Child abuse can take many forms and has a huge impact on children’s ability to grow and develop. The effects can be severe and long term if they do not receive the support and nuturing they require and deserve.
Checkout the parenting section for some tips on how to create a supportive and encouraging environment for children to grow healthy and strong.
Types of Child Abuse
Physical abuse is when someone bigger than the child inflicts physical harm. Apart from punching, hitting, burning and other physical acts, physical abuse also includes things like giving a child alcohol or drugs, or other potentially poisonous substances. Physical and emotional harm can also result from witnessing or experiencing domestic/family violence.
Emotional abuse is behaviour which destroys a child’s confidence such as telling them they are no good or worthless, not showing affection or positive attention, verbal abuse & threats, name calling, locking them up, or not allowing them to participate in social activities.
Neglect is where a carer fails to provide developmentally appropriate food, shelter, care or supervision.
Sexual abuse is a crime where an adult or someone bigger than the child, and who is usually known to the child, uses their power and authority over them, taking advantage of their trust and respect to involve or expose the child to sexual activity which often progresses in severity and frequency over time. Often it also involves special gifts, tricks, rewards and bribery, and/or threats or force, all which assist offenders to manipulate the child and deceive protective adults.
Factors which influence the impact of abuse
age/development stage when abuse began
how long the abuse took place
how often it occured
their relationship with the abuser
strength of other protective relationships
reactions of others to the abuse
what help or intervention was provided
What to do if a child tells you they are being hurt
NSW Child Protection Interagency recommends that you can help by:
listening to what children have to say
stay calm & believe what they have to say
avoid making promises you cant keep
reassure and comfort the child
avoid reacting with shock or negatively
let them know that the abuse is not their fault
tell them that it was right to tell and that it is NOT okay for adults to hurt children
let them know that you will need to talk to other people to get help
Child sexual assault
is particularly complex due to the nature and dynamics of the abusive relationship. In most cases the offender is known to the child and family, and often the process of “grooming’, tricking and forcing the child into abusive situations may occur gradually over time. CSA can happen anywhere, anytime whenever the offender has access to children, and even when other people are around.
Below is a brief overview of some of the key themes identified by Finkelhor:
- The offender typically denies responsibility and blames child or their carer
- Various strategies are used to make the child feel like they wanted or instigated the sexual acts
- Calculated strategies are employed to isolate child from family, friends and community
- Child's sense of reality is manipulated and denied, thus creating confusion and self doubt
- Offenders manipulates relationships around the child so if they do disclose abuse they are seen as ‘trouble makers’ or not believed
- Often more than one person in the family is being abused, but the offender sets it up that they are isolated from each other and do not know what is happening to the others
Protection & Loyalty:
- Direct & indirect strategies and language are used to enlist child into maintaining the “secret”
- The child often is made to believe they are protecting their family by keeping the secret
- The child will protect others at a cost to self, often threats are made such as if the child does not do what they are told that others will get hurt, or that they will lose their parents
Power & Powerlessness:
- The offender has physical, psychological and intellectual power over the victim, the child is powerless to change the situation even though they are often made to feel like they have choices. These “choices” however are only an illusion created by the offender, and they manipulate the environment of the child to ensure their own needs are met.
- When children do try to resist they are often punished
- Bribes, tricks and threats are all utilised by the offender, this can create many mixed feelings including love and hate towards the offender, confusion, fear, hopelessness, guilt, shame etc.
- Developmentally children often do not have the language or the means to get the help they need
- Offenders take advantage of childrens niaveity, and twist their perspectives on things. They can even exploit children’s tendency for ‘magical thinking’ in that the child may come to believe the offender has magical powers, and can make bad things happen, or will know if they tell.
- Children are expected to be respectful towards adults no matter what, thus resistance is often difficult or misunderstood
- When children do try to speak out, messages may not always be clear, they might ‘test the waters’ to see what kind of reaction they get. Often upon disclosure bad things may actually happen, reinforcing the power of the offender.
- children come to feel powerless to change their situation, or unable to even consider that adults might be able to help them, they may even feel betrayed by adults who have hurt them or whom have not been able to protect them.
- magical thinking can further terroise the child into silence, and even into adulthood.
- the child learns that they have no or little control over their environment or their bodies, often coming to even hate their bodies or parts of it
- these strategies allow the offender to rationalise their behaviour, and trick the child into feeling guilty, complicit, and a ‘bad’ person
- the child is left holding the burden and struggling to protect the family from more bad things happening while trying to deal with their own distress. Thus the child learns to put others before their own needs, and suffer in silence.
- it can leave the child feeling alone, scared, angry, sad and confused which undermines their confidence and their ability to trust their instincts. It also creates a ‘smoke screen’ as the offender constructs an alternative reality around the victim, creating barriers to the child disclosing, and making it unlikely that they will be belived even if they do find the words to talk about what is happening to them.
- the child may also suffer not only throughout the abuse, but also through the trauma of reliving the experience in flashbacks, similar to those experienced by war veterans whom often feel as though they are re-living the events.
The impact of these complex dynamics can affect the childs physical, psychological and social development right into adulthood. It is important to seek out help both for children who are currently being abused, but also for survivors of abuse who are struggling to manage the long lasting effects.