Insights on Canadian Society
Childhood physical abuse: Differences by birth cohort

by Darcy Hango

Release date: September 20, 2017 Correction date: (if required)

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Overview of the study

This study uses self-reported data from the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on Victimization to examine trends in and characteristics of childhood physical abuse over time. Respondents are grouped into one of three birth cohorts: (1) 1940 to 1959; (2) 1960 to 1979; or (3) 1980 to 1999. For each cohort, this article also explores the relationship to the person responsible for the most serious incident of abuse during childhood as well as the probability that it was disclosed to someone. This article also examines the association between childhood physical abuse and various indicators of social integration and trust, health and victimization during young adulthood.

  • Among Canadian adults born between 1940 and 1979, about one in five reported that they experienced physical abuse during their childhood years. This proportion declined to 13% for those who were born between 1980 and 1999.

  • Some characteristics are more likely to be associated with childhood abuse, such as being male, having an Aboriginal identity, and having been under the legal responsibility of the government at some point during childhood.

  • The proportion of those who talked to someone about the abuse increased across successive cohorts. In the most recent birth cohort, females who experienced childhood physical abuse remained more likely to disclose the abuse (48%) than males (40%).

  • Among all individuals aged 15 to 74 who frequently witnessed parental violence, 70% reported that they also experienced childhood physical abuse. Among those who were sexually abused, nearly half (46%) also experienced childhood physical abuse.

  • Childhood physical abuse is associated with lower levels of social integration, trust, and physical and mental health among young adults. For example, 31% of persons aged 15 to 34 who experienced very severe physical abuse had a psychological or health condition that at least sometimes limited their daily activities, compared with 6% of those who did not experience any physical abuse.

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Introduction

Over the past century, society has changed substantially and, in turn, the way adults and children interact has undergone a massive transformation. Laws have changed alongside these societal adaptations resulting in changes to the way adults—parents, school officials and other authority figures alike—treat children. It follows that people’s perception of their childhood experiences might also have changed over time.  

This paper examines trends in childhood physical abuse (CPA) by birth cohort. Although some recent Canadian research has examined trends in childhood sexual abuse (CSA) by birth cohort and while CPA and CSA are highly correlated, they remain distinct childhood traumatic events and may have different risk factors and characteristics across time.Note 1 This past research found a decline in CSA rates across birth cohorts. Similar to earlier work on CSA, this paper also observes different levels of childhood physical abuse (CPA) depending on the era in which individuals were born and spent their childhood years.

The 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization) is a useful source of data to examine trends in CPA across birth cohort. Ideally, a longitudinal design would be used; however, they are not as common.Note 2 In the absence of such longitudinal data, one alternative is to conduct a study using a retrospective design—a cross-sectional survey that asks adult respondents about childhood experiences.

This paper is divided in two parts. The first part focuses on differences by birth cohort. The concept of childhood physical abuse is examined across birth cohort, initially in terms of frequency of abuse and type of abuse. Following that analysis, the pertinent characteristics associated with childhood physical abuse are studied separately by birth cohort. The relationship of the adult responsible for the most severe incident of childhood physical abuse and whether the abuse was disclosed rounds out the analysis by birth cohort.

In the second part, additional analyses on childhood physical abuse examine the relationship that childhood physical abuse has with other measures of childhood victimization/maltreatment, namely childhood sexual abuse and witnessing parental violence. Lastly, for the youngest age cohort—those aged 15 to 34 in 2014, or born between 1980 and 1999—the implications of childhood physical abuse are explored on a range of adult outcomes involving social integration and trust, physical and mental health, and adult victimization.

A birth cohort approach to analyze childhood physical abuse

During the past 75 years, Canadian society and its families have undergone tremendous changes,Note 3 and issues such as childhood physical abuse are likely to have changed in frequency and intensity. The 2014 GSS contains a sample that spans the ages of 15 to 98 (those born between 1916 and 1999). For this analysis, the age range is capped at 74Note 4 (i.e. those born before 1940 are excluded) due to potential recall bias associated with reporting childhood events such as physical abuse. Moreover, in surveys using a retrospective design, it is only possible to interview survivors, which becomes especially important if the surviving members of older cohorts are less representative than survivors of younger cohorts.Note 5 The following three birth cohorts were created to examine trends in childhood physical abuse across relatively meaningful and homogenous periods: (1) 1940 to 1959; (2) 1960 to 1979; and (3) 1980 to 1999.Note 6

The 2014 GSS has relatively few retrospective indicators that can be used to measure childhood experiences. Nonetheless, in this study, several measures that describe the respondent and which are related to childhood experiences are included. The first measures are sex and Aboriginal self‑identification. Sex is important to consider in any issue related to childhood, especially those related to childhood events such as abuse.Note 7 Aboriginal identity is important to consider because, on average, Aboriginal children in Canada face many different challenges compared with their non‑Aboriginal counterparts—from poorer labour market integration and higher rates of living in single-parent homes and foster care to an increased risk of violent attacks and exposure to unhealthy environments.Note 8

Similarly, an important measure of quality and stability in a child’s life is included, namely, whether they were ever under the legal responsibility of the government at any point in their childhood. The issue of childhood physical abuse and having ever been under the legal responsibility of the government is complicated without knowing which of these two events came first. For example, was the child removed from the home because of the abuse or did the abuse occur once the child was in foster care? A lack of custody stability in a child’s life may also be associated with abuse. Hence, this paper interprets the results as associations, and not as cause and effect relationships.

