Abuse can be verbal, physical, or sexual. Verbal abuse – such as frequent belittling criticism – can have lasting effects, particularly when it comes from those entrusted with the child’s care. Criticism can be aimed at the child’s looks, intelligence, capabilities, or basic value. Some verbal abusers are very direct, while others use subtle put-downs disguised as humor. Both types are just as damaging.
Definitions of physical abuse vary widely. Many parents, at one time or another, have felt the urge to strike their child. With physically abusive parents, however, the urge is frequent and little effort is made to control this impulse. The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act defines physical abuse as “the infliction of physical injuries such as bruises, burns, welts, cuts, bone or skull fractures; these are caused by kicking, punching, biting, beating, knifing, strapping, paddling, etc.”
Striking a child has much to do with meeting the parent’s emotional needs and nothing to do with concern for the child; parents often erroneously justify the abuse as “discipline” intended to “help” the child. Physically abusive parents can create an environment of terror for the child, particularly since violence is often random and unpredictable. Abused children often feel anger. Children of abusive parents have tremendous difficulties developing feelings of trust and safety even in their adult lives.
While parents may justify or rationalize verbal or physical abuse as discipline aimed at somehow helping the child, there is no rationalization for sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is the most blatant example of an adult abusing a child purely for that adult’s own gratification.
Sexual abuse can be any physical contact between an adult and child where that contact must be kept secret. Demonstrations of affection — such as hugging, kissing, or stroking a child’s hair — that can be done openly are quite acceptable and even beneficial. When physical contact is shrouded in secrecy then it is most likely inappropriate.
Sexual abuse happens to both boys and girls. It is perpetrated by both men and women. It cuts across lines of race, socioeconomic level, education level, and religious affiliation. In most cases, sexual abuse is part of an overall family pattern of dysfunction, disorganization, and inappropriate role boundaries.
Responsibility for sexual abuse in all cases rests entirely with the adult. No child is responsible for being abused. Most sexually abused children are too frightened of the consequences for themselves and their families to risk telling another adult what is happening. As a result they grow into adulthood carrying feelings of self-loathing, shame, and worthlessness. They tend to be self-punishing and have considerable difficulties with relationships and with sexuality.
Regardless of the kind of dysfunction or abuse, effects vary widely across individuals. Support from other healthy adults, success in other areas, or positive changes in the family can help prevent or minimize negative effects. The following questions may help you identify how you may have been or continue to be affected.
Deficient parents hurt their children more by omission than by commission. Frequently, chronic mental illness or a disabling physical illness contributes to parental inadequacy. Children tend to take on adult responsibilities from a young age in these families. Parental emotional needs tend to take precedence, and children are often asked to be their parents’ caretakers. Children are robbed of their own childhood, and they learn to ignore their own needs and feelings. Because these children are simply unable to play an adult role and take care of their parents, they often feel inadequate and guilty. These feelings continue into adulthood.
By Sherwin Dusagan