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The dance of perpetrators

What is sexual abuse?

What is physical abuse?

What is emotional abuse?

Protecting the child

Abuse comes in all shapes. Some may be more obvious to the world, some known only to the victim and perpetrator. If someone grows up in a home where there was abuse, it is difficult not to think of it as normal. Most survivors discount the abuse. Some don’t even call it abuse because then that would make an angry or powerful person responsible and danger can be increased. It is also difficult to accept someone you love has hurt you. Many survivors assumed responsibility for the abuse –even think it was because something was wrong with them. Unfortunately, long after the abuse has stopped the aftereffects continue to haunt them. Core feelings that were born in the environment of abuse strangle their emotional and developmental growth. (Read more about how core feelings affect you and how they can be changed in Body Sense.)


Dissociation can be a life saving tool for a child in an abusive home. It allows the child to “go away” mentally. Some call it leaving their body. Others realize they often daydream. Others jump into a nicer world through reading. Some reach for food. As the child grows this learned dissociation continues as a coping mechanism. Yet, it can become very destructive. The teenager and adult may dissociate from overwhelming feelings by utilizing sex, alcohol or drugs, relationships, work and food to distance oneself from pain or stress. Learning how to stop that process is important part of healing. (See Body Sense.)

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The Dance of the Perpetrators

There are several reasons abuse remains undisclosed and the survivor remains isolated.Victims often think this behavior is normal because they know nothing else, or the perpetrator convinces them that other people know about it and aren't doing anything to stop it. The secret is further protected by fear that disclosure will increase danger if there are threats of harm, or that the victim could lose family members if the truth is told. It is also difficult to accept that someone you love has hurt you. Many survivors assumed responsibility for the abuse –even think it occured because something was wrong with them, or that they invited the abuse. Unfortunately, long after the abuse has stopped the aftereffects continue to haunt them. Core feelings that were born in the environment of abuse strangle their emotional and developmental growth. (Read more about how core feelings affect you and how they can be changed in Body Sense.) Knowledge and the truth is a powerful tool. As you read the following descriptions, consider the actions you need to take. If you are a survivor and still suffering from the aftereffects of the abuse, you can stop their interference with reading and counseling. If you fear someone you care about has been abused, read our article What Do I Do If I Think My Child Has Been Abused?

Children want to please others. They want to be loved. They have been taught to not question adults and people in authority. They believe grown-ups must always be right. And, if a grown-up is doing this to me, mom and dad must know about it. They are easily duped into believing they are responsible for the abuse, or co-conspirators. Perpetrators hone in on the vulnerable child. It is common for perpetrators to withhold any signs of affection, except during the course of sexual activity with the child. The child mistakenly believes love goes with abuse. The perpetrator makes her believe she is seducing him. She is at fault, the abuser tells her, because she is "sexy," or she is pretty. Other perpetrators give the children money. The child may be afraid to give it back, or the perpetrator may not take it back, or the child may just want to spend it – which would be normal. However, the perpetrator sets up the child to feel like a whore. They can’t tell anyone, because “they are okay with it,” “they are part of it.” This is not true. The adult has just manipulated the child. He (or she) has had the power. Those who physically and emotionally batter a child will inevitably tell the child “it is for your own good.” Hurting a child is never acceptable. Looking through the eyes of a child, we know how easy they can believe an adult.

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What are some types of sexual abuse?

1. Sexual touching or fondling. This includes any touch in the areas covered by a bathing suit. It also includes kissing inappropriately.

2. Exposing children to adults engaging in sexual activity, stories of an adult's sexual activity, photography or pornography.

3. Telling a child you are teaching them about sexual abuse with touch, showing body parts or lewd discussions. Children should be taught about sex in a healthy manner, answering questions, providing verbal and written information. This does not include demonstrations.

4. Spying on children who are in a state of undress or vulnerability, such as in their bedrooms or bathrooms.

5. Bathing children who are old enough to be bathing themselves. Sometimes this is done out of ignorance, sometimes this is done with planned abuse. It is important children be allowed to have their own privacy and boundaries, as age appropriate and safe.

6. Asking children to undress, pose or perform in a sexual fashion.

7.  Intercourse with a child or teen by an adult is rape, because of the difference in power. Abuse also can occur among siblings, or older children.

8.  Rape, attempted rape, oral sex.


What is physical abuse?