Geographic residence at birth and potential international mobility during childhood can be used to possibly serve as a proxy for conditions present in one’s surrounding area around the time of birth as well as to account for unmeasured familial stress. Some sources have suggested that there is a link between adverse childhood experiences (such as child abuse) and residential mobility.Note 9 The respondent’s province/region of birth is included in this study. This measure takes whether the respondent was born outside Canada into account, and, if so, the age at which they immigrated. It is split by birth to age 6 and age 7 to 15 to account for stress and upheaval at different points in a child’s life. Age at immigration matters for a host of outcomes, including the stress associated with becoming accustomed to a new country, integration and eventual educational attainment.Note 10 Lastly, mother tongue, or first language spoken, is included as an additional background measure.

Two additional measures are included to tap into parental resources and one’s family situation during childhood: parents’ country of birth and level of education. With respect to country of birth, information is combined from both parents to include a measure indicating whether both parents were born in Canada, only one parent was born in Canada, or both parents were born outside Canada. Parental education is included as a potential proxy, in the absence of other socioeconomic information, for different parenting styles or practices. For example, parental education has been used to explain variations in caring for children as an indicator of potential stress and anxiety with respect to resources, and as a proxy for higher socioeconomic status.Note 11 In this paper, mother’s and father’s education are combined and coded ranging from both having less than a high school diploma to at least one having a university degree. A category indicating that the respondent did not know the education level of either parent is included. A lack of information about parental education level might indicate the absence of a parent in the household or perhaps a poor relationship with that parent.Note 12

Given the changes across society, especially those associated with families and children,Note 13 and the fact that previous work has shown a decline in childhood sexual abuse,Note 14 it is important to examine whether a similar decline was observed for childhood physical abuse and also to explore pertinent characteristics of physical abuse across different time periods.

Prevalence of childhood physical abuse is lower for the youngest cohort

Using self-reported information on frequency and type of assault, this report considers past research in Canada when defining childhood physical abuse (CPA) and severe childhood physical abuse.Note 15 This earlier work incorporated information from literature reviews, expert consultations (such as with child welfare workers) and qualitative interviews with adolescents in determining its minimum threshold for abuse.

In this paper, CPA is deemed to be present if one or more of the following three variables meet the following minimum cut-offs. “Before age 15, did an adult…”: (1) slap you on the face, head or ears or hit you with something hard enough to hurt 3 times or more; (2) push, grab, shove, or throw something at you hard enough to hurt 3 times or more; and (3) kick, bite, punch, choke, burn, or physically attack 1 time or more. “Severe” CPA adds a more stringent cut-off and increases the number of times that (1) and (2) occurred to at least 11 times. The cut-off for (3) remains at 1 time or moreNote 16 (see the Data sources, methods and definitions section).

Hence, for example, respondents who had been slapped on the face, head or ears, or hit with something hard enough to hurt them at least 3 times in their childhood (even if none of the other abusive events occurred) are defined in this study as having experienced “any CPA”. If the frequency of this type of abuse had been at least 11 times (even in the absence of other types of abuse), then the respondent falls under the “severe CPA” category. However, in those instances when at least one incident of being kicked, punched, choked or burned occurred in childhood, the respondent also falls under the “severe CPA” category (and by default also within any CPA).Note 17

In line with past research,Note 18 the current findings suggest that the incidence of childhood physical abuse (CPA) has declined for the most recent cohort. The rate of childhood physical abuse was 19% for those born between 1940 and 1959, and 21% for those born between 1960 and 1979 (Chart 1) before it fell by almost 8 percentage points to 13% for the most recent birth cohort. A similar pattern is noted for those who experienced severe childhood physical abuse: the rate varied between 13% and 14% for the first two cohorts, but declined to 8% for the most recent birth cohort (Chart 2).Note 19 An important question to address is whether the risk associated with experiencing childhood physical abuse was distributed evenly across population subgroups in each birth cohort.

Chart 1 Prevalence of childhood physical abuse, by birth cohort, 2014

Data table for Chart 1
Chart 1
Prevalence of childhood physical abuse, by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Prevalence of childhood physical abuse Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Any childhood physical abuse 19.3 20.9 13.3
Slapped/hit at least 3 to 5 times 15.4 17.1 10.9
Pushed/grabbed/shoved at least 3 to 5 times 10.0 10.0 6.7
Kicked/punched/choked at least 1 to 2 times 8.5 9.2 5.4

Chart 2 Prevalence of severe childhood physical abuse, by birth cohort, 2014

Data table for Chart 2
Chart 2
Prevalence of severe childhood physical abuse, by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Prevalence of severe childhood physical abuse Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Any severe childhood physical abuse 12.8 14.3 7.9
Slapped/hit at least 11 times 7.8 8.8 4.6
Pushed/grabbed/shoved at least 11 times 4.9 5.3 2.7
Kicked/punched/choked at least 1 to 2 times 8.5 9.2 5.4

The characteristics of childhood physical abuse are not always similar across birth cohortsNote 20

Higher rates of childhood physical abuse among males

Males typically report higher rates of childhood physical abuse than females.Note 21 This study is no exception. Across all three birth cohorts and regardless of severity, males were more likely than females to have experienced childhood physical abuse (tables 1 and 2)Note 22 . The rates for males have declined across birth cohort, which in turn has fueled the decline in the gender difference across birth cohorts. Among those who were born between 1940 and 1959, for example, 25% of males experienced CPA—11 percentage points higher than for females, while the difference for males and females born between 1980 and 1999 was less than 3 percentage points. The CPA rate for females has remained relatively constant over birth cohorts.

