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What Is Abuse?

Abuse means treating another person with violence, cruelty, hate, harm, or force. Abuse is never OK. No matter who’s doing it or where it happens. And it is never the fault of the person who is being abused.

With the right help and support, people can get out of abusive situations. There are adults who will help them be safe and stop the abuse. There is therapy and caring support to help them heal the emotional hurt that abuse can cause.

What Are the Different Kinds of Abuse?

It is called physical abuse when someone does things like hit, beat, shove, shake, or choke a person. This can leave marks or bruises. Physical abuse includes hitting with an object like a belt. Or throwing an object at someone to injure them. Or pushing into a person’s space to threaten or make them feel unsafe.

It is called emotional abuse when someone uses harsh or cruel words or treats the person with scorn. This can tear people down, or make them doubt their worth. Some abusers act mean or possessive. Some use fear or threats to control a person. Some try to shame a person for who they are. Some target people because of their looks, race, or because they identify as LGBTQ+. They might harass, use hate speech, or threaten harm. Emotional abuse can happen in person or online.

It is called sexual abuse when an adult (or much older teen) forces, pressures, or tricks a young person into sex acts of any kind. This includes sexual touching, grabbing, or kissing. It includes showing the young person private parts of their body, or asking to see theirs. It includes showing sexual or nude pictures, or asking them to pose for pictures like this. It includes giving money or gifts for doing sexual acts. Sexual abuse can happen in person or online.

It’s called grooming when an adult abuser tricks someone into trusting them, admiring them, or depending on them. They try to use this false sense of trust to trick someone into sexual abuse. This can happen in person or online. If you feel uncomfortable about the way someone is getting personal with you, talk it over with an adult you trust.

Sexual abuse might also be called sexual violence, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or rape.

If any of kind of abuse has happened to you, tell an adult you trust right away.

How Does Abuse Affect People?

Some abuse causes injuries that you can see, like bruises, cuts, or broken bones. Some injuries need medical care. Abuse also causes emotional hurt and deep stress that you can’t see. This deep emotional stress is called trauma.

The stress of abuse affects the way a person feels, thinks, and acts. It can make them feel scared and unsafe. They might feel sad, angry, or confused. Some feel ashamed, alone, or trapped. Some will mistakenly think abuse is their fault. Or that they did something to deserve it. Some may try to act like the abuse doesn’t bother them. They may try not to show the deep hurt.

For some, the stress of abuse can cause trouble with sleep, health, or eating. It can make it harder to focus in school. Or easier to get into fights.

For some people — but not all — abuse can lead to depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Some — but not all — may turn to alcohol, drugs, or self-harm to try to cope. But these ways of coping cause the person more harm than good. If the abuse happens at home, some people may try to escape it by leaving.

Not everyone who goes through abuse will be affected in these ways. Each person and each situation is different.

Why Is It Hard for Some People to Ask for Help?

Abuse can be hard to talk about. Some people don’t tell what they’re going through because they don’t know who to tell or what to say. Some abusers try to make a person think they deserve it, or somehow asked for it. An abuser might try to make them think they will be blamed, shamed, or not believed. Some abusers make threats about what would happen if the person tells.

Sometimes a person wants to protect their abuser. This can happen if the abuser is someone they care about — like a family member, partner, or someone else they know. Any of these things can make it harder for people to ask for help. But it doesn’t have to stop them.

What Should I Do if I'm Going Through Abuse?

If you are going though abuse, tell an adult you trust right away. If an adult is treating you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, but you’re not sure whether it is abuse, you can still talk it over with another adult you trust. Even if abuse happened to you before but isn’t happening now, you should tell someone about it.

Who Should I Tell?

The person you tell can be a parent, a grandparent, or caregiver. It can be a doctor or nurse. It can be a teacher, counselor, therapist, or coach. It can be a friend’s parent. If you don’t have an adult you can turn to, you can call or text 1-800-422-4453 to talk to someone at the Childhelp Hotline or visit their website. People are there to help, for free, 24 hours a day.

What Should I Say?

You can start by saying you need to talk, and that you need to tell them something. Or that you need their help. You might feel nervous or awkward at first. But don’t let that stop you. When the person is listening, just go ahead tell the truth about what has happened to you.

If the first person you talk to doesn’t help, tell someone else. Keep telling until an adult listens, believes what you say, and helps.

What Happens Next?

You or the adult you tell should call an abuse helpline to find out the right next steps to take. Helplines are open all the time, day and night, seven days a week. A caring expert at the helpline will guide you about what to do next. They will explain what they can do to help people just like you.

How Can People Get Over Abuse?

Even after abuse is over, the emotional hurt can take a while to heal. After going through a deeply stressful event, it’s normal to have a lot of thoughts and feelings about what happened. This is sometimes called a stress reaction.

If a stress reaction lasts for longer than a few months, or includes bad memories called flashbacks, it may be PTSD.

People can heal from the hurt that abuse has caused. They can start to feel better with the right help and support from others. And there are things people can do to help themselves too.

Here are some things you can do to start healing:

  • Get therapy. There is therapy to help people heal from the stress of abuse — whether they are dealing with a stress reaction, PTSD, depression, self-harm, or any other issue. Ask your doctor, school counselor, or helpline to help you find a therapist to work with. Go to all the therapy sessions. To get the most from your therapy, do the homework the therapist suggests. Learn and practice coping and self-care skills.
  • Be patient and kind toward yourself. It can take time to heal from the trauma of abuse. It happens a little at a time. You will see small steps of progress along the way. Don’t be hard on yourself when you’re going through a tough time. Instead, show yourself the same understanding you’d show a friend. Believe in yourself. Know that you have what it takes to move past what has happened to you.
  • Do small things daily to lift your emotions. Think of things that help you feel soothed, calm, uplifted, confident, empowered, or hopeful. Maybe it’s mindfulness, listening to music, watching a feel-good movie, being in nature, making art, reading, dancing, working out, helping others, or working toward a small goal. Try to do something to lift your mood for a short time each day. This helps to offset the effects of stress on your body and mind. You might not feel different right away — but it adds up.
  • Let others support you. It helps to have people who can be there for you. Find a family member, caring adult, or good friend to confide in. Let them know what it’s like for you and how you’re doing. They can listen when you want to talk. They can give comfort when you need it. You don’t always have to talk about it. Spending time together doing something fun or relaxing helps too. Be with people who believe in you, let you know you matter, and who bring out your best.
Medically reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2023