Unfortunately, physical abuse of helpless children continues to be a major problem. Those who survive the initial abuse are often scarred into adulthood with the emotional consequences. Eating disorders, problem relationships, substance abuse and other emotional mishaps are often anchored to the feelings that occurred when abuse took place. If you think a child is being abused, report it immediately to the authorities. If you are abusing your child, get help immediately. A counselor can help guide you through a system that is designed to improve your parenting. Adults can also abuse other adults, but help is available. Pay attention, and take action if you see or your child reports any of the following behaviors.

1. Choking, hitting, throwing, knocking a child into a wall or onto the floor, kicking, biting, shaking, beating with any object, scalding with hot water, holding or pushing a child under water, starving a child, burning, tying up a child, slapping. Children should not be spanked with hair brushes or paddles, nor should any clothing be removed if a parent insists on spanking. Time out for younger children and withdrawal of privileges is most effective for changing behaviors.

2. Some signs of physical abuse include bruises, burns and sores, pain. The child is often reluctant to say how they occurred, or may have an answer that is too quick and sounds rehearsed.

3. Child neglect can include leaving a child alone for long periods of time, or leaving a child too young to remain alone, not providing medical care, locking a child in a room or closet, placing a child in a dangerous situation, and others.

4. Some signs of neglect include dirty hair or clothes, body odor, soiled diapers, lackluster skin, weight loss and others.

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What is emotional abuse?

Emotional abuse is often hard to detect, especially if you grow up with it. However, it is important you intervene on that behavior because it also can cause long-term pain, self-destructive behavior and severe restrictions on your potential. Recognizing the signs helps you stop absorbing the abuse and begin to make changes.

1. Words that attack a sense of self-worth.

2. Constant criticizing, judging, belittling, testing, insulting and rejecting.

3. Abandonment when you do not agree or please. For example, a parent threatening to send a child away or a parent who refuses to talk to a child.

4. Terrorizing or instilling fear. (This can be implied by words or actions.)

5.  Words or actions that make you feel worthless, of no value, helpless, stupid, incompetent or hopeless. (These are core feelings that Brenda Crawford-Clark advises us on how to change in her book Body Sense.)

6. Implying that the child must be totally dependent upon you, and can do nothing without you.

7. Sharing adult problems with children who have no responsibility or capability to solve these problems.

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Protecting the Child

As parents, we have to acknowledge that we can not protect our child in all situations. However, we can provide them with an environment of safety, and discuss personal safety issues as a way to teach the child to take care of himself or herself.

Here’s some ideas to convey to your child:

1. Your body belongs to you. Nobody has the right to touch or hurt you.

2. The areas covered by bathing suits are especially private. Tell if someone tries to touch you there, no matter who it is -- even if they are acting friendly, it is a relative or teacher or some other adult or kid.

3. You can say no if you do not want to do something—even when the request is from parents, friends or siblings, or teachers. (This takes some instruction. It's part of learning to have boundaries.) If someone asks you to do something that makes you uncomfortable, say no and tell. If any adult asks you to do something that you think is wrong or you are uncomfortable with say no and talk to your parents, or other adults you trust. (Teach your children about assertiveness and listen if your child is saying no, don't just automatically get angry. Letting your child know he or she can effectively say no to an adult sometimes is a way your child can learn to set personal boundaries when away from you.
4. Keep telling until someone listens and protects you. Even if you tell mom or dad. If you are still uncomfortable, keep talking to someone else.)

5. Tell me if anyone tells you to keep a secret. Birthday and Christmas presents are okay. Anything else is not.

6. I will protect you if you tell me someone is hurting you.

7. You are not bad or to blame if someone hurts you.

8.  Teach the proper names for body parts.

9. Some adults are not healthy. They have problems. Its important you keep talking until someone listens if you feel funny about their behavior.

10. If someone gives you candy, gifts, animals or money and tells you not to tell your parents – tell us right away. They may want to hurt you by tricking you.

11. Do not go with someone who asks you if you want to look at their puppies or kitties, or asks you to look for their pets. Always check with a parent first.

12. These rules apply to all adults and older kids– even parents, even  brothers/sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, teachers, pastors, priests, scout masters, etc.

13. You won’t get in trouble for telling. Tell me even if you are afraid, and I’ll help you.

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Now that you have information, you have a powerful tool. Don't be overwhelmed. If you have discovered that someone you care about is being abused, you can help stop it. Contact a counselor or crisis center in your area for step-by-step assistance.

Brenda Crawford-Clark, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

Author: Body Sense Balancing Your Weight and Emotions 

©Copyright 2001 Brenda Crawford-Clark