Table 1
Prevalence of childhood physical abuse across sociodemographic characteristics, by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Prevalence of childhood physical abuse across sociodemographic characteristics Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Sex
Male (ref.) 25.2 24.5 14.5
Female 13.8Note ** 17.0Note ** 11.9Note *
Aboriginal identity
No (ref.) 19.0 20.0 12.9
Yes 30.6Note ** 37.4Note ** 20.9Note *
Ever under the legal responsibility of the government as a child
No (ref.) 18.7 20.2 12.7
Yes 44.7Note ** 42.8Note ** 40.5Note **
Respondent's province/region of birth
Atlantic provinces 17.6Note ** 20.9 9.6Note **
Quebec 15.5Note ** 19.9 12.8
Ontario 20.3Note ** 21.0 11.6Note *
Manitoba/Saskatchewan 18.3Note ** 22.9 13.1
Alberta/British Columbia 26.1 22.1 15.9
Immigrated to Canada between birth and age 6 (ref.) 24.9 24.2 18.2
Immigrated to Canada between age 7 and 15 18.5Note * 28.8 15.0
Immigrated to Canada after age 15 19.4Note ** 17.7Note * 12.7
Parents' country of birth
Both parents were born in Canada 18.5 20.7 12.2Note **
One parent was born in Canada 23.2Table 1 Note  21.0 11.6Note *
Neither parent was born in Canada (ref.) 19.7 20.8 15.8
Parents' highest level of education
Both parents have less than a high school diploma 21.3 23.8Note * 20.5Note **
At least one parent has a high school diploma 19.8 19.1 16.1Note **
At least one parent has a non-university diploma or certificate 18.2 22.8Table 1 Note  12.7
At least one parent has a university degree (ref.) 20.7 20.0 11.4
Do not know the education level of either parent 13.2Note ** 15.5Note * 12.1
First language of respondent
English 21.2 21.8Table 1 Note  13.5
French 15.3Note * 19.7 12.0
Other (ref.) 18.9 19.3 13.5
Total, grand mean 19.3 20.7 13.2
Table 2
Prevalence of severe childhood physical abuse across sociodemographic characteristics, by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Prevalence of severe childhood physical abuse across sociodemographic characteristics Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Sex
Male (ref.) 16.4 16.6 9.1
Female 9.4Note ** 11.6Note ** 6.1Note **
Aboriginal identity
No (ref.) 12.4 13.8 7.4
Yes 22.9Note ** 23.7Note ** 13.9Note *
Ever under the legal responsibility of the government as a child
No (ref.) 12.2 13.5 7.2
Yes 36.7Note ** 39.0Note ** 33.5Note **
Respondent's province/region of birth
Atlantic provinces 11.3Note ** 14.2 4.1Note **
Quebec 10.6Note ** 13.3 7.7
Ontario 13.3Note * 14.4 6.5Note *
Manitoba/Saskatchewan 11.1Note ** 14.8 6.9Table 2 Note 
Alberta/British Columbia 16.7 14.5 10.0
Immigrated to Canada between birth and age 6 (ref.) 18.1 16.8 9.0
Immigrated to Canada between age 7 and 15 13.2 21.3 8.3
Immigrated to Canada after age 15 13.0Table 2 Note  12.4 8.8
Parents' country of birth
Both parents were born in Canada 12.0 13.8 7.1†
One parent was born in Canada 16.1 14.0 7.0
Neither parent was born in Canada (ref.) 13.4 14.6 9.1
Parents' highest level of education
Both parents have less than a high school diploma 14.7 17.5Note ** 13.1Note **
At least one parent has a high school diploma 12.0 13.0 8.6Table 2 Note 
At least one parent has a non-university diploma or certificate 12.0 15.0Table 2 Note  7.8
At least one parent has a university degree (ref.) 13.2 12.3 6.4
Do not know the education level of either parent 9.1Note * 11.5 7.4
First language of respondent
English 13.6 14.8 8.0
French 10.3Note * 13.0 7.0
Other (ref.) 13.4 13.5 7.4
Total, grand mean 12.7 14.1 7.1

Decrease in childhood physical abuse among the Aboriginal population

Past work finds that the Aboriginal population experiences higher rates of victimization and family violence but the differences with the non‑Aboriginal population were more pronounced for those born before 1984 than for those born between 1985 and 1999.Note 23 The CPA rate is highest for Aboriginal children born between 1960 and 1979—close to 40%—which is almost twice that of the non-Aboriginal population born during the same period. In this same birth period, 24% of the Aboriginal population experienced severe CPA, while the rate was significantly lower for the non‑Aboriginal population at 14%. However, for the 1980-to-1999 birth cohort, for Aboriginal children the rate for any type of childhood physical abuse dropped to 21%; for severe forms of childhood physical abuse the rate dropped to 14%.Note 24

