Child abuse is more than bruises and broken bones. While physical abuse might be the most visible, other types of abuse, emotional, sexual and neglect, also leave deep lasting scars. The earlier abused children get help, the greater the chance they have to heal and break the cycle. By learning about “typical" signs of abuse, we can all intervene and make a huge difference in a child’s life.
Myths about child abuse are rampant. Many feel that it is only abuse if it is violent. Physical abuse is just one type—neglect and emotional abuse are equally damaging and hard to detect. Thus, less intervention may occur. Child abuse does not happen in “good" families. Abuse to children is color, economic, and cultural blind. It happens in good and bad neighborhood, in rich and poor families.
Child abusers are strangers. Not so, most abusers are family members or others close to the child. Children that were abused will tend to repeat the cycle of abuse as adults. True, while many may unconsciously repeat the experience they had as children, some with assistance and help from counseling, family, and community groups can ultimately be responsible and loving parents.
There are several types of abuse, but the core fact that binds all the types of abuse is the emotional effect on the child. Predictability, security, and the knowledge that their parents or loved ones are insuring their safety is what children require. The world of abused children is unpredictable and a frightening place. Whether the abuse is a slap, a sharp criticism, lack of physical contact, or not knowing if you are having dinner tonight, the end result is a child feeling insecure, scared and alone.
Physical child abuse involves physical harm and injury to a child. It may be a deliberate infliction of pain, but not always, it can also be the result of severe “discipline," such as using a belt or other physical means for punishment. Whatever the means, it is inappropriate to the child’s age and physical condition.
Many parents and caregivers will defend their actions and insist that they were “simply disciplining" the child in order to behave. But there is a big difference between using physical punishment to discipline and physical abuse in which a child is severely injured or hospitalized. The point of disciplining is to teach them right from wrong, not to make them live in fear.
In physical abuse, unlike discipline, the factors of unpredictability, lashing out in anger, or using fear to control behavior are present. The child never knows what will trigger the parent/guardian to physically assault him or her. There are no clear boundaries or rules. Consequently, the child is never secure and is in constant fear.
Physically abusive parents/guardians act out of anger and desire to assert control. They are not motivated in lovingly teaching the child. The more angry the parent/guardian is, the more intense the assault. Physically abusive parents may believe that they are “keeping their child in line." However, the child is learning how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals.
Child neglect is failing to provide for the child’s basic need, whether it is adequate food, clothing, hygiene, or supervision. Child neglect is not always easy to spot. A parent might become physically or mentally unable to care for a child due to a serious injury, untreated depression or anxiety. Other times, it is alcohol or drug related and impairs their ability to keep a child safe.
Emotional child abuse is equally hurtful. Contrary to the adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating a child or frequent yelling, threatening, bullying a child can severely damage his or her mental health and social development. Limited physical contact with the child-no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection, ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment can also leave lifelong psychological scars. Exposing a child to violence or the abuse of others, such as abuse of a spouse, a sibling, or a pet have all permanent negative effects on a child.
I will discuss child sexual abuse in my next week’s article since it requires more discussion but all these types of actions will be criminally enforced. State laws have strict and clear laws punishing child abuse. Criminal prosecution in California of child abuse which encompasses neglect, as well as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse is taken very seriously by law enforcement, prosecuting agencies and the courts.
If you suspect a child or children are being abused, it is critical to get help immediately. Call the police and reporting is anonymous. In most states, you do not have to give your name to the police. We all need to be reminded that children are the “voiceless" citizens of our communities and as such, the adults need to be their voice.