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Factors Influencing Child Abuse

The effects of child abuse may continue for several generations, a bitter confirmation that the iniquities of the fathers are visited upon the children even unto the third and fourth generation. 

Baken, 1971

What kind of person would hurt a child? What circumstances could cause this to happen?

Many factors contribute to the abuse of a child and each person has his own story. Every incident is the direct result of what is going on in his life at that exact time.

It is a person with a great deal of anger. His emotional needs were never met and anger spills out. He was never taught how to cope with stress.

A person can be programmed to be abusive because of:

•  his own personality
•  his own family experience
•  his own values
•  his own beliefs

A person may have a basic concept that a child is a non person and his own property. There also may be a diminished capacity for parenting. A very immature person, a selfish person, a mentally retarded person or someone who has no parenting skills is at high risk for being abusive. He may have no tools to understand or deal with a child.

Parenting is one of the most important tasks presented to man, and yet most people accept the task without any preparation. It costs more in the United States to have and rear a child than anywhere else in the world. Childbirth is the one unique experience to the female. Girls just barely in puberty are having babies. They rush into this unique experience without any education or preparation. Then they find themselves with a noisy, demanding little person and they haven’t a clue as to what to do.

Often the father has disappeared, and the girl is on her own. Perhaps she lives with her working mother who is already harassed and overstressed. Neither one of these individuals can deal with another child. 

This is prime ground for neglect. The girl may even abandon the child and leave it with her mother. This is a baby the mother did not want and never asked for.

“Yummy,” the eleven year-old boy from Chicago, spent much of his short, vicious life terrorizing others. He was raised by his grandmother, ten aunts and uncles and at least twenty other children. But even in this crowd, he was alone. He bicycled through his neighborhood intimidating everyone with his use of knives, fire and guns. All the local stores barred him from entering because of his thievery.

He belonged to a gang called the “Black Disciples,” and was shot “execution style” because the gang was afraid he would expose them to the police. He joined this gang for a sense of belonging, did their bidding and they discarded him. He was the boy no one wanted, the “throw-away kid”. 

When “Yummy” was four years old, police discovered him home alone with two brothers ages five and three. All had been abused. Previously, the mother had been accused of inflicting burns on her sixteen month-old daughter. At this time “Yummy” was moved to his grandmother’s house where he spent most of his time on the street.

There are thousands of these kinds of children out there. They survive as best they can. 
Another contributor to poor parenting skills may be the fact that the parent’s wanted a child of a certain gender. Their disappointment with the child can interfere with their bonding. Or maybe the child reminds them of someone they don’t like. A person’s relationship with his parent can influence his own effectiveness at parenting.

If the infant is fussy or difficult to feed, the parent may become discouraged or angry. The crying of a child can lead an immature person to abuse the child. Drugs may also play a part in why someone would throw a baby against a wall. 

Billy was the live-in boyfriend of Cora. Cora had two small children. When she worked, she left them in Billy’s care. Billy was abused as a child and he was addicted to alcohol. He had no patience with, and perhaps no love for, Cora’s children. He expected instant response to his commands. One day, when the thirteen month-old child wouldn’t stop crying, Billy picked the child up and threw him at the wall.

A child who is continually beaten has a difficult time establishing his self-esteem. A positive self-esteem is nurturing and reinforced by loving parents, siblings and grandparents. What a wonderful experience to hear a four year-old child stating, in clear unemotional tones, what he feels or what he wants.

When a child says, “No grandma, I don’t want to go shopping, I want to go home and watch television,” he has made it clear that he does not want to shop. He feels free to be able to say so. He is reasonably certain that his feelings are important and his wishes will be listened to.

Frequently a single parent may be physically or emotionally unavailable for his children. He may be worried about his job and money. The child does not understand any of this and thinks he deserves this inattention. No one said raising a child was easy, as it takes tolerance, patience, adaptability and support.

In today’s society, families are separated by miles. There is no grandmother or aunt to mind the child. Years ago, the whole neighborhood minded the children. Neighbors felt free to discipline a child when they saw a child vandalizing or getting into mischief. Today the neighbor would be taken to court.

