Abuse

Written by Bonnie Gifford

Bonnie Gifford

Counselling Directory Content Team

Senior writer

Last updated on 4th May, 2022

Stay safe: Read our information on how to cover your tracks online and browse the Internet privately.

There are many different types of abuse. Commonly known forms of abuse include domestic violence, child abuse, and emotional abuse. It’s important to know that any kind of behaviour that deliberately causes harm or upset can be considered abuse. 

What is abuse?

Abuse can happen at any stage in your life, from childhood through adulthood and during your latter years. Abuse can come in many different forms, from different people. Someone may use physical violence, the threat of violence, emotional manipulation, or cruel words to abuse you. All types of abuse can cause pain (physically or psychologically) that take time to heal.

Deliberately undertaking actions that are harmful, morally wrong, or are a form of misusing power to harm another person are all acts of abuse. It’s important to remember that no one ‘deserves’ or ‘asks’ to be abused. No matter how much you may be struggling, help is available. 


Types of abuse

There are many different types of abuse, that can present in different ways. Knowing what to look out for could help you to recognise worrying patterns or types of behaviour you or someone you love may be experiencing. 

Physical abuse

Deliberately harming or injuring someone else through physical contact, violence, or violent behaviour is called physical abuse. Anyone, of any age, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic class can be affected by physical abuse. This type of abuse typically comes from someone within your environment, such as a member of your family, a partner, or a friend.

Physical abuse can include any (or many) of the following:

  • biting
  • pushing, hitting or scratching
  • burning or scalding 
  • choking
  • sexual assault
  • throwing objects
  • kicking
  • hair pulling

The physical injury caused by physical abuse isn't the only impact for the victim. You may feel an ongoing sense of shame or guilt about what you have experienced, which can lead to hiding what is happening to you from others.

Many victims of physical abuse experience fear, which stops them from reaching out for help. Others may be unable to let others know what is happening due to other controlling behaviours, such as restricted access to their phones, little to no contact allowed with friends or family, or being forced to stay home. These can all lead to physical abuse remaining unreported.

Emotional abuse

Leaving no visible marks or injuries for others to see the signs of, emotional abuse (also referred to as mental abuse or psychological abuse) can be difficult to identify. Those experiencing emotional abuse may fear that others won't believe them without physical proof of their experiences or may try and downplay what they are experiencing by comparing it with other types of abuse that can leave lasting physical marks. 

Emotional abuse often allows the abuser to gain power over you by using demeaning words and gestures, or deliberately scaring, humiliating, or isolating you. Threats, intimidation criticism, and undermining actions can all fall under emotional abuse.

Generally, emotional abuse can be put into three categories.

  • Aggressive: This includes name-calling, blaming, accusing, making threats or using destructive criticism.
  • Denying: This could be through manipulation, neglect, or the withholding of affection. Gaslighting is one such covert form of emotional abuse.
  • Minimising: Thie could be belittling your feelings or thoughts, isolating you from friends, family, or support systems, or accusing you of exaggerating.

It’s important to remember that conflict, arguments and criticism are all healthy ways of interacting with others - but there is a clear difference between how these and emotional abuse make you feel.

Narcissistic abuse 

Narcissistic abuse is a type of abuse by someone who has narcissistic personality disorder. A type of emotional abuse, typically the abuser uses words and actions to manipulate the other person’s emotional state and behaviour. 

Anyone can be a victim of narcissistic abuse from a parent, friend, work colleague or family member. The abuse they inflict on their victims can be emotional, physical, financial and sexual.

- Emma Davey, BACP Counsellor, Counselling for narcissistic abuse

Sexual abuse

There are many different forms of sexual abuse. These include (but aren't limited to) actions like unwanted touching or photographing, to feeling or being pressured into sexual acts without your consent. This includes acts that you don’t want, don’t agree to, or don’t fully understand. Many victims who have been sexually abused know their abuser. Often, this could be a relative, friend or partner (past or present), but it could also be a stranger.

Anyone can be a victim of sexual abuse and nobody should feel pressured into doing something they do not want to do. Those who are sexually abused may begin to change their behaviour as a result of the trauma. While everyone will react differently, the effects of being abused sexually may include intense fear, panic attacks, low-self esteem, body pains or depression.

Working with an experienced counsellor after sexual violence is an important step in accepting the event and being able to move on with your life. A counsellor who has specific training in the impact of sexual abuse, dissociative identity disorder and rape crisis work, is in a really good position to understand your experience and support you to move on with your life.

