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Recognizing the Abused Child

In the shaping of our inner beliefs what we are made to suffer and to endure counts more than we may glean in the realms of science. 
                                                                                                                                                                    Sir Arthur Keith, I Believe

A healthy normal child knows he is unique and the world is a wonderful, exciting place. He is full of curiosity and wonder. He lives in the "now." 

The child’s natural energy leads him to explore his world. The toddler goes from one wonderous thing to another. He touches things that are not safe and needs constant supervision.

The child is spontaneous and fun-loving. He loves to laugh and he loves to cry. It is all part of being a child.

The child is resilient. That is, he has the flexibility to “roll with the punches.” These two traits enable the child to develop in healthy ways. He adapts a behavior in order to survive.

When a child is hurt through neglect or abuse, he loses his trust and becomes fearful. If he is assaulted frequently, he has to use his energy to cope instead of developing his emotional growth.

The child needs parents who are stable and predictable. When there is no discipline the child:

•  procrastinates, never finishes a project;

•  is stubborn, always wants his own way;

•  is impulsive, acts without thinking;

•  wants instant gratification.

When the child is disciplined too much he:

•  becomes rigid;
•  becomes a people-pleaser;
•  is obsessive, perfectionist;
•  suffers from shame and guilt;
•  is overly obedient.

When a child’s emotional needs are not fulfilled in childhood, he will be continually trying to meet them in adulthood.

•  Emotionally starved children, when reaching adulthood, will always be searching for the perfect person 
    to fill their needs, thus multiple mar- riages.
•  They become addicts; addictions fill up that emotional hole temporarily.
•  They seek material objects, money, cars and jewelry.
•  They become performers; always looking for instant approval.

When a child is abused, he loses all trust in his parent, and the wonderful world turns into a hostile place. He must be on guard at all times. The spontaneous and fun-loving child disappears.

Ellen was a shy and quiet little girl. Her father and mother abused her and so she isolated herself. She had no sense of belonging. Physical contact with anyone caused her to pull away.

Children who are told to be quiet and “don’t laugh so loud” and learn to be somber and stoic. Some children are even told not to cry. “Keep that up and I’ll give you something to cry about.”

“The freedom to weep,” writes Ashley Montagu, “contributes to the health of the individual and tends to deepen our involvement in the welfare of others.”

Except in cases of premature birth, if a child is not developing mentally or physically at a normal rate, look for the possibility of abuse. A neglected child will not have normal social skills. No one has taken the time to teach him.

Eddie was thrown against the wall by his drunken father when he was fourteen months old. Today he is a twenty-six year-old man with learning disabilities. He lives in a supervised environment and is handicapped as a result of abuse.

The abused child isn’t always easily identified. There may not be any visible marks on his body, but his demeanor and attitude may send up a red flag.

Nick was a disruptive influence in the classroom. He seemed to be always looking for attention. His parents were busy with their careers and had no time for him. He was aggressive with other children, always picking a fight. He wanted to be the center of attention all the time.

Nick was asking the teacher and his classmates to tolerate his boorish behavior. When he was disciplined and shunned by the pupils, it validated his belief in himself. “See, no one likes me or has time for me.”

Some abused chidren may show signs of physical neglect. They may be malnourished, seem tired all the time, or even dirty.

Donna’s long blond, unkempt hair was full of lice. She shivered in the coolness of the morning. She wore a thin white dress and no socks. Her shoes were caked in mud. The school nurse was positive she hadn’t had any breakfast. There was a black ring around her neck. Donna needed tender loving care.

Many times a child will deny being abused. But the child’s explanation that is inconsistent with the injuries may need further investigation. The child may not tell the truth because of fear of more injury. He may be threatened to be taken away to some vague place, and fear of the unknown is greater than that of the known.

For example, the book My Name is Stephen is the true story of a little boy who was kidnapped by a pedophile. He was told his parents didn’t want him, and he believed it. His name was changed, and he lived with this man for many years. When he became a teenager, the pedophile scouted for and found a younger boy. That was when Stephen went to the police and told them his name. He could not bear to see the young boy go through the same experience he had.

Abuse is also done by siblings. An older child may abuse or torment the younger one. Chronic teasing or constant threats can damage a child’s development.

A mentally unhealthy mother may want to keep the child dependent on her. Any acts of independence by the child are punished. This child’s behavior may be babyish at times. The child will not be able to assume normal responsibilities normal for his age.

Multiple personality disorders are the result of severe physical or sexual abuse over long periods of time. Such children are in a situation from which they cannot escape, and they protect themselves by dissociating. Dissociation is the process by which children insulate themselves from traumatic pain. The mind blocks out the emotions and memories which are too horrible to process.

