Child abuse refers to any form of physical, psychological, social, emotional or sexual maltreatment of a child whereby the survival, safety, self-esteem, growth and development of the child are endangered. There are four main types of child abuse: neglect, emotional, physical and sexual.

What is trauma in terms of child abuse?

Children can be exposed to a range of traumatic experiences. There are many different ways children can be affected. Complex trauma is exposure to multiple or prolonged traumatic events and the impact of this exposure on their development – it might include psychological maltreatment, neglect, physical and sexual abuse and domestic violence. 

What are the signs a child/young person has been or is being abused/maltreated?

A child who's being abused may feel guilty, ashamed or confused. He or she may be afraid to tell anyone about the abuse, especially if the abuser is a parent, other relative or family friend. In fact, the child may have an apparent fear of parents, adult caregivers or family friends. That's why it's vital to watch for red flags, such as:

  •  Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
  • Changes in behaviour — such as aggression, anger, hostility or hyperactivity — or changes in school performance
  • Depression, anxiety or unusual fears or a sudden loss of self-confidence
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Phantom illnesses, complaints of headaches and stomachaches
  • Frequent absences from school or reluctance to ride the school bus
  • Reluctance to leave school activities, as if he or she doesn't want to go home
  • Attempts at running away
  • Rebellious or defiant behaviour
  • Self harm/cutting
  • Attempts at suicide

Specific signs and symptoms depend on the type of abuse and can vary. Keep in mind that warning signs are just that — warning signs. The presence of warning signs doesn't necessarily mean that a child is being abused.

What do I do if I suspect a child has experienced or is experiencing maltreatment?

Report your suspicions.  Reporting child abuse can bring up a lot of difficult emotions and uncertainty. You may ask yourself if you're doing the right thing, or question if your voice will even be heard. Here are some tips for communicating effectively in difficult situations:

  • Try to be as specific as you can. For example, instead of saying, "The parents are not dressing their children right," say something like, "I saw the child running outside three times last week in subzero weather without a jacket or hat. I saw him shivering and uncomfortable. He seemed to want to come inside." However, remember that it is not your job to "prove" abuse or neglect. If suspicions are all you have, you should report those as well.
  • Understand that you may not learn of the outcome. Due to confidentiality laws, unless you are a mandated reporter in an official capacity, you probably won't be updated about the results of the investigation. 
  • If you see future incidences, continue to call and report them. Each child abuse report is a snapshot of what is going on in the family. The more information that you can provide, the better the chance of getting the best care for the child.

What do I say and do if a child/young person talks to me about their maltreatment?

It’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed and confused in this situation. Child abuse is a difficult subject that can be hard to accept and even harder to talk about. Just remember, you can make a tremendous difference in the life of an abused child/young person, especially if you take steps to stop the abuse early. When talking with an abused child, the best thing you can provide is calm reassurance and unconditional support. Let your actions speak for you if you’re having trouble finding the words. Remember that talking about the abuse may be very difficult for the child. It’s your job to reassure the child and provide whatever help you can.

Tips for talking to an abused child:

  • Avoid denial and remain calm.
  • Don’t interrogate. 
  • Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong and that you believe them. 
  • Reassure him or her that you take what is said seriously, and that it is not their fault.
  • Let them know that you will get help.

Who is at risk for maltreatment?

Child abuse / maltreatment has no boundaries.  It crosses all ages, cultures, genders, educational and  socioeconomic backgrounds.  No one is immune to the impact of trauma.  Every child/young person could be at risk for maltreatment.  An offender could be anyone; young, old, family, friend, trusted adult or stranger.  


A method used by offenders that involves building trust with a child/youth and the adults around a child in an effort to gain access to and time alone with that child/youth.

Offenders ‘groom’ their victims and their families in an effort to manipulate the perceptions of adults around the child, manipulate the child into becoming a cooperative participant and gain their trust, reduce the likelihood of the child being believed if they disclose, and reduce the likelihood of the abuse being detected.

What is Toxic Stress?

Toxic stress refers to hormones that a child/young person’s body secretes as it responds to strong, frequent, or prolonged traumatic events in the absence of the buffering protection of a supportive, adult relationship. The biological response to this toxic stress can be incredibly destructive and last a lifetime.

Toxic stress is a term used to describe the kinds of experiences, particularly in childhood, that can affect brain architecture and brain chemistry that can lead to negative outcomes in adulthood. They typically are experiences that are bad for an individual during development such as severe abuse.

Are younger children more likely to avoid trauma effects because they won’t remember?

We know that children under the age of 1-year can “remember” trauma, although they usually first remember it in their bodies instead of in their minds.  Often the perceptual memory of the trauma is experienced in response to a visual perception, a noise, or a smell. There are striking similarities in the development of young children’s ability to recall traumatic and non-traumatic events. Events experienced before the age of about 18 months do not seem to be verbally accessible; events experienced between about 18 months and 2.5–3 years are reported in fragmentary fashion and seem to be prone to increasing error over time. From about age 3 years on, children can give reasonably coherent accounts of their past experiences and can retain these memories over long durations.  Trauma that occurs in the early years of a child’s life may not be ‘remembered’, but, could have negative developmental effects. 

What are the consequences of trauma?

The long-term impact of child abuse and maltreatment are far-reaching; some studies indicate that without the right support, the effects of childhood abuse can last a lifetime. A number of studies have explored the relationship between childhood trauma and later health concerns and have found that childhood abuse contributes to the likelihood of depression, anxiety disorders, addictions, personality disorders, eating disorders, sexual disorders and suicidal behaviour. Adults with abuse histories also present with physical problems more frequently than those who have not experienced maltreatment.

Can the brain be repaired after being damaged from trauma?

Recent developments in the field of neuroplasticity prove how your brain is hardwired and genetically designed to heal, change and rewire itself after all kinds of trauma. Research explains how your brain’s development  can be negatively affected as a result of trauma, but research also illustrates how through mindful, healthy and supportive relationships, the original negative impact can be halted, improved and repaired.   

What is trauma informed care?

Trauma Informed Care is an organizational structure and treatment framework that involves understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma. Trauma Informed Care also emphasizes physical, psychological and emotional safety for both consumers and providers, and helps survivors rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. Becoming “trauma-informed” means recognizing that people often have many different types of trauma in their lives. People who have been traumatized need support and understanding from those around them. 

How do I talk to my kids about personal safety?

Children are our most precious resource, but they often lack the skills to protect themselves. It is our responsibility, as parents and teachers, to safeguard children and to teach them the skills to be safe. As a parent, you should take an active interest in your children and listen to them.  Talk with your children about the privacy of their bodies, and teach your children that they can be assertive in order to protect themselves against abduction and exploitation.  Empower them to say no.  Most importantly, make your home a place of trust and support that fulfills your child’s needs. Together we can protect our children by teaching them to be smart, strong, and safe.

Where does someone go for help?

If you suspect child abuse / maltreatment, or if you are a child needing help, there are agencies who are able to help immediately. 

  • If you suspect child abuse / maltreatment, or if you are a child needing help, there are agencies who are able to help immediately. 
  • Your nearest/local Child welfare agency
  • Kid’s Help Line/Jeunesse, J’écoute (1-800-668-6868)