The Aboriginal population has a greater likelihood than the non‑Aboriginal population to have spent some time as a child under the legal responsibility of the government. The Aboriginal population also has a greater likelihood of victimization while under the legal responsibility of the government than the non‑Aboriginal population.Note 25 During the period covered in this study (i.e., for those born between 1940 and 1999), a large number of Aboriginal children attended the residential school system which existed in Canada from 1830 to the mid‑1990s.Note 26 However, since the GSS did not collect information on the type of government care, it is not possible to separate residential schools from other forms of government-assisted care such as foster care. Links between the Aboriginal population, childhood abuse and the effects of the residential school system cannot be addressed directly with these data.

There is a strong association, however, between spending some time in childhood under the legal responsibility of the government and the risk of childhood physical abuse. It is not possible to determine if the child was removed from an abusive home or whether the abuse happened elsewhere, or in a foster home, for example. Nonetheless, across all birth cohorts those who ever spent some time under the legal responsibility of the government were twice as likely to also have experienced physical abuse before the age of 15. With respect to the most severe kinds of abuse, the rate approaches 40% for those born before 1980, while it is over 30% for the most recent birth cohort.

Other factors are also associated with childhood physical abuse

Four additional measures can be used to tap into childhood circumstances involving both potential instability (in terms of immigration-related mobility during childhood) and parents’ socioeconomic status.

This study’s results indicate that there is little variation between place of birth and childhood physical abuse. Interestingly, those who were born between 1940 and 1959 and immigrated between birth and the age of 6 had significantly higher rates of childhood physical abuse than any Canadian province of birth other than Alberta/British Columbia. Fewer geographical differences were seen for the two most recent birth cohorts.

With respect to parents’ country of birth, the most significant variation in terms of childhood physical abuse is found in the youngest birth cohort (1980 to 1999). Individuals born during this period with at least one parent born in Canada had a significantly lower rate of childhood physical abuse than those whose parents were both born outside Canada. The effect remains for severe physical abuse and also in multivariate models that control for a wide range of other factors. Among those born prior to 1980, parents’ country of birth appears to have less of an impact on the risk of CPA.

Parental education may serve as a proxy for several factors in childhood, most notably, parental socioeconomic status and childrearing practices.Note 27 Compared with the highest category of parental education, those in the youngest cohort with parents who had a high school diploma or less education were more likely to have experienced childhood physical abuse—between 16% and 21%, compared with 11% for those in the highest education category. This relationship is also observed among those who experienced the most severe forms of abuse as well as for those born between 1960 and 1979. Moreover, a consistent finding for those born before 1980 is that not knowing the education level of both parents leads to a lower level of childhood physical abuse, compared with those who had at least one parent with a university degree. This result could indicate that a person was raised by someone other than their parents, or that a person had a less intimate relationship with their parents and thus never learned about their highest level of completed education. Earlier birth cohorts had much higher rates of not knowing their parents’ level of educationNote 28 : the proportions of those who did not have this information were 17%, 9% and 5% for the 1940-to-1959, 1960-to-1979 and 1980-to-1999 birth cohorts, respectively.Note 29

Lastly, mother tongue appears to have a weak effect on the probability of having experienced childhood physical abuse. There is some indication that those whose first language was French had lower rates of CPA, including severe CPA, but only among the oldest cohort. Those whose first language was English had the highest rates of CPA, a finding that only comes forth in the multivariate analyses.Note 30  

Parents are the family members most responsible for childhood physical abuse

Knowing the identity of the individual who perpetrated child abuse is important as it can help align policy for better targeting of programs aimed at preventing abuse. For all cohorts, parents are responsible for the disproportionate share of physical abuse that occurred in childhood.Note 31 Given the role of families and the physical and emotional proximity of parents to their children,Note 32 it is perhaps not surprising that parents are the family members most responsible for physical abuse in childhood. The results presented in this section are also based on self-reported data.

Across all birth cohorts, the father was responsible for over 30% of the most serious incidents of abuse. The rate is highest for those born between 1940 and 1959—at over 40%—and drops to 34% for the most recent cohort. On the other hand, the proportion that said their mother was responsible for the most serious incident has increased: it was 21% for those born prior to 1980 and close to 30% for those born after 1980 (Chart 3).

Chart 3 Relationship of victims of childhood physical abuse to the person responsible for the most serious incident of physical assault prior to age 15, by birth cohort, 2014

Data table for Chart 3
Data table for Chart 3
Relationship of victims of childhood physical abuse to the person responsible for the most serious incident of physical assault prior to age 15,Data table Note 1 by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Relationship of victims of childhood physical abuse to the person responsible for the most serious incident of physical assault prior to age 15. The information is grouped by Relation (appearing as row headers), Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Relation Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Stranger 4.8 5.5 7.2
Neighbour/acquaintance/other 5.1 7.5 5.8
Authority figure (teacher, professor, tutor, nanny, babysitter) 14.5 8.1 4.6
Peer (boyfriend/girlfriend, friend, classmate) 3.7 4.4 3.4
Other family, including grandparents 3.5 5.6 6.7
Sibling 3.9 3.9 3.6
Step-parent 2.7 4.0 7.3
Mother 21.1 21.9 27.8
Father 40.7 39.2 33.7

This relationship can be explored further by looking at the sex of the respondent, because, during childhood, boys and girls may experience abuse differently depending on the abuser.Note 33,Note 34 For the two earliest birth cohorts, the highest rates of physical abuse are at the hands of the father. For example, for those born between 1940 and 1959, about 40% of both males and females said that it was their father who was responsible for the most serious incident of physical abuse before the age of 15 (Chart 4). Females were more likely than males to be physically abused by their mother.

