Understanding Unintentional Abuse

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How would you define abuse? Would you only refer to physical or sexual abuse? Do you believe abuse can be difficult to identify or even “unintentional?” According to childhelp.org, 3 million reports of child abuse are made in the U.S. every year for about 6 million children. Even more, a report on child abuse is made every 10 seconds, while more than 4 children die each day due to abuse. As you can imagine, abuse is a very serious concern, yet extremely ignored.


Abuse can come in multiple forms, but I think there are four major types we should all be aware of:


1. Physical – characterized by physical harm or injury such as unexplainable bruising, scars, burns, or broken bones.


2. Emotional/psychological – characterized by belittling, name calling or verbal abuse, and yelling.


3. Sexual – characterized by sexual exploitation or violation.


4. Unintentional – including a well-meaning person who is primarily unemotionally available.

All abuse affects self-esteem, life perspective, academic success, motivation, self-efficacy, and even child and adult relationships. Unintentional abuse can be very difficult to identify because most people look for violent and intentional abuse. “Intentional abuse,” as I call it, occurs when the perpetrator intends to harm or intimidate another individual. “Unintentional abuse” occurs when the perpetrator does not intend to harm or intimidate someone else, but causes harm due to:

      • lack of knowledge
      • poor parenting skills
      • being emotionally unavailable or ignoring a child
      • refusing to offer emotional support or love
      • misplaced anger or blame
      • engaging in controlling behaviors
      • self-centeredness
      • being judgmental
      • responding negatively due to a bad day at work


For example, a mother may be extremely depressed, suffering from postpartum depression, after the birth of her third child. While trying to care for herself, the newborn, her other two children, and her husband, she may snip at her 4-year old to eat dinner on time and yell at her 8-year old to do his homework. This may have only started after the birth of the third child and occurs on a daily basis. Another example of “unintentional abuse” may be a husband coming home from his new job as an operations director of a big law firm. He may take his frustrations out on his children and wife daily by degrading them or using frequent profanity. In both cases, the parents are not intending to do harm, but because of their stress levels and frequency of the behavior, they are.

Why the term “unintentional” is controversial

Psychologists and mental health professionals argue over whether or not to use this term, how to use it, and when to use it. We lack a clear definition of the term and some people would rather not use it at all. While I agree the term and its definition are very vague, we could benefit from more research. The term is also controversial because it implies that the abuser is “off the hook” or should not be held responsible for his/her behavior. To call abuse “unintentional” almost places the abuse in a less severe category. Unintentional abuse is very problematic and perhaps even more detrimental than other types of abuse. In addition, un-intentional abuse may go overlooked because the kids are well taken care of, attend good schools, live in decent homes, and always have their immediate needs met. But what we fail to consider is that abuse can be very insidious and well hidden in many families.

Reporting abuse

We must keep in mind that abuse is abuse and it must be stopped. It is extremely detrimental to family stability, personality development, and overall child development. In fact, research suggests that kids who are abused often identify with what appears powerful, which tends to be the abuser. These victims go on to exhibit similar traits or engage in bullying behaviors as children and intimidation as adults.

We are protectors of our children and we should take that responsibility seriously. Whether a neighbor, friend, family member, teacher, or acquaintance, if you suspect abuse (intentional or unintentional) I encourage you to be watchful and consider reporting what you are witnessing. Sadly, a lot of people say “that is not my child; I do not know the situation, so I will act like I don’t see anything.” While this is understandable, a young life is depending on someone who cares. I would caution you, however, to be wise in “reporting” unintentional abuse or emotional abuse. This is very difficult to prove. Having a conversation with the unsuspecting person may be enough.

How parents can help themselves

The best way to protect yourself from becoming the perpetrator of unintentional abuse is to become sensitive to or aware of your emotional reactions, especially during stressful times in your life. It is wise to become aware of how often you engage in the above behaviors and the effects this behavior has on your loved ones. It is very normal to snip at family or friends under great stress every now and then, be emotionally unavailable, or unable to respond to your children. But it is not normal to engage in these behaviors on a frequent basis. Because “un-intentional abuse” can be difficult to spot, using stress management techniques during periods of great stress, pursuing therapy when behaviors become detrimental, engaging in self-awareness activities, and keeping an open dialogue with your children or family is extremely important.

I wish you well.

By Guest Blogger: Támara Hill, MS, LPC-BE

References:  Childhelp.org. (2013). National child abuse statistics. Child abuse in America. Retrieved October 24, 2013, from .

About Támara

Támara Hill, MS, LPC-BE, is a therapist working with children and adolescents suffering from behavioral and mood disorders. Although she has worked with trauma and autism spectrum disorders, she gleans most of her experience from working with parents, families, and caregivers within the mental health system. While working to help troubled kids utilize their strengths in the home, school, and community, she became well known for her interest in seeing change and motivation to speak on behalf of those in need. Speaking to families about severe mental illness encouraged Támara to write her first book Metal Health In A Failed American System: What Every Parent, Family, & Caregiver Should Know. Through this passion she was invited to speak on a variety of radio shows, nationally and internationally, and contribute to multiple articles, blogs, and commentaries regarding families, parents, and mental health. Támara continues to rely on what she calls her “divine calling” for inspiration and direction on where to contribute next. Connect with her at Anchored-In-Knowledge or Twitter. Find out about her upcoming book at Goodreads.com!

About Ginger

Working to improve the world one child at a time, Ginger has made it her life mission to raise awareness of the world-wide epidemic of child abuse. An impassioned child advocate, trainer, speaker and child forensic interviewer, Ginger can be contacted via her website “Ginger Kadlec: 4UrKids™” at gingerkadlec.com or find her on Facebook at facebook.com/gingergkadlec.

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