- Counsellor Nicola Griffiths explains more in seeking counselling after sexual violence.

Domestic violence

Domestic violence (also known as domestic abuse) includes any threatening behaviour, physical violence, or abuse (physical or emotional) between two people who are in (or were previously in) a relationship. This includes family members, non-romantic relationships, and individuals of any sexuality or gender.

Abuse experienced as part of domestic violence can be of any type: psychological, sexual, emotional, physical or financial. In essence, it encompasses the attempt of one person within a relationship to control and maintain power over the other person.

Read more about domestic violence, including how to recognise the signs and move on from abuse.

Research has found that domestic abuse is more common in the UK than you’d like to think. According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly one in three women aged 16-59 will experience domestic abuse in their lifetime. Each week, two women in England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner. Between March 2020-21, police in England and Wales alone recorded 845,734 domestic abuse-related crimes, while domestic abuse helplines saw a 22% increase in use.  

Individual counselling may help you assess what to do about a violent relationship and learn what steps to take next. Specialist agencies and professionals are also available for help and support.

Your heart is precious so take care of it. You need to be valued and respected. You deserve to be heard. Domestic abuse shouldn't be something we should live with and be bullied into silence from our partners. It's your truth.

- Counsellor discusses her first-hand experience of moving on after domestic abuse.

Financial abuse

Financial abuse (also known ad economic abuse) often happens alongside other forms of abuse. The majority of abuse survivors will experience some form of financial abuse. This type of abuse is a form of coercive control, where someone tries to use or misuse money to limit or control their partner’s current and future actions, as well as their freedom of choice.

This could include:

  • using credit cards without permission
  • putting contractual obligations in your name (loan repayments or phone contracts that aren’t yours)
  • gambling using family assets
  • taking away money or other property
  • preventing or restricting you from making, using, or maintaining your own money 

Those who experience financial abuse may be left without money for basic essentials such as food, clothing, or shelter. Many who escape from an abusive situation continue to experience financial control, in the form of their abuser exerting control through child maintenance. 

Elder abuse

Elder abuse (also known as elder neglect) refers to the deliberate harm (physical, emotional, or financial), neglect, or exploitation of an elderly person.

Most often, elder abuse is committed by someone, such as family members, friends, carers, health care providers, who are charged with caring for an elderly person. It can take place at the elderly person’s home, in a care or nursing home, or at a family member’s house. Elder abuse can happen to elderly people of any gender. Those without other friends or family living nearby, with disabilities, dementia, or memory problems are more likely to experience elder abuse.


Child abuse

According to the NSPCC, we don't know exactly how many children in the UK experience child abuse, due to the hidden nature of this type of abuse. Many adults in a child’s life may not recognise the signs, the child may be too young, scared or ashamed to tell anyone what is happening, or may not realise that what they are experiencing isn’t normal. We do know that every year, thousands of children are abused physically by a parent or someone they know. 

Child abuse is characterised by any actions of a carer that could potentially harm a child’s mental or physical health. Research shows that many aggressors were abused themselves as children.

There are four main categories of child abuse. When anyone under the age of 18 is being deliberately harmed or not properly looked after, it is a form of child abuse. These can include (but aren’t limited to):

Physical child abuse

  • hitting, shaking, slapping, throwing, pushing, or kicking
  • burning or scalding
  • choking, drowning, or suffocating
  • restraining (inappropriately) or falsely imprisoning
  • misusing medication, inducing or making up an illness or ill health
  • using physical force to discipline

Emotional child abuse

  • being made to feel scared, in danger, inadequate, worthless or unloved
  • being unfairly blamed for things
  • seeing someone else being abused (eg domestic abuse)

Sexual child abuse

  • making or encouraging a child to watch or take part in sexual activities, behave in sexually inappropriate ways, look at sexual images or videos
  • involving a child in the production of sexual content (images or videos)
  • grooming a child online or in-person in preparation for abuse

Neglect

  • persistent failure to meet a child’s basic needs (food, clothing, shelter, supervision, medical care)
  • persistent failure to protect a child from physical and emotional harm
  • abandonment 

Some people live with the effects of an event that happened in their childhood, especially if they didn’t (or couldn’t) seek support when it happened. Childhood sexual abuse, for example, can have a huge impact on a person’s mental health and well-being. Talking about these issues with a professional can help you process past emotions and help to address issues of trust and anger that may resurface in later life.

If you're worried about a child, contact NSPCC’s helpline for advice and support.


How does abuse affect someone?