Chart 4 Relationship of male and female victims of childhood physical abuse to the parent responsible for the most serious incident of physical assault prior to age 15, by birth cohort, 2014

Data table for Chart 4
Data table for Chart 4
Relationship of male and female victims of childhood physical abuse to the parent responsible for the most serious incident of physical assault prior to age 15,Data table Note 1 by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Relationship of male and female victims of childhood physical abuse to the parent responsible for the most serious incident of physical assault prior to age 15 Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Male, Father 40.1 39.8 33.9
Male, Mother 14.3 16.0 22.2
Female, Father 41.7 38.2 33.4
Female, Mother 32.4 30.6 34.8

The rate of childhood physical abuse where the mother was responsible increased for the most recent cohort. For females in that cohort, the rates of childhood physical abuse at the hands of the mother and father were virtually identical: for males in the same cohort, the proportion of those who said that their mother perpetrated the most serious incident was 22%—up from 16% for males born between 1960 and 1979. One possible explanation for this trend could be the increase in the number of lone-parent families, which are more likely to be headed by women.Note 35

Two other trends are worthy of attention. First, and perhaps not surprisingly given the rise in divorce rates,Note 36 blended families and step-parenthood, the rates of abuse where the main abuser was a step-parent have increased over time. In fact, the rate for the 1980-to-1999 birth cohort was more than double the rate for the 1940-to-1959 cohort.Note 37

The other notable trend is that the rates of abuse at the hands of an authority figure have fallen over successive birth cohorts. Authority figures in this study include teachers, professors, tutors, nannies and babysitters.Note 38 About 15% of those born between 1940 and 1959 said that one of these authority figures was responsible for the most serious incident of physical abuse during childhood. The rate dropped to 8% for the 1960-to-1979 birth cohort and fell further to 5% for the 1980-to-1999 birth cohort. It is difficult to determine exactly why these rates have fallen. Possible reasons for the decline may include societal awareness, an increase in support services to get help, and the diminishing role of corporal punishment within the school system.Note 39

To what extent are victims of childhood physical abuse talking to anyone about the abuse?

Past work suggests that disclosing childhood physical abuse varies by severity and frequency of the abuse. Those who were victims of the most severe types of abuse and who experienced a higher number of incidents were more likely to say that they had discussed the abuse with someone.Note 40 However, what is less known is whether victims born in more recent birth cohorts are more likely to have spoken with someone than victims born in previous cohorts.

In general, the proportion of those who talked to someone about the abuse increased. That was the case, by about 17 percentage points, between the 1940-to-1959 and the 1980-to-1999 birth cohorts (Chart 5). The rate of increase is similar across all categories, with at least a 10 percentage point increase observed across each of the groups (except for professionals).Note 41 Disclosing physical abuse to a family member appears to be most common, regardless of birth cohort: 19% of victims of abuse who were born between 1940 and 1959 said they had talked to a family member, which increased to 24% for those born between 1960 and 1979, and to 30% for those born between 1980 and 1999. Discussing abuse with professionals, including the police and child services, likely involves the most serious and frequent child physical abuse, which are the least common.Note 42 However, the proportion of those who reported the abuse to police or child protection services increased, particularly between the 1960 to 1979 and the 1980 to 1999 cohort.

Chart 5 Percentage of victims of childhood physical abuse who talked to anyone about the abuse, by birth cohort, 2014

Data table for Chart 5
Data table for Chart 5
Percentage of victims of childhood physical abuse who talked to anyone about the abuse, by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of victims of childhood physical abuse who talked to anyone about the abuse Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Anyone 27.2 35.5 43.7
Police/child protection services 4.6 7.5 15.4
Family member 19.1 23.9 29.8
Friend/neighbour 7.0 12.9 18.5
Professional 4.6 5.5 8.4

Just as childhood physical abuse rates vary by gender, so too does the likelihood that abuse will be disclosed. Earlier results showed that males have significantly higher rates of childhood abuse than females across all birth cohorts, yet males are less likely to disclose their abuse (Chart 6). This gap decreased slightly for the most recent cohort, but is still 8 percentage points higher for females than males (48% versus 40%).

Chart 6 Percentage of male and female victims of childhood physical abuse who talked to anyone about the abuse, by birth cohort, 2014

Data table for Chart 6
Data table for Chart 6
Percentage of male and female victims of childhood physical abuse who talked to anyone about the abuse, by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Percentage of male and female victims of childhood physical abuse who talked to anyone about the abuse Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Male 22.5 32.1 39.8
Female 35.0 40.4 48.4

In this analysis, abuse that victims discussed with other people may also include sexual abuse, which is more frequently experienced by females.Note 43 As such, this inclusion could be driving the gender gap results observed in Chart 6. However, supplementary analyses shows that when data were restricted to include those who reported physical abuse only, females were still more likely than males to have disclosed the abuse to someone.

