Understanding childhood trauma

What do we mean by childhood trauma?

Academics and practitioners often disagree over definitions of childhood trauma, and about how common it is. Nevertheless there is general agreement that childhood trauma is caused by abuse that falls into three categories. These are: emotional abuse; physical abuse; and sexual abuse. Although sexual abuse has traditionally been considered the most damaging, recent research shows that all three types of abuse can have serious consequences and result in difficulties for the subject which may continue into, or arise in, adulthood.

What constitutes abuse?

There is no typical picture of abuse. Both boys and girls are at risk; the victim can be of any age; and the abuser is equally likely to be male or female.

  • Abuse may involve physical contact (beating, shaking, masturbation, sexual penetration) or no contact (starvation, humiliation, being photographed for pornographic purposes).
  • The abuser may be close to the child (a relative or a family friend) or a complete stranger.
  • Abuse might be limited to one episode or it might take place many times over an extended period.

There are many motives for abuse. These include:

  • Sexual gratification
  • The search for control and power
  • Curiosity

Some types of abuse might be innocent, or at least unintentional. Childhood typically involves lots of touching – tickling and teasing, for example – as the child explores its surroundings and its relationships with those around it, both family and friends; the overwhelming majority of this is both innocent and safe. We need to be careful not to become paranoid about our interactions with our children. On the other hand there are grey areas where it's not clear if the interaction is innocent or exploitative, and sometimes this doubt can undermine the young person and lead to trauma.


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