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Understanding the effects of child abuse and neglect

Child abuse is a harrowing social and public health issue. It can refer to physical and mental harm towards a child by a parent, caregiver, adult or peer resulting in actual or potential damage. And it doesn't just include intentional acts; unintentional acts or omissions can amount to child abuse, with devastating and lifelong consequences.

Acts of child abuse

Some common behaviours that amount to child abuse include:

  • Physical abuse;
  • Emotional mistreatment;
  • Sexual abuse; and
  • Exposure to family violence.

Neglect can also have serious consequences for children, affecting their future and view of the world. Factors such as positive family environments, quality school experiences and healthy teacher relationships can help a child to become more resilient to neglect. However, socio-economic disadvantage, social isolation, or being under the care of someone with a mental illness or alcohol and drug dependence are all factors that contribute significantly to mistreatment of a child.

According to statistics, a child suffers physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect every 11 minutes in Australia, and that’s with thousands of cases going unreported.

The effects of child abuse and neglect

Abuse and neglect affect each child differently. It's impossible to provide a comprehensive list of all the possible adverse impacts, however some common symptoms of abuse and neglect include:

  • Trauma and stress affecting the developing brain – The Centre of the Developing Child at Harvard University has found that trauma and stress can have damaging and psychological effects on a young brain.
  • Changes in behaviour - This isn't limited to just physical behaviour; it includes psychological, emotional and social changes.
  • Attachment and interpersonal relationship problems – This is especially prevalent in babies who are exposed to abuse and neglect. They are likely to experience later difficulties forming relationships, haunted by feelings of insecurity and disorganisation.
  • Learning and developmental problems – Abuse from a young age can cause developmental problems affecting a child’s capabilities to stay focused, learn and feel confident in themselves.
  • Mental health problems – Many abused children can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many children who have PTSD also have attention deficit disorders, oppositional defiant and conduct disorders, anxiety, psychotic and adjustment disorders or struggle with substance abuse.
  • Depression – Abused and neglected adolescents are reportedly three times more likely to experience depression than those who did not experience the same trauma.
  • Eating disorders – These include anorexia and bulimia, and are highly prevalent in cases of sexual abuse.
  • Youth suicide – Multiple studies have found that survivors of child abuse are at an increased risk of suicidal thoughts, attempted suicide and accidental drug overdose due to associated feelings of shame and internal blame.
  • Alcohol, smoking and drug use – Survivors often turn to substances as a coping mechanism to deal with or suppress out-of-control feelings and memories.
  • Aggression, violence and criminal activity – Experiencing physical violence can make a child more likely to inflict pain on others and become aggressive. A National Institute of Justice study in the United States found that abused or neglected children were 11 times more likely to be arrested for criminal behaviour.

These effects are often circumstantial and depend on a variety of individual experiences and personalities. Many factors influence the significance of the abuse on a child. These include:

  • the age of the child;
  • the severity and type of the abuse or neglect;
  • the child’s perception of the abuse or neglect; and
  • the relationship the child has/had with the perpetrator.

Other factors

With the development of technology and access to the internet becoming easier and easier, alarming new trends are emerging. Research commissioned by Act for Kids found that 78% of Australians blame online content for causing problematic sexual behaviours, while the Royal Commission found that increasingly, child abuse is occurring at the hand of another child (referred to as peer-on-peer abuse).

So what can you do?

Protecting children is everyone’s responsibility and a big part of this is understanding the impact of child abuse and knowing how you can help to prevent it.

Act for Kids outlines a few simple, yet powerful things you can do to prevent child abuse and neglect:

  • Seek support – if you’re a parent needing support, there are many free services available to help with different issues, from budgeting to parenting help.
  • Listen – take time to engage with the kids in your life to listen and build trust. This is important as it gives kids several safe people in their lives, not just their parents.
  • Offer help - support fellow parents by allowing them to let out their stress and feelings. If you’re worried or overwhelmed, you can encourage them to seek help from a doctor, counsellor or helpline.
  • Access resources – local authorities or support services can help families with any issues that might be causing stress or compromising the safety of their children. You can remain anonymous while still being the person to make a real difference in a child’s life.

For more information, head to the Child Family Community Australia resource published on the Australian Institute of Family Studies website, or Act for Kids website.

If you need support or someone to talk to about these issues, contact Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: October 16, 2019.

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