Childhood physical abuse is associated with other types of violence

Childhood physical abuse might not occur on its own—it often co‑occurs with other types of violence, such as sexual abuse and witnessing parental violence.Note 44 Child protection research often includes physical and/or sexual abuse as well as exposure to parental violence as indicators of childhood maltreatment. The latter is often considered a warning sign that the child might also be a victim of abuse.Note 45 In fact, extensive research draws attention to the impact of multiple forms of family violence as they often happen simultaneously, with victims of multiple occurrences of abuse often experiencing greater trauma over the short and long term.Note 46 While the impact of these multiple points of childhood trauma has been proven, for simplicity this study focuses primarily on physical abuse.

This section presents information on the proportion of victims who experienced childhood physical abuse, along with whether they also experienced childhood sexual abuse, witnessed violence committed by a parent (or guardian) against another adult, or all three. Results indicate that childhood physical abuse is strongly correlated with sexual abuse in childhood as well as an increased frequency of witnessing parental violence.

For example, the overall rate of childhood physical abuse across ages 15 to 74 is about 18% (Table 3). However, if the respondent had also experienced sexual abuse in childhood, the rate of physical abuse was 46%—a finding that is present across all birth cohorts.

Table 3
Relationship between childhood physical abuse and other forms of violence during childhood, all persons and by birth cohort, 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Relationship between childhood physical abuse and other forms of violence during childhood Total, ages 15 to 74, Birth cohort, 1940 to 1959, 1960 to 1979 and 1980 to 1999, calculated using percent units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Total, ages 15 to 74 Birth cohort
1940 to 1959 1960 to 1979 1980 to 1999
percent
Proportion experiencing any childhood physical abuse by other forms of childhood violence
Any childhood physical abuse 17.8 19.3 20.9 13.3
Childhood sexual abuse
No childhood sexual abuse 15.0 16.1 17.7 11.7
Any childhood sexual abuse 46.4 43.6 47.9 48.3
Witnessed parental violenceTable 3 Note 1
Never 13.3 14.3 15.8 10.1
1 to 5 times 44.8 47.4 47.5 38.9
6 or more times 69.5 71.7 69.7 65.9
Accumulation of violent events
Childhood physical abuse only 52.9 46.8 51.3 63.5
Childhood sexual abuse only 18.8 23.3 18.8 12.9
Witnessed only parental violence 6 or more times 4.2 4.0 4.1 4.8
A combination of any two forms of violence 19.4 20.5 20.8 15.5
All three forms of violence 4.7 5.3 5.1 3.3

Witnessing parental violence in childhood is also related to experiencing childhood physical abuse. For example, for all individuals aged 15 to 74, the rate of experiencing physical abuse in childhood is 70% if they also witnessed parental violence at least six times. Among those who said they witnessed parental violence between one and five times, 45% said they were victims of childhood physical abuse. And for those who witnessed no parental violence, 13% also said they were victims of childhood physical abuse. The same pattern is observed across all birth cohorts; the results also indicate that the rate of childhood physical abuse decreases slightly over time, regardless of whether victims witnessed parental violence.

The bottom panel of Table 3 shows the results from an analysis that combines all three of the aforementioned measures of child maltreatment and examines their distribution by birth cohort. Among those aged 15 to 74 who said they had experienced any type of violence in childhood, 53% said it was physical abuse only, 19% said it was sexual abuse only, and 4% said that they had witnessed frequent parental violence only. A further 19% said that they had experienced any two of the three maltreatment factors, while about 5% said they had experienced all three.

Childhood physical abuse and risk factors in young adulthood

A vast body of research has examined the link between childhood violence and later outcomes. For instance, links have been made with increased risk of physicalNote 47 and mental health problems,Note 48 lower academic achievementNote 49 and a greater risk of victimization.Note 50 The impact of these early negative life events can be viewed through the lens of a life course framework, which aims to tie life events, experiences and behaviours at multiple points in life together.Note 51 The pathways and processes through which violence early in life impacts later life outcomes are beyond the scope of this paper since longitudinal data are required for this kind of analysis. However, retrospective reports can be useful,Note 52 especially if care is taken to reduce recall bias associated with remembering childhood events.Note 53

This part of the paper examines the relationship between childhood physical abuse and several pertinent factors among the young adult population aged 15 to 34 (those born between 1980 and 1999).Note 54 In this section, four mutually exclusive groups are determined based on the degree of severity of the abuse reported by respondents.