The family is isolated today even if its members live in the same town of their relatives. The nation just witnessed the horrible death of two small boys by their mother. By all appearances, she was a devoted parent. Pictures of the boys show them as happy, healthy bright little children.

Susan Smith lived in the same town where she attended school. Yet she isolated herself from all who could help her. She saw death for her children as the only solution to her problems. We can only imagine the torment she went through to reach this decision and know it was increased tenfold at this time.

Parents who are most likely to abuse their child are:

•  addicted to drugs
•  isolated, don’t live near relatives, or may be estranged from them
•  emotionally immature
•  adults who were abused in childhood
•  in poor health

Each member of a family affects every other member, and some parents and their children cannot get along. They may have a personality problem in which they antagonize each other or may have some inherited trait for “one-upmanship.” These individuals are better off separated.

Changes in family structure may shake a family’s stability. A divorce is stressful to all members of the family. Sometimes a move to a new location is stressful.

Some families accept violence as a way of life. The children believe that their parents have the right to treat them any way they want. Other families avoid outside involvement in the family. They don’t belong to any church, are not involved in any community activities and never have friends over to their house. This isolation is conducive to fostering abuse.

Annie’s parents were told she had a learning disability; and they thought of it as a stigma. They became focused on the disability and made no attempt to learn more about it to see what they could do. Their actions told her, they did not accept her. They didn’t see it as a family problem. It was Annie’s problem.

Children are not miniature adults. They are in the process of development, and many people don’t understand this aspect. History shows that we change our child-rearing practices nearly every generation, about twenty years. Sometimes the way mom did it doesn’t work with today’s lifestyle.

Factors that bring about child-rearing changes:

•  advancements in technology
•  increasing or decreasing affluence
•  availability of resources
•  changes in values
•  changes in governmental systems

There are almost as many ways to bring up children as there are experts; and everyone has a theory concerning how to go about it. The truth is that each parent is the expert on what is needed for one’s own children; each family has to do what is best for them. But education and awareness are the keys to doing what is best. Parents cannot teach or use knowledge they don’t have. Neither can they instill values and beliefs in the child that they don’t have themselves.

Here is a typical story. 

Tim was raised in an orphanage. His mother died in childbirth and he never knew his father. There was no family to rear him. He was always a tall boy for his age, and he never felt he belonged to any age group. He had a lonely life, and he experienced many failed choices because of his impulsive nature. He never thought things through, and, as he got older, he became involved in negative and unsatisfying relationships where he was always the victim. He learned to drive in school, and when he got old enough, he got a job driving a truck long-distance. He met Debbie, a waitress, at his favorite diner, and they got married when Debbie became pregnant.

There never seemed to be enough money, and the babies kept coming. Tim was overwhelmed and didn’t know how to escape from or improve his life. He expelled his rage by beating his children. He seemed to be saying to his children, “I never had it good when I was a child, and that’s just the way it goes.”

The majority of men who sexually abuse their children think it’s their right to use and abuse them. They have a macho attitude and act like “king of the mountain.” They have low self-esteem but high expectations of anyone involved with them. They express a controlling and domineering attitude in the family. On the other hand, they can’t be counted on to take their parental responsibilities seriously.

When there is incest in the family, everyone is in denial. The mother especially is shocked and numbed. She feels like an outsider in her own home. Her first priority is to keep quiet. She may want to blame her child. Her biggest fear is the disruption of the family and the loss of financial support.

Common issues in an incestuous household:

•  secrecy
•  denial
•  power struggle
•  isolation
•  role reversal
•  emotional upheaval

How long sexual abuse goes on depends on the family structure and the help available to the child. The child may stop the abuse by threatening to tell or by running away.

A newborn was found one night in a trash bin with the umbilical cord around her neck. Later a picture on television showed the baby dressed prettily in yellow (even a little yellow ribbon in her hair) being rocked by a volunteer. These first few weeks and months determined how a child experiences the world with or without warmth and trust. Apparently this baby came from a world that didn’t want her, and she landed in a more receptive place. Hopefully, she will continue to receive this necessary love. Who knows what is in store for her?

