Abuse Research Articles & Resources

Imogen Sharma
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What Is Abuse?

The Gale Encyclopaedia of Medicine defines abuse as "any action that intentionally harms or injures another person." (1) Abuse is typically carried out by a perpetrator who has a close relationship with (or is a caregiver for) the victim.

Although the federal government provides guidance, each state is responsible for making laws regarding abuse and neglect. (2) Broadly speaking, there are several categories and types of abuse, including child abuse, domestic abuse, and elder abuse. Children, adults, and seniors can be victims alike.

There are also different forms of abuse, such as physical, verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse. It is unacceptable for anyone to subject another individual to harm or injury. People who experience the effects of abuse might be traumatized physically and/or mentally. The physical scars and psychological wounds can last a lifetime.

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Child Abuse Definition

The federal definition of child abuse is "any recent act or failure to act that results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, exploitation, or presents an imminent risk of serious harm." (3). It refers specifically to abuse or neglect by parents and other caregivers, with the "child" being a person under the age of 18.

Each state has its own statutes and laws regarding child abuse, with notable differences between specific locations. (4) For example, 27 states don't include an inability to financially provide for a child as neglect, whereas 17 states exempt reasonable physical discipline from the definition of abuse, so long as it doesn't cause bodily injury. (5)

Elder Abuse Definition

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), elder abuse is the "physical, sexual, psychological, or financial abuse or neglect of older adults who may be unable to defend or fend for themselves. Perpetrators of elder abuse can include strangers, family members, caregivers, or guardians appointed by a judge." It’s important to recognize the signs of elder abuse if you’re concerned about a loved one. (6)

Some states have criminalized specific acts as elder abuse, while others rely on definitions under criminal law. (7) (8)

What Is Physical Abuse?

Physical abuse is physical aggression, causing indirect physical harm, withholding necessities, and threatening physical harm against a person. (9) Using violence to assert dominance is inexcusable under any circumstances and should be reported to the appropriate agency. (10) (11) There's plenty of support and guidance available for survivors of physical abuse. (12) (13)

Examples of physical abuse:

  • Hitting, burning, kicking, drowning, shooting, slapping, pulling, pushing, shaking, hair-pulling, hitting with a weapon, pinching, beating, punching, hitting with an object, or threatening any of the above
  • Restricting movement, rationing or refusing to give necessities, and controlling sleep or meals
  • Kicking and hitting walls, destroying property, and throwing things during an argument or fit of rage
  • Holding someone hostage

Signs someone might be a victim of physical abuse: (14)

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Inappropriate clothing for the purpose of covering injuries
  • Aggression, withdrawal, or excessive fear
  • Inconsistent explanations for injuries

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Nonphysical acts that aim to frighten, control, or isolate someone are counted as emotional abuses. They shouldn't be considered harmless or acceptable just because there's no physical sign of injury. (15) Emotional abuse can impact a victim's well-being for their entire life, impairing their relationships and ability to function at work or school.

Examples include: (16)

  • Undermining someone's self-esteem by belittling or mocking them
  • Isolation from other people
  • Excessive jealousy and possessiveness
  • Keeping tabs on the victim's movements, online activities, and personal relationships
  • Withholding love and affection or giving the silent treatment
  • Financial control
  • Humiliation

Indicators of emotional abuse:

  • Depression, anxiety, aggression, or withdrawal
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as suicidal ideation or attempts, self-harm, and substance use
  • Overt compliance—being too obedient and eager to please adults
  • Attention-seeking behaviors or inhibition during play

There are many valuable resources available for people who experience emotional abuse. (17)

What Is Verbal Abuse?

When someone is verbally abusive, they use words or body language to assert dominance over another person. They could be verbally coercive, undermining, critical, or make someone question their perception of reality. Verbal abuse is usually part of a broader attempt from an abuser to exert control over a victim, and the indicators are similar to those for emotional abuse. (18)

Examples of verbal abuse: (19)

  • Making threats to kill or hurt someone or their loved ones, pets, reputation, or belongings
  • Using actions, gestures, and statements to attack someone's self-worth and self-esteem
  • Constant corrections and criticisms
  • Telling someone that they're unlovable, undesirable, or incompetent
  • Screaming, shouting, raging, or using the silent treatment
  • Being coercive or manipulative in a disempowering manner

What Is Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse is the act of forcing someone to engage in sexual activity that they do not consent to. Many factors influence consent, including whether the victim is inebriated (an intoxicated person can't give consent). Someone who is asleep cannot consent to sexual activity, and coercing a sleeping, underage, or impaired person into sexual activity is non-consensual. (20)
Under no circumstances can a minor give consent to intercourse, sexual touching, or viewing/being involved in the making of pornographic imagery. If an adult engages in any of the above with a minor, they're breaking the law and inflicting serious harm.

Victims of sexual abuse can safely seek guidance and assistance from a local rape crisis center, law enforcement agency, or charity to help them overcome sexual abuse. (21)

What Is Domestic Abuse?

Domestic violence is abuse at the hands of a loved one, such as an intimate partner, parent, guardian, or any member of the household. (22) Physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, financial, and digital abuse are forms of domestic violence.

It's never appropriate for someone to abuse a position of trust and power to cause harm, exploit, or control family members. Plenty of resources are available for anyone who has experienced domestic abuse, and the route to justice varies between states. (23)

Examples of abusive behavior from a partner or family member:

  • Making fun of and embarrassing the victim alone and in front of others
  • Diminishing accomplishments
  • Constantly calling the victim incompetent and making them question their abilities
  • Using threats and violence to get their way
  • Excessive or aggressive calls and messages
  • Blaming the victim for their unkind or violent behavior
  • Keeping the victim isolated
  • Denying basic needs
  • Making the victim feel worthless

It's crucial to understand that abuse is never okay and help is available. There are numerous local and nationwide nonprofits that can help victims of abuse find the support they need to heal.