The first group are those who have been kicked, bit, punched, choked, burned or physically attacked in some way at least 11 times, and are referred to as having experienced “very severe CPA”. The second group, called “severe CPA”, includes those who have experienced between one and ten instances of the abuse described above, as well as those who said they had been slapped or hit or pushed, grabbed or shoved, or had something thrown at them hard enough to hurt at least 11 times. “CPA, excluding severe” refers to those who had been slapped or hit or pushed, grabbed or shoved or had something thrown at them, but less frequently (3 to 10 times). The rest of the population are considered as having experienced “no CPA”.Note 55

The factors pertinent to young adulthood that were used were organized into the following three main areas:

  1. Social and economic integration and trust includes level of trust in their family, people in their neighbourhood, and people from work or school;Note 56 their level of confidence in police and courts;Note 57 their sense of belonging to their local community;Note 58 and whether they were part of the NEET population (i.e., not in education, employment or training).Note 59
  2. Health includes both mental and physical health. Poor mental health is measured by asking respondents whether they have a psychological/mental health condition that at least sometimes limits their daily activities, while poor physical health is measured by asking respondents whether they at least sometimes have difficulty with physical activities such as walking, using stairs, using hands or fingers, or doing other physical activities.
  3. Adult victimization uses two measures of victimization—whether respondents said they had experienced cyberbullying in the past five years, and whether the respondent said they had experienced physical or sexual violence while dating in the last five years (for the latter, only those who said that they had dated at all in the past five years were included).

Across all outcomes, a significant effect is observed for those who said they experienced very severe childhood physical abuse. In most cases, the increase in negative outcomes is substantial over and above those who said they experienced no physical abuse in childhood, and in some cases it is also greater than those who said they experienced forms of childhood physical abuse not categorized as severe. With respect to trust, there is a clear relationship between lack of trust in family, people in the neighbourhood, and people at work or school and having been a victim of childhood physical abuse.

In general, persons who experience even mild physical abuse in childhood have an increased probability of having more mistrust. For instance, when no childhood physical abuse occurred, about 2% of 15- to 34-year-olds had a weak level of trust in their family members (Table 4). In cases of CPA not categorized as severe, however, the proportion increased to 5%, and to 6% for instances of severe abuse. The largest increase is observed in cases where very severe abuse was experienced—among them, 18% of young adults said they had a low level of trust in their family members. Especially large increases were also noted for low levels of trust in people from work or school. When no physical abuse took place, 28% of 15- to-34-year-olds said they had a low level of trust in people from work and school, whereas when very severe physical abuse occurred, the proportion increased to 50%.

Table 4
Relationship between severity of childhood physical abuse and various indicators of social and economic integration, health and adult victimization, all persons aged 15 to 34,Table 4 Note 1 2014
Table summary
This table displays the results of Relationship between severity of childhood physical abuse and various indicators of social and economic integration Childhood physical abuse (CPA), Total, No CPA (ref.), CPA excluding severe, Severe CPA and Very Severe CPA, calculated using proportions (percent) and number units of measure (appearing as column headers).
Childhood physical abuse (CPA)
Total No CPA (ref.) CPA excluding severe Severe CPA Very Severe CPA
proportions (percent)
Social and economic integration and trust
Respondent has a weak level of trust in...
family 2.3 1.6 4.6Table 4 Note  5.5Note * 17.8Note **
people in the neighbourhood 45.3 43.3 54.4Note ** 57.0Note ** 61.7Note **
people from work/school 29.1 27.5 36.0Note * 37.9Note ** 49.6Note **
Respondent has a low level of confidence in...  
police 10.6 9.0 12.7Table 4 Note  20.0Note ** 37.2Note **
courts 17.3 15.9 20.1 27.7Note ** 39.7Note **
Weak sense of belonging to local community 30.2 29.0 33.0 38.3Note ** 46.0Note *
Not in education, employment or training (NEET) in the past year (aged 20 to 34) 12.4 11.5 12.4 15.9Table 4 Note  32.3Note *
Health
Respondent has a psychological/mental health condition that at least sometimes limits their daily activities 7.5 6.2 13.1Note ** 15.0Note ** 31.1Note **
Respondent at least sometimes has difficulty with their physical activitiesTable 4 Note 2 5.9 4.9 9.7Note * 12.6Note ** 19.3Note *
Adult victimization
Victim of cyberbullying in the past 5 years (aged 20 to 34) 8.8 6.9 15.9Note ** 22.3Note ** 28.4Note **
Experienced violence while dating in the past 5 years (aged 20 to 34) 5.7 4.0 12.2Note ** 16.2Note ** 28.9Note **
number
Unweighted sample size 7,855 6,768 423 562 102
Weighted sample size 9,344,646 8,102,999 506,966 613,150 121,531

Similarly, large increases were observed with respect to low levels of confidence in the police and court system when an individual had experienced physical abuse in childhood. For instance, in the case of low confidence in the police, the rate increased from 9% for those who did not experience childhood physical abuse to 37% for those who experienced very severe physical abuse. Young adults who had experienced childhood physical abuse also had a weak sense of belonging to their local community: 46% who had experienced very severe physical abuse in childhood felt a weak attachment to their current local community.

Rounding out the indicators of social and economic integration is a measure often used to indicate lack of youth integration into society via the labour market and the postsecondary education system: the NEET population. NEET refers to those who said their main activities in the past year were “not in education, employment or training.” NEET youth may be more vulnerable to economic downturns and their future earnings and potential savings might also be affected.Note 60

In this study, young adults aged 20 to 34 who had not experienced any childhood physical abuse had a NEET rate of 12%, however, this proportion rose to 32% if they said they had been the victim of very severe physical abuse in childhood. The implication is that in cases where very severe abuse took place, not only are young adults at risk for a wide range of deleterious social consequences, they are also more likely to be financially vulnerable.