Abusive behaviour can have a significant impact on our mental health and well-being. This can happen not only at the time of the abuse, but there can be lasting effects throughout a person’s life. Research has shown that abuse (in childhood or adulthood) can be a significant factor in developing depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.

Survivors of abuse may find that they experience:

  • flashbacks
  • trust issues (with themselves and/or others)
  • long-lasting negative feelings
  • difficulty forming relationships
  • feelings of guilt or shame
  • low self-esteem
  • trouble feeling happy or finding happiness
  • trouble sleeping

Abuse can also lead to a number of other serious issues, including self-harm, substance abuse, eating disorders, and suicide. 

Why do people abuse?

The reasons why someone becomes an abuser can vary from person to person. Many abusive people believe their feelings and needs should be the priority, and they have a right to control or restrict their partner’s life. Others may enjoy exerting the power that enacting abuse gives them, while some may have difficulty handling their emotions and blame their problems on those around them.

Those who experienced abuse when growing up or who lived in a challenging family setting may have learned negative behaviours, however, it’s important to understand that past experiences do not excuse abusive behaviours. 

Abuse is a learned behaviour, that may have been seen through the individual’s childhood, from friends, or even from popular culture. However, it’s important to remember that abuse is a choice that no one has to make. Many people who experience or see abuse do not continue those hurtful behaviours or harmful patterns. Abusive behaviour is never justified. 


Recognising the signs of abuse

Abuse is an incredibly difficult and sensitive subject for anyone to deal with, regardless of the nature of the abuse or who the perpetrator is. If you’re worried about a loved one, spotting the signs is really important so that you can help them find the right support.

Keep in mind that people with care and support needs, such as older people or people with disabilities, are more likely to be abused or neglected. Often, they may be seen as an easy target and may also be less likely to identify abuse themselves or to report it.

Often, there is a history of abuse or violence in an abuser’s background. For instance, many abusers have often been victims themselves. But, regardless of the reasons, this does not excuse the behaviour. No one has the right to make another person feel frightened or worthless.

Abuse can surface slowly; it may not be immediately obvious. One of the main characteristics of an abusive relationship, though, is control - which can be achieved by force or manipulation. If you suspect that a relationship has become overly controlling, you start to see signs of coercive behaviour, or you notice that your loved one’s behaviour has changed, be there for them and help them find the right support.

What is coercive behaviour?

Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used by the abuser to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.

If you think your friend or family member is being abused, ask them about how they’re doing. The person may not be ready to open up to you or leave the relationship right now, but knowing that you are there to support them will be a comfort.

Taking the first steps toward seeking help can be tough – especially if you have tried speaking with someone before and haven’t had a response that has helped you. Mind share a guide to support options for abuse to help you make the next steps towards finding help.


How can counselling help?

Anyone who has experienced abuse, in any form, will require emotional support of some kind. But, everyone’s needs will vary. You may have a support network you can lean on but, equally, you may not feel comfortable speaking to loved ones about what has happened. Or maybe you have, but they aren't sure of how to help you.

Whatever your situation, it can be helpful to speak with a trained, accredited counsellor or therapist. A therapist provides an impartial, safe space to talk about your experiences, concerns, worries, and fears without judgement. Your therapist can listen to you, help you come to terms with what has happened, and understand your options for moving forward.

Through working with a therapist, you may start to see a way out and escape from a cycle of powerlessness. You deserve to be listened to with respect and without being judged if you choose to talk about your experiences.

Counselling can help in many ways, at whatever stage you are in your life. It can act as a support if you are in the process of leaving an abusive relationship and help to restore self-esteem and re-examine healthy ways of relating following abuse.

What should I be looking for in a therapist?

Currently, there are no official rules or regulations in place that stipulate what level of training an abuse counsellor needs. However, it is recommended that you check to see if your therapist is experienced in this area.

A Diploma level qualification (or equivalent) in abuse counselling or a related topic will provide assurance and peace of mind that your counsellor has developed the necessary skills.

Another way to assure they have undergone this type of specialist training is to check if they belong to a relevant professional organisation representing counsellors dealing with abuse.


Further help

Related topics

Search for a counsellor
Would you like to provide feedback on our content?
Tell us what you think

Please note we are unable to provide any personal advice via this feedback form. If you do require further information or advice, please search for a professional to contact them directly.

You appear to have an ad blocker enabled. This can cause issues with our spam prevention tool. If you experience problems, please try disabling the ad blocker until you have submitted the form.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA, the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Image

Find a therapist dealing with abuse

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals

Related Articles

More articles

Real Stories

More stories