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There are many different types of abuse. While the more commonly known forms include domestic violence, child abuse and emotional abuse, any behaviour towards someone that causes deliberate harm or upset can be considered abuse.

Abusive behaviour can have a significant impact on our mental health and well-being - not only at the time of the abuse, but there can be lasting effects throughout a person’s life.

This page will explore the different types of abuse in more detail. We’ll look at the signs of abuse and how counselling can provide valuable support. We’ll also explore what you should look for in a counsellor or psychotherapist.

Types of abuse

Abuse can come in many forms. Make sure you're aware of what to look out for by recognising the following types of abuse.

Physical abuse

Physical abuse is causing intentional harm or injury to another person through violence or physical contact. Anyone can be affected by physical abuse. The abuser can be any person from within the victim’s environment including family members, partners or friends.

Physical abuse can include, but is not limited to:

  • pushing
  • scratching
  • burning
  • hitting
  • biting
  • choking
  • sexual assault
  • throwing objects

Physical injury is not the only impact from this type of abuse. Victims may feel shame and guilt over what is happening to them and therefore hide it from others. There is also a great deal of fear that can stop people from reaching out and, of course, sometimes the victims are unable to communicate what’s happening. Because of this, physical abuse can often go unreported.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is often difficult to identify as there are no visible marks or injuries left on the victim. This form of abuse often allows the abuser to gain power over the other through demeaning words and gestures.

Generally, emotional abuse can be put into three categories.

  • Aggressive: This can include name-calling, blaming, accusing, and making threats or destructive criticism.
  • Denying: This can include manipulation, neglecting, withholding affection.
  • Minimising: This can include belittling the victim’s feelings or thoughts, isolation or accusing them 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 this and emotional abuse: the way we feel.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse can range from unwanted touching or photographing, to being pressured to do a sexual act without consent. Many victims who have been abused sexually will know the abuser. They will often be a relative, friend or partner (past or present).

A common misconception is that men cannot be sexually abused: this is untrue. Anyone can be a victim of sexual abuse and nobody should feel pressured into doing something they do not want to do.

Sufferers of sexual abuse 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 and 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.

- Find out more about seeking counselling after sexual violence.

Domestic violence

Domestic violence describes any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between two people who are, or have been, in a relationship. It also covers family members, whatever their gender or sexuality. The abusive behaviour may be psychological, sexual, emotional, physical or financial. Its aim is to maintain power and control of one person over another.

For more information about domestic violence, including how to recognise the signs and move on from abuse, visit our fact-sheet.

Research has found that domestic abuse is, sadly, more common in the UK than you’d like to think. According to the Office for National Statistics, overall, 27.1% of women and 13.2% of men have experienced any type of domestic abuse since the age of 16.

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 Jill Mitev-Will discusses her first-hand experience of moving on after domestic abuse.

Child abuse

Statistics show 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.

The main areas of child abuse are as follows:

  • physical abuse
  • sexual abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • child labour/exploitation
  • neglect
  • 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, in particular, 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, even if you're unsure, contact NSPCC’s helpline for help, advice and support.

How can counselling help?

Anyone who has experienced abuse (in whichever 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 further.

Whatever your situation, it can be beneficial to seek help from a counsellor or therapist in order for you 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 offers you a safe space to talk, without fear and without judgement. Your therapist can listen to you, help you come to terms with what has happened, and understand your options for moving forward.

Counselling can help in many ways, at whatever stage you are with 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.

If you’re ready to take the next step, use our advanced search tool to find a counsellor near you.

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 you or to leave the relationship right now, but knowing that you are there to support them will be a comfort.

What should I be looking for in a counsellor or psychotherapist?

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.

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