With respect to health, both measures used in this paper indicate that persons who experienced any physical abuse in childhood (regardless of severity) had an increased risk of poor health in early adulthood. For example, 6% of individuals who experienced no physical abuse in childhood said they had a psychological or mental health condition that at least sometimes limits their daily activities. However, if they had experienced physical abuse not categorized as severe, their rate of a limiting psychological condition increased to 13%; to 15% if severe abuse had occurred, and to 31% if the abuse was very severe. Similar results are observed for physical health. The proportion of the population aged 15 to 34 who said they at least sometimes had difficulty with physical activities increased from 5% if they had experienced no physical abuse in childhood to 19% if very severe physical child abuse had occurred.

The last two indicators—the risk of being a victim of cyberbullying and whether violence had been experienced while dating over the past five years—have been selected to demonstrate the risk of victimization. Cyberbullying has been shown to be a risk factor for poor mental health.Note 61 In this study, the risk of being a victim of cyberbullying in early adulthood increased if physical abuse occurred in childhood. Compared to cases where no abuse occurred, the rate increased by 9 percentage points (to 16%) if abuse not categorized as severe occurred, and 22 percentage points (to 28%) if very severe abuse occurred. Moreover, there also appears to be an association between physical abuse in childhood and experiencing violence in a dating relationship. For example, 29% of young adults who had been a victim of very severe physical child abuse experienced dating violence, compared with 4% for their counterparts who had not experienced any physical abuse in childhood.Note 62

Conclusion

Childhood physical abuse has decreased among more recent birth cohorts in Canada. Looking at the experiences of those born between 1940 and 1999, childhood physical abuse declined for the most recent birth cohort (1980 to 1999) compared with earlier cohorts (i.e., those born between 1940 and 1959 and between 1960 and 1979).

Self-reported data from the 2014 General Social Survey show that males were more likely than females to experience physical abuse in childhood. However, in each birth cohort they were also less likely to discuss the abuse with authorities or others. The Aboriginal population also had significantly higher rates of physical abuse in childhood—although in more recent birth cohorts the gap with the non‑Aboriginal population decreased. For each cohort, having been in government care was also related to childhood physical abuse. Parental background was also found to be an important factor.

Childhood physical abuse does not usually occur on its own; it often occurs in conjunction with other forms of violence, particularly sexual abuse and the witnessing of violence committed by a parent or guardian. The results of this study showed that experiencing either of these other forms of violence increased the probability that the respondent had also experienced physical abuse.

Lastly, this paper showed that physical abuse in childhood is associated with numerous harmful situations in young adulthood. Young adults who experienced physical abuse in childhood were at increased risk of having low levels of trust in family, people in the neighbourhood and at work and school, as well as low levels of confidence in police and the court system.Note 63 Childhood physical abuse may also have an influence on the socioeconomic integration of youth: young adults aged 20 to 34 who experienced very severe childhood physical abuse had a significantly higher probability of being in the NEET (not in education, employment or training) population in the past year. Lastly, physical abuse was associated with a higher prevalence of physical and mental health conditions, and a higher prevalence of adult victimization.

The results of this study are based on retrospective reports of childhood physical abuse and therefore may be subject to bias related to memory and changing definitions of what constitutes abuse.Note 64 In the absence of longitudinal studies, the results based on retrospectively collected child maltreatment histories from cross-sectional surveys such as the 2014 GSS are an important tool in the study of child maltreatment over different time periods.

Darcy Hango is a senior researcher with Insights on Canadian Society at Statistics Canada.

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Data sources, methods and definitions

Data sources

This report uses data from the 2014 General Social Survey (GSS) on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization). The target population consists of the non-institutionalized Canadian population aged 15 and over, living in the 10 provinces. The data were collected throughout the 2014 calendar year. Responding to the survey is voluntary and the data are collected directly from the survey respondents (self-declared). The 2014 GSS on Canadians’ Safety (Victimization) had a final sample size of 33,127 and a 52.9% response rate. Self-reported data is different from police-reported data because not all incidents are necessarily reported to police.

Definitions

Childhood physical abuse

This report applies a definition that appears elsewhere in the literature,Note 65 using frequency and severity to define childhood physical abuse and severe childhood physical abuse. The definition is based on the GSS questions below:

Definition: Any childhood physical abuse (based on a minimum frequency of 3 to 5 for item 1 or item 2, or a minimum frequency of 1 to 2 for item 3)

Question: Before age 15, how many times did an adult…

  1. slap you on the face, head or ears, or hit you with something hard to hurt you?
    (answer: at least 3 to 5 times)
  2. push, grab, shove or throw something at you to hurt you?
    (answer: at least 3 to 5 times)
  3. kick, bite, punch, choke, burn you, or physically attack you in some way?
    (answer: at least 1 to 2 times)

Definition: Severe childhood physical abuse (based on a minimum frequency of more than 10 for item 1 or item 2, or a minimum frequency of 1 to 2 for item 3)

Question: Before age 15, how many times did an adult…

  1. slap you on the face, head or ears, or hit you with something hard to hurt you?
    (answer: at least 11 times)
  2. push, grab, shove or throw something at you to hurt you?
    (answer: at least 11 times)
  3. kick, bite, punch, choke, burn you, or physically attack you in some way?
    (answer: at least 1 to 2 times)
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