Free Fall: The Destabilizing Effects of Child Abuse

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Development theorists have stressed the importance of a child’s feeling safe. Without a sense of security, they posit, a child will fail to mature in a healthy manner.

Child Abuse AwarenessDuring my years working with children as a social worker in a mental health agency and Seattle-area schools, I witnessed what happens when a child develops without a sense of safety. I spent many hours a week with vulnerable kids, both in individual therapy and in a group setting. I represented a healthy adult presence in their tumultuous lives, and they liked me, but our interactions were characterized by the abuse they’d suffered. Victims of physical abuse can fluctuate between withdrawal and aggression.

Glimpses of Child Abuse

M, a five year-old boy who was in a day treatment program that I helped run, refused to speak to me for an entire year. Four days a week he remained withdrawn and quiet except for the times that he would lash out angrily, snarling and hitting.

Another boy, a six year-old named K, would self-soothe, rocking in his chair and sucking his thumb. Unlike M, K was very verbal, but he, too, frequently hit and kicked in anger.

L, another boy with whom I worked, would beg for food from classmates or steal it if none was forthcoming.

B, a child who showed signs of physical neglect, frequently displayed fatigue or listlessness, yawning constantly and often falling asleep in class.

A and C, two six year-old girls, engaged in inappropriate sexualized play with their classmates.

The children with whom I worked demonstrated a wide array of behavioral indicators for emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. One behavior seemed most pronounced in every child. Every boy or girl would test the adults. They’d act in provocative, defiant and often cruel ways then watch closely to see if the adults would give up on them. The children did not believe that an adult caregiver could be counted on and expected to be abandoned. They had no trust in adults. And why should they?

Impact of Child Abuse: The Statistics

A sense of safety is essential to a child’s development. A child, confident in his or her emotional and physical well-being, develops a trust in the world that opens a path to successful maturation. Parents shoulder the responsibility for creating a safe environment in which a child develops the ability to trust. Sadly, as evidenced by the children with whom I worked, mothers and fathers frequently fail.

  • There are 2.9 million annual reports of child abuse in the United States (Safehorizon, 2012). The victims of abuse are more likely to demonstrate anti-social behavior and violence.
  • They score lower on tests of cognitive capacity, language development, and academic achievement.
  • Victims of child abuse are more likely to suffer from chronic health conditions and are more likely to develop at least one psychiatric condition by age 21.
  • Many homeless teens run away to escape abuse.
  • They are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile and 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult.

The negative outcomes of child abuse are clear, and they last long after the actual abuse has ended. The children in my day treatment classroom had been removed from their parents’ care, but still demonstrated multiple deficiencies. They were denied safety when they were very young so never developed the ability to trust. As long as this incapacity burdens them, the maladaptive behaviors created by child abuse will persist.

Supporting an Abused Child

Helping these children succeed is difficult, but there are steps that can be taken.

Global Child Abuse HotlinesFirst of all, the abuse must be recognized, and the child brought to a safer environment. This can be a difficult process. It is often our inclination to look the other way rather than face a very unpleasant reality. To combat this, there are laws to require people in certain positions to report suspected abuse. These mandated reporters act in jobs that put them in a position to most easily recognize the signs of child abuse. People who work in school settings (teachers, administration, teachers’ aides, paraprofessionals) and those who work in healthcare (doctors, nurses, dentists, hygienists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers) are mandated reporters. Police officers, emergency medical technicians, and foster care workers are also mandated to report suspected abuse.

Once the abuse has been identified and the child has been removed to a safe place, there are other steps that can be taken to help the victimized boy or girl heal. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness predominate. Victims often have little to no self-esteem. The children need support to accomplish realistic goals (in school and at home). Such support can aid the child on the road to rebuilding their self-esteem.

Abused children also require structure and consistency. Abused children feel powerless over their lives. To cope, they may refuse to exert any control on their environment (even when they are able) and/or try to manipulate everything they can through explosive behaviors and/or controlling others. Adults can help the child attain a sense of control in a positive manner (expressing one’s self through art, music or play rather than explosive behaviors).

Adults should help the child realize that he or she is valued and accepted. Abuse leaves a child feeling alone and unworthy. A sense of belonging needs to be instilled to help reverse both sentiments.

Hope for the Future

The task is daunting, but achievable. Two of the boys whom I described earlier, B and K, are brothers whose early childhood was filled with abuse and neglect. Their behavior gave evidence of their tumultuous past. Both manifested manipulative and testing behaviors as well as violent tantrums. Despite their circumstances, however, they were more fortunate than their peers. Their grandparents took them in, providing them a patient, loving home environment that was structured, consistent, and offered a sense of belonging.

In the years I worked with them, they made slow, but steady progress. They moved out of the Seattle area many years ago, and I have not seen them since. I found out recently, however, that one of the boys will be attending college and the other completed high school and has a job. I was delighted by the news. When they were five years old, I would not have predicted such a happy outcome.

In Maslov’s Pyramid of Needs, Safety is a foundation upon which all other development rests. Erik Erikson’s first stage of psychosocial development involves the issue of trust. A properly cared for child will develop this ability, but victims of child abuse will not be as lucky. Instead of building their individuality on the firm platform of trust, they have to grow into adulthood as they hurtle through life unsupported, in free fall.


Signs of Child Abuse

Warning Signs of Abuse and Neglect

International Child Abuse Hotlines 

Reference Material:
1. Child Abuse Facts – Safe Horizons
2. Supporting Victims of Child Abuse

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