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There are some observances we wish we didn’t have to mark. With more than 700,000 children victimized by physical abuse each year, National Child Abuse Prevention Month in April is one of those observances. Just like many other topics pertaining to mental health, there exists a large stigma around child abuse. That said, with proper education and awareness, you can be a part of helping bring an end to the stigma of child abuse.
In the majority of cases, child abuse starts at home. According to the National Children’s Alliance, in 78 percent of cases of child maltreatment, the parent of the child victim was the perpetrator in the crime. Child abuse can take place in the form of physical, verbal, or sexual harm. It can also be a result of lack of care, or neglect, which is just as harmful. Neglect is the most common form of child abuse, with nearly three-quarters of children who experience child abuse suffering from neglect.
Outcomes of child abuse can result in short-term and long-term effects, including death. Many children and adults are unaware that they are (or were) the victims of child abuse and/or neglect.
Those who are at the highest risk for child abuse are children under the age of four, children with disabilities and special needs, children living in low-income households, or parents dealing with substance abuse, alcoholism and/or anger issues. Physical abuse tends to be the most obvious form of abuse, and “old school” forms of punishment that were common generations ago, walk a fine line between punishment and abuse (i.e. spanking). Physical abuse involves non-accidental physical harm such as burning, breaking, punching, slapping, pushing or beating a child in any way.
On the other hand, verbal abuse, which affects a child’s emotional and mental health, includes screaming, criticizing, blaming, attacking or contemptuous language, all of which can be just as harmful as physical abuse. More often than not, verbal abuse leaves long-lasting impact on children’s self esteem and their own inner voice. We typically form our own beliefs about ourselves by the age of seven years old. So, if a child is constantly being criticized, blamed and ridiculed by their parents, with statements such as “You’re so stupid!”, “It’s all your fault!”, “You can’t do anything right.”, etc., the child may end up believing the following about himself or herself:
- I am stupid.
- I’m not good enough.
- I don’t deserve love.
- I’m a bad kid (later changed to: I’m a bad person).
- I’m fat or ugly (if ridiculed about their body, clothes, looks, or even eating habits).
- I don’t deserve to live (especially if they were neglected of any basic need such as food or water).
Children tend to internalize these statements, especially if they’re constantly being reinforced, which allows children to ultimately believe them to be true. These negative beliefs stay with children as they turn into adults, impacting not only their self esteem, but also their thinking, inner dialogue and their general behavior. The negative beliefs can also turn into self-fulfilling prophecies that are lived out subconsciously.
It’s important to note, that even as adults, victims of child abuse can look at these beliefs and thinking patterns, and logically know better. They can logically know, “I’m a good person”, “I’m lovable/deserving of love”, or “it’s not all my fault”, but there’s a disconnect, and victims still very much feel that way, emotionally and subconsciously, regardless of how irrational, illogical or untrue it is.
Dani Singer, a licensed clinical family and marriage therapist and founder of Therapy Threads, witnessed the aftermath of child abuse first-hand during a graduate school internship at Child Abuse Prevention Association (CAPA) in Independence, Mo. Singer said, “It was pretty heartbreaking to see some of the family scenarios involving child abuse, neglect and sexual abuse. Many of the families came in wanting for us, as therapist interns, to “fix” their children, and did not want to engage in family therapy to address the household and parenting dynamics, patterns, habits, etc. that were so obviously impacting their children. It left me and many other interns, at times, feeling very helpless. Many of these parents were themselves abused or neglected as children, thus, furthering the generational family process and allowing the pattern to continue in their family.”
Any form of child abuse is classified as a trauma, whether it happened once or was ongoing for long periods of time (chronic). PTSD is another common diagnosis for children who experienced trauma, resulting in symptoms such as hyper-vigilance, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, nightmares/sleep disturbance, difficulty trusting others, loss of identity/sense of self, constant dissociation (zoning out/disconnect from body, emotions or reality), panic attacks, flashbacks, low self esteem, self destructive behaviors, substance abuse, etc. One of the most common symptoms is the pattern of being re-traumatized and becoming the victim again, which has a tendency to follow someone throughout their life.
There are certain types of therapy that can help reverse the damage of child abuse. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is one of the most renowned therapies for trauma and PTSD. EMDR can be extremely effective in helping children as well as adults who were abused or neglected as children. It helps them to process and desensitize the memories, including the negative beliefs about themselves and any other symptoms it may have caused. In many cases, child abuse, or any other trauma that occurred between 0-12 years old is the “root” of a lot of people’s mental health problems that they may originally seek therapy. Most people are not fully aware of the root of their issues, whether that is due to a lack of awareness, forgetting or blacking out the memories, denial, etc.
Be aware of the warning signs of child abuse, so that you know when to report a case to the authorities. These may include:
Signs of Physical Abuse: Any injury (bruise, burn, fracture, abdominal or head injury) that cannot be explained.
Signs of Sexual Abuse: Fearful behavior (nightmares, depression, unusual fears, attempts to run away); abdominal pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, genital pain or bleeding, sexually transmitted disease; extreme sexual behavior that seems inappropriate for the child’s age.
Signs of Emotional Abuse: Sudden change in self-confidence; headaches or stomachaches with no medical cause; abnormal fears, increased nightmares or attempts to run away.
Signs of Emotional Neglect: Failure to gain weight (especially in infants), desperately affectionate behavior, voracious appetite and stealing food.
If you’d like to find a therapist near you, please visit www.psychologytoday.com.
If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, please notify local authorities. Kansas: 800-922-5330 Missouri: 800-392-3738 Other states, click here.