The Impact of Child Abuse – Does the Type of Abuse Really Matter?

It is often assumed that child abuse falls on a spectrum, with physical or sexual abuse on one end and emotional or verbal abuse on the other.  And that the impact of physical abuse may be “worse” than the lesser, verbal abuse.  It turns out based on new research, this assumption may be wrong.

SafeHorizon, the largest non-profit victim services agency in the US, tracks the current state of child abuse in the US and their findings may surprise you:

  • 1 in 10 children suffer from some form of maltreatment.
  • 1 in 16 children suffer child abuse
  • Nearly 1 in 10 are witnesses to family violence

Child abuse is damaging not only to the child, but to the communities that need to support those children into adulthood, as victims of child maltreatment have increased risks for a host of issues including mental and emotional disorders, general ill health, additions and drug use and teen pregnancy – all issues that require supportive services for treatment.  In fact, the impact of child abuse is evidenced quite immediately in children:

  • Child abuse victims have shown signs of depression as young as 3 years old
  • Child abuse victims have increased rates of anti-social behaviors and mental health disorders including borderline personality disorders and violent behavior.
  • Child abuse victims in foster due to abuse or neglect scored lower in cognitive capacity, language development, and academic achievement than the non-abused.
  • Child maltreatment has many long-term effects on physical health, 28% of abused children had a chronic health condition after abuse was reported.
  • Almost half of babies in foster care that were abused show cognitive delays and have lower IQ scores and language difficulties compared to the non-abused.

And alarmingly, the effects of abuse continue well into the teen years and adulthood.  In a study of young adults who suffered abuse as childrent, 80% met the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder by age 21, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, panic and dissociative disorders, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, post- traumatic stress disorder and suicidality.  Child abuse victims are also 59% more likely to be arrested as juveniles, 28% more likely as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crimes in general (SafeHorizon, 2015).

The effects on health aren’t just limited to mental or emotional health either, it has been found that adults who suffered child maltreatment develop allergies, arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, high blood pressure, and ulcers, and other physical disabilities because of poor health caused by abuse (SafeHorizon, 2015).  Child maltreatment also increases the risk for additions to drugs and alcohol; studies have found as many as 2/3 of adults in drug treatment programs reported being abused as children (SafeHorizon, 2015).

Because of these devastating effects of child abuse, it’s important for treatment professionals, educators, parents and care givers to understand the definitions of abuse and their impact.  What researchers have found is that although it has been assumed that physical abuse defined as “any non-accidental physical injury to the child” including striking, kicking, burning, or biting” by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is worse than other forms of abuse, that may not be the case.

In a new study from McGill University published in JAMA Psychiatry, researchers have discovered that all forms of abuse, including emotional, sexual and neglect do in fact have the same consequences.    Researchers accessed data from a study of 2,300 racially and ethnically diverse boys and girls who participated in a summer research camp of low-income, school-aged children ages 5-13 years, about half of whom had well documented histories of abuse.  What their study of this research concluded is that the perception of a “scale” of abuse ranking physical abuse as worse is wrong – all types of abuse have effects that are “equivalent, broad, and universal” according to David Vachon, professor of Psychology at McGill University and the study’s first author (ScienceDaily, 2015).

What are the implications of these new findings?  Researchers believe they can impact the way abuse is treated and how parents are educated on abuse.  Vachon also indicated next steps for researchers will be studying the impact of abuse on the shaping of personality.


  1. annomous on January 10, 2016 at 7:10 am

    I was a victim of child abuse and I use to say that the black eyes and bruises go away but the words never quit echoing, I believe from experience the verbal and emotional abuse to this day affect my life in extreme manners. I trust noone, I am good at socialization and am well liked but prefer to be home alone with my animal. I suffer from addiction, alcoholism avoid relationships even with my own children for fear of judgement and criticism. I would love to be loved ,needed, and wanted but am willing to scarifice it all to protect myself and others from me. Please stop this terrible inherited affliction so others will not suffer as I have for over a half a century. I gave my own children up when they were young after I saw my mother surface in me one night, they were my life, the three most beautiful babies in the whole wide world. I did this to protect them from the monster with-in me. Please help these poor children to never suffer this way.

  2. thumper on January 31, 2016 at 7:57 am

    I was created from child abuse. I’ve been created by abuse and for 80% of my life I believed that my purpose in life was to be abused in some way, shape, or manner. I truly believed that I was the spawn of Satan and that my soul belonged to him. After all ever since I can go to my earliest childhood memories I knew how I was conceived but didn’t really understand what “incest” meant. I was adopted by my great-grandparents before I was even born and their names appear on my birth certificate so I would “have a good name”. My daddy was my whole world and my mom had poor health but we were a happy family. at age 6 my daddy died from lung cancer, while my mom, and my grandmother, and my biological egg donor mom were at the hospital with my daddy taking his last breath…I was at my grandmothers house with my step-grandfather being sexually molested for the very first time. I had no idea what was going on but he told me it was a secret between us and if i said anything that really bad things would happen to me and my mom. when they returned from the hospital and informed me that my daddy was dead, my whole world was destroyed. life for me as I had known it up to then was dead and over. the abuse continued consistantly weekly until I was about 14 yrs old, when I was in a Psychology class in High school and the subject was the topic of discussion for the day. I was in a daze and in shock…this couldn’t be what had been happening to me all those years, no not took me 3 months to finally face the truth and admit that it was real. so I told my mom about it and she confronted my perpetrator and he denied it but wanted to talk to me on the phone but made his wife, (my grandma) leave the room for our conversation. He threatened me, then pleaded with me, but I stood my ground. Then my grandma got on the phone and called me everything but a child of God and dis-owned my mom and I and abandoned us for the next 4+ years. From that point on I did everything for my mom with no help from any of my family…not nobody..until one day my junior year after school I came home to find all of my moms belongings and her gone, so I called my grandma and asked her where my mom was. She informed me that “the family” had got together and decided that she would be better off in a nursing home and that’s where they put her, leaving me with an apartment I couldn’t pay for and so I packed up the apartment and moved in with my boyfriend at the time, by the way I was 17 yrs old by this time. Long story short I’ve been on my own ever since, I have a 28 yr old son whom I helped raise but I wasn’t the best parent and wasn’t always there when I could have been, for that I’m truly sorry. I also have a 13 yr old whom I feel I’m a much better parent for and with. I made some horrible choices and mistakes in my life in the past, but I make much better and healthier choices now and will continue to do so in the future. Nothing can ever replace wor fix what was stolen, destroyed,twisted, and mentally and emotionally broken inside me but God, cause I’ve seen enough Psychiatrists, survivors groups, counselors, therapists, hypnotists, you name it. I’m probably just as qualified to be a counselor for as much as I have received, all I know is the dysfunction and abuse stopped with ME,

    • JoeD on March 23, 2016 at 1:17 am

      Why did you have a child? I was molested by my biological father, been thru suicide attempts, made out to be the bad guy for discussing it, etc, etc

    • Gabrielle Page on June 2, 2016 at 5:21 pm

      Well done you for getting through, you managed to survive, despite these beasts who have tried to use you for their own filthy ends. The creatures that prey on children know what they do, dressing it up in clothing to suit themselves. They imprison a child in a web of deceit so they can abuse that child, whilst maintaining that child’s silence by all sorts of low threats. When caught or threatened with violent retaliation they cringe, pleading for mercy but they are not deserving of any consideration.
      These beasts warrent no pity despite their whining about how they can’t help their “urges”.
      Those of us that adhere to a moral code know what is morally right and wrong. Preying on children is WRONG, and we all know this without being told.