Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect

If you suspect that a child or youth has been or is being abused, you need to help them—read how.

Childhood, especially the years from 0–6, establishes the foundation of a person’s life. Emotional, physical and sexual abuse can have an impact across an entire lifetime. Abuse and neglect happen to young children and teenagers.

What is child abuse?

Child abuse is any form of physical, emotional and/or sexual mistreatment or lack of care that causes injury or emotional damage to a child or youth. The misuse of power and/or a breach of trust are part of all types of child abuse.

Types of child abuse

Emotional abuse is a chronic attack on a child or youth’s self-esteem by a person in a position of trust or authority. Rejecting, degrading, isolating, terrorizing, corrupting, ignoring, and exploiting are all forms of emotional abuse.

Exposure to family violence is when children or youth witness violence being done by one family member to another.

Physical abuse is when a person in a position of trust or authority purposefully injures or threatens to injure a child or youth.

Neglect is the chronic inattention to the basic necessities in life such as:

  • Clothing
  • Shelter
  • Healthy diet
  • Education
  • Good hygiene
  • Supervision
  • Medical and dental care
  • Adequate rest
  • Safe environment
  • Moral guidance and discipline
  • Exercise
  • Fresh air

Sexual abuse is when a younger or less powerful person is used by an older or more powerful child, youth or adult for sexual gratification. Sexual abuse can be contact or non-contact.


  • Touched in sexual areas (mouth, breasts, buttocks, anus, and genital area)
  • Forced to touch another’s sexual areas
  • Held in a sexual way
  • Anally or vaginally penetrated


  • Shown sexual videos
  • Being flashed/exposed to sexual body parts, in person or through technology
  • Forced to listen to sexual talk
  • Forced to pose for seductive photos
  • Forced to look at sexual body parts of another person

Recognizing sexual abuse and its effects

The most common perpetrator of sexual abuse is someone the child or youth knows and trusts.

The best way to help kids avoid sexual abuse is to empower them with the knowledge to recognize the signs of abuse and to get help for themselves or a friend in need.

Indicators of sexual abuse

Children and youth who have experienced sexual abuse may show some behavioral and social changes such as different eating or sleeping habits, no longer enjoying activities they used to like, becoming more restless and agitated than usual or becoming more withdrawn than usual.

Effects of sexual abuse

Victims of sexual abuse often hide their feelings, blame themselves, keep it secret, and rationalize the abuse by telling themselves it was not that bad or it won’t happen again.  Some seek attention through aggressive or self-destructive sexual behaviour, while others withdraw or try to escape by using drugs or running away.  Some victims attempt or commit suicide.

Further info

Learn what to do if you think a child or youth is being abused or neglected

Read “To prevent sexual abuse, empower the bystander” by Sheldon Kennedy