One of the most common form of dissociation used by victims of trauma is “post-traumatic stress disorder.” This is the same type of disorder that affects soldiers in a war, earthquake and fire victims or survivors of horrible car accidents. These people lose the memory of the disaster, but they may have nightmares and flashbacks later.

Although flashbacks can be frightening, they are part of the healing process. The mind is now ready to take in this memory. The experience of a flashback is different with each person.

When a child is extremely frightened and has nightmares, it may be a sign that there is too much in his life. Sometimes when a child is tall for his age or if he is the oldest in a large family, too much responsibility is put on him. The child isn’t treated as a child. He is not given enough leisure time.

Some parents schedule too many activities into a child’s life. Baseball, piano lessons, gymnastics and so on. The child cannot breathe. It is important to consider the child’s desires. 
There is a happy medium. 

The abused child who is depressed is apathetic and lethargic. He may want to sleep all the time. Nothing excites him. Life is a bore. He lives a dreary existence. Abused children are full of hate and anger; they may not show it all the time but you’ll recognize them in many ways:

•  they may become rebellious,
•  they may run away,
•  they may become promiscuous,
•  they may commit acts of vandalism,
•  they may have a change in personality,
•  they may wet their bed,
•  they may have a loss of appetite,
•  they may stop doing activities they once enjoyed,
•  they may develop an unexplained fear of people,
•  they may develop headaches and other health problems,
•  they may be withdrawn and depressed.

You’ll be able to recognize children that have been sexually abused:

•  they do not want to go home,
•  they do not want to disrobe in front of others,
•  they express a dislike of a certain person,
•  they have a change in personality,
•  they may be suicidal,
•  they may have sexual knowledge inappropriate for their age,
•  they may have aggressive behavior towards other family members,
•  they may have periods of high anxiety,
•  they do poorly in school,
•  they suddenly ask for locks on door,
•  they show symptoms of pregnancy,
•  they start to abuse drugs,
•  they develop health problems, have headaches and other physical symptoms.

At this point it may be helpful to review what the normal sexual development of a child is, in order to be able to recognize inappropriate behavior.

An infant boy may have an erection, but this a reflex action, and he may be completely unaware of this physiological reaction.

By the age of two, children receive pleasure from touching themselves and have a natural curiosity about their body; boys from a very early age and throughout childhood are more aware of their genitals and much more aware of the responsiveness of them.

The two year-old has no qualms about appearing naked in public.

Between the ages of two and five, children are interested in the differences between male and female; they will ask questions about how babies are born; they find words for body functions humorous.

At kindergarten age, they may become more modest but they still enjoy verbal jokes.

At age six and seven, they have a clear understanding of the physical differences between the sexes; sex play or exploration between children of the same sex is no indication of homosexuality; it is when there’s a significant difference in age that the activity becomes abusive.

By the age of eight and nine, children know what is considered “sexy”; any experimentation will become more secret, as they know what is acceptable behavior in public.

Masturbation, especially by boys, is not uncommon.

At nine or ten, some girls may have menstrual periods, and boys may experience nocturnal emissions or “wet dreams.”

The adolescent years are confusing for most children. They may be trying to establish their own sexual identity and separate it from their parents’. Some children will mimic the dress and behavior of someone they think is established. This is usually a celebrity they admire.

Children who have been abused will find this time especially difficult. This is when they may choose to run away, but they have no place to go and no plans on how to live. The homeless adolescents on the streets of our cities are a social disgrace.

Adolescents’ values and identities reflect their parents’. They also reflect the culture. The adolescent reacts to his environment. It is the time for the child to move from the status of a child with few responsibilities to the status of an adult with great responsibilities.

Adolescents share all basic human needs but also have special needs appropriate to their particular stage of development. What are their special needs?

•  responsibility appropriate for their age
•  privacy
•  to be listened to
•  to be respected
•  to be given an education
•  the right to speak for themselves
•  the right to develop abilities to their full potential
•  the right to justice
•  the right to partake in decision making if it concerns him
•  the right to air all grievances
•  to have all health issues addressed

The adolescent stage is the time of greatest influence. This is the fork in the road. Adolescents need much guidance and supervision to get on the correct path.

The normal process of life is continual growth.

When a child is abused his trust is gone.

The person abused in childhood carries the emotional pain and damage into adulthood.

The child thinks that if his father abandoned him, all men will abandon him.

The abused child’s boundaries are violated and the result is that they lack knowledge of socially acceptable boundaries.

A sexually abused child may become promiscuous.

A child who is not disciplined will become impulsive and look for instant gratification.

The child who is not getting his emotional needs met will become an adult who is always searching for the perfect person to fulfill those needs.

The scars of abuse may not always be visible, but they show up in the person’s attitude and demeanor.