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What is abuse? What does it mean to be “abusive”?

Abuse is when one person hurts another person, either physically or emotionally. Abuse happens over time, usually in a cycle. It often continues until the person who is being abused gets help. Sometimes, someone else—a friend, family member—recognizes the abuse and jumps in to help.

Many times, abuse can be hard to recognize and understand. One of the reasons is that an abusive person may not always seem abusive. An abusive person might seem like a nice person a lot of the time, and they might say that they care or are in love. Abuse rarely stops all by itself, but there are ways to get help if you think you are being abused.

Different Types of Abuse

Physical abuse is when someone physically hurts another person. Hitting, slapping, punching, kicking, burning, hair-pulling, choking and cutting are some examples of physical abuse. Physical abuse can leave bruises, burns and other physical marks. A lot of times, someone who is being physically abused will hide their wounds with clothes, sunglasses, make up or in other ways.

Emotional abuse is when someone uses insults, criticisms and other hurtful words that make a person feel bad. People who are being emotionally abused might hear that they’re fat, ugly, stupid or worthless or will never amount to anything. Emotional abuse can be done in private, but it can also be done in front of other people.

Psychological abuse is the use of threats or other behaviors to scare someone and reduce their support system—the people and resources someone relies on for help and support. People who psychologically abuse others do so in an attempt to make a person lose touch with reality so the person becomes dependent on the abuser. The abuser might threaten to punish or harm the person, someone they care about or themselves in order to get them to do what they want. Other examples of psychological abuse are stalking or preventing a person from sleeping.

Sexual abuse is forcing someone to do something sexual against their will. Sexual abuse includes a lot of sexual behaviors—everything from fondling a person’s genitals and having sexual intercourse to forcing someone to watch porn or perform sex acts for money. Rape and incest are forms of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse can happen to both guys and girls.

Financial abuse is when someone uses money to control another person. If one person has more money than the other person in a relationship, he or she may withhold money or control what that money can buy in order to control their partner. For teens, it might be that one of the partners has a job and because they always pay for everything, the partner with money uses that power to pressure the other person into things like sex.

In the cycle of abuse, there can be a build-up of tension or stress before some kind of abusive incident happens. After the build-up, usually the abusive person does something abusive, whether it’s physical, emotional, sexual or another type of abuse. Then it gets a little more confusing because there’s usually a period of calm after the abuse. The abuser might apologize, swear it will never happen again or say that he or she will change. The abuser might bring the person who is being abused presents or be really nice to make up for the abuse. But usually the cycle just starts over again, and there will be more tension and more abuse.

Exposure to any kind of abuse for a long time can damage a person’s physical and emotional health. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the majority of people who have experienced abuse from a partner are females, most frequently with males doing the abusing. But abuse can happen to people of all sexes. Abuse also happens in all types of relationships—between partners of all sexes as well as between spouses, parent(s) and child(ren), and friends. Abuse can happen to people with little money and to people with lots of money. Abusive people can have college degrees or very little education. The same goes for people who are abused. Abuse can happen to people of all races, sexes, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic classes, abilities and sexual orientations.

It doesn’t really matter who the abuser or the abused is. Abuse is always wrong.

Here’s a list of “red flags” in a relationship. And for more examples of abuse, check out Teens Experiencing Abusive Relationships.

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