
or being sent to your room - are normal. Yelling and anger are
normal in parent-teen relationships too - although it can feel
pretty bad to have an argument with a parent or friend. But if
punishments, arguments, or yelling go too far or last too long it
can lead to stress and other serious problems.
Teens who are abused (or have been in the past) often have
trouble sleeping, eating, and concentrating. They may not do well
at school because they are angry or frightened, or because they
can't concentrate or don't care.
Many people who are abused distrust others. They may feel a lot
of anger toward other people and themselves, and it can be hard to
make friends. Abuse is a significant cause of depression in young
people. Some teens may engage in self-destructive behavior, such as
cutting or abusing drugs or alcohol. They may even attempt
It's normal for people who have been abused to feel upset,
angry, and confused about what happened to them. They may feel
guilty and embarrassed and blame themselves. But abuse is never the
fault of the person who is being abused, no matter how much the
abuser tries to blame others.
Abusers may manipulate a person into keeping quiet by saying
stuff like: "This is a secret between you and me," or
"If you ever tell anybody, I'll hurt you or your
mom," or "You're going to get in trouble if you tell.
No one will believe you and you'll go to jail for lying."
This is the abuser's way of making a person feel like nothing
can be done so he or she won't report the abuse.
People who are abused may have trouble getting help because it
means they'd be reporting on someone they love - someone who
may be wonderful much of the time and awful to them only some of
the time. A person might be afraid of the consequences of
reporting, either because they fear the abuser or the family is
financially dependent on that person. For reasons like these, abuse
often goes unreported.
What Should Someone Who's Being Abused Do?
People who are being abused need to get help. Keeping the abuse
a secret doesn't protect anyone from being abused - it only
makes it more likely that the abuse will continue.
If you or anyone you know is being abused, talk to someone you
or your friend can trust - a family member, a trusted teacher, a
doctor, or a school or religious youth counselor. Many teachers and
counselors have training in how to recognize and report abuse.
Telephone directories list local child abuse and family violence
hotline numbers that you can call for help. There's also
Childhelp USA at (800) 4-A-CHILD ( 422-4453).
Sometimes people who are being abused by someone in their own
home need to find a safe place to live temporarily. It is never
easy to have to leave home, but it's sometimes necessary to be
protected from further abuse. People who need to leave home to stay
safe can find local shelters listed in the phone book or they can
contact an abuse helpline. Sometimes a person can stay with a
relative or friend.
People who are being abused often feel afraid, numb, or lonely.
Getting help and support is an important first step toward changing
Many teens who have experienced abuse find that painful emotions
may linger even after the abuse stops. Working with a therapist is
one way to sort through the complicated feelings and reactions that
being abused creates, and the process can help to rebuild feelings
of safety, confidence, and self-esteem.
Michelle New, PhD
Date reviewed: November 2007
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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