Child abuse is often thought of as having physical or sexual elements to it. So it may surprise you to find out that child abuse (or any form of abuse, for that matter) does not have to include hitting or any form of physical contact. My own experience does include instances of hitting, but that is not the extent of it. It does not even factor, in my mind, as the worst part of the abuse that I experienced growing up and even well into my adulthood.
I’ll share one such story to explain.
One evening, when I was about 10, I had a dream. A very bizarre dream. One that, apparently, involved a lot of movement in my sleep. Because, while I was still deep in dream-land, I rolled off the bed and fell on the floor. My dad heard the thud and ran upstairs to see what was happening.
I was still half asleep, and my brain hadn’t yet registered that I was awake. I was responding to my father’s demands to know what happened with nonsensical gibberish. I was highly disoriented and confused.
Most parents would be able to identify a half-asleep child.
My father saw a disobedient child who was being smart with him.
He started yelling at me to answer his questions. I couldn’t respond appropriately because I couldn’t focus.
He started screaming at me. I just became overwhelmed and confused.
He screamed so much that eventually, my mother had to run upstairs and tell him to back off because I was still half asleep.
My mother, who was not even on the same floor of the house as us, could identify that her child was not awake enough to understand what was happening.
My father could not identify this.
My father saw a bad child who needed to be shamed and coerced into obedience. My father saw a threat to his ability to control the situation, and so he reacted with anger.
He left the room when my mother confronted him. He never spoke of this incident again. He never took responsibility, nor did he apologize.
I was just a child whose job it was to conform to his authoritative demands. To him, I was not a person with her own thoughts and feelings. I was one of his things.
This is all abusive behaviour. He did not lay a hand on me in this situation (that I can recall), but it was abusive. And it was one of many lessons that he taught me over the years to demonstrate that he was the one in control of me and that I had no agency of my own to ever step out of line.
This is common in cases of child abuse. The crux of every abusive person is the need to control those around them, which means tearing them down so that they are unable to pushback.Help Guide defines the emotionally abusive parent in this way:
Constant belittling, shaming, and humiliating
Calling names and making negative comparisons to others
Telling a child they’re “no good,” “worthless,” “bad,” or “a mistake”
Frequent yelling, threatening, or bullying
Ignoring or rejecting a child as punishment, giving them the silent treatment
Limiting physical contact with a child—no hugs, kisses, or other signs of affection
Exposing a child to violence against others, whether it is against the other parent, a sibling, or even a pet
– Child Abuse and Neglect, Melinda Smith, M.A., Lawrence Robinson, and Jeanne Segal, Ph. D.
These are all things that I and my sibling experienced growing up. And no one intervened to help us.
Abuse has very real and long-lasting consequences for the children that experience it. It is well documented that children who grow experiencing abuse are at an increased risk for mental and physical illness, and doctors are seeing the benefit to using the ACE test to help identify children at risk and get them the help that they need.
This is why it is so important for adults to be vigilant and watch for signs of abuse and neglect of the children in our lives.
These children may be our friends’ kids. They may be our students. They may be our neighbours. They may be part of our church communities. They may be our relatives. And they need us to be alert and looking out for them. Their lives depend upon it.
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes a village to ensure that a child is being raised in a safe environment.
Red flags to watch out for with the children in your life:
Withdrawal from friends or usual activities
Changes in behaviour — such as aggression, anger, hostility or hyperactivity — or changes in school performance
Depression, anxiety or unusual fears, or a sudden loss of self-confidence
An apparent lack of supervision
Frequent absences from school
Reluctance to leave school activities, as if he or she doesn’t want to go home
Attempts at running away
Rebellious or defiant behaviour
Self-harm or attempts at suicide
– Child Abuse, Mayo Clinic Staff
One note here: this list assumes that a child is attending a traditional school. Please also be vigilant for homeschooled children who do not appear to be getting proper socialization. Isolation is a common issue for the abused.
If you are seeing any of these things in any of the children in your life, please be the advocate for them that I never had growing up. Contact CPS if there is any doubt about the child’s well-being. Or contact a mandatory reporter, if you are unable to make the call yourself.
Take it from a child abuse survivor: It is always better to make the call than to let them grow up wondering why no one cared enough to intervene.