There are not many contemporary American families that include grandparents, aunts and uncles all in the same area. Families are moved by the military or by corporations. A young mother can find herself in a strange city and the sole caretaker of three small children. There are daycare centers where she can leave her children to have time to herself. But great care must be taken to choose the right center, as there have been charges of abuse leveled against some, though most are reputable.

Some families express themselves noisily and violently. A man named Sol grew up in such a family. As an adult, Sol had a large family of children and a passive, submissive wife. He truly wanted the best for his children and never abused them physically. He had been raised by a verbally abusive father who never addressed Sol in a pleasant manner, and so this is all he knew. Sol, in turn, was verbally abusive to his children. “You stupid boy,” he would say to his son, “How many times do you have to be told to take out the trash?”

All his requests were peppered with vile language and communicated in a loud voice. Sol truly thought he was teaching the boys the right thing to do. He wouldn’t understand if he was told his actions were abusive, and that his advice and counseling came across as criticism.

The abused child has a strong need to be accepted. He will seek attention and affection. Because of his limited problem solving skills and people-pleasing nature, he is vulnerable for further abuse.

Risk factors for possible abuse to a child:

•  an obedient child
•  overly trusting
•  low self-confidence
•  passive, unassertive
•  no decision-making skills

Some parents are incapable of taking care of a child. They may suffer from severe mental illness. Other parents may be physically incapacitated and unable to physically care for a child. Frequent use of alcohol or drugs also impairs a person’s ability and judgment to parent a child.

Signs of a person’s inability to care for a child:

•  isolation and withdrawal from all social contacts with the community
•  bizarre behavior; this can be a symptom of psychosis
•  delusional; a person who is out of touch with reality
•  severe anxiety; a person’s terror results in a frightening home for a child

The family system is composed of many different elements. One of the most important elements is the relationship between the parents. When the marriage is dysfunctional, everyone suffers.

Betsy and her brother and sister lived in constant fear of their parents’ arguments. Their father would storm out of the house banging the door loudly. Then their mother would spend the rest of the day crying. Betsy didn’t know what was wrong and somehow thought she was at fault.

Betsy’s mother and father were involved in living out the legacy they had been given. They were products of dysfunctional families and neither one was willing to work through their problems. They collected their list of grievances and stored it, taking it out again with each new argument to be thrown in the other person’s face. Peace and warmth was never achieved in this household. The parents never considered what these fights cost their children.

Christmas and holidays are the most stressful times in the dysfunctional family. Expectations are never met.

It started with their first Christmas. Beth and James had an argument over the type of Christmas tree to buy. Then it progressed to an argument over what was to be served at the holiday dinner. Everything became a power struggle. Instead of establishing their own traditions, each one clung to what was familiar. When the children came along, the competition became even more pronounced. The result was an unhappy household for all concerned.

Children raised in a household such as this can rarely let themselves enjoy anything. Everything is a major production, and no one has a good time. An adult who was the child of a dysfunctional family might say, “My mother never said anything, but I could feel her pain in the way she acted. She was always the martyr. I could never tell her of my worries or concerns, as I didn’t want to burden her anymore.”

This is a role reversal. The parent is supposed to protect the child, and here the child wants to protect the parent.

Everyone finds a relationship that is familiar to them. A person tends to choose someone, unconsciously, like his parent. It is said, everyone attempts to work out old traumas. They are repeated over and over until they are resolved.

Ellen said she would never be like her mother. Her choice of Bob as a partner, who was a passive man, guaranteed that her behavior would be assertive and bossy. Just like her mother.

The child abuser is an angry person, and this anger spills out of control.

A person’s personality, family experiences, values and beliefs will determine whether he will be abusive.

Most people are unprepared for parenthood.

Factors that contribute to the abuse of a child:

•  poverty
•  isolation
•  emotional immaturity
•  drug addiction

Common issues in an incestuous household:

•  secrecy
•  denial
•  power struggle
•  control
•  isolation
•  role reversal
•  emotional upheaval

Risk factors for possible abuse to a child:

•  an obedient child
•  overly trusting
•  low self-confidence
•  passive, unassertive

One of the most important elements in the family is the relationship between mother and father.