The words abusive and parents are two words that should never go together. Sadly, though, all too often, they do. And, if you happen to be the child of abusive parents, you can find yourself living a life of fear and pain instead of a happy, healthy childhood.
The children of abusive parents often suffer emotional, psychological and even physical damage that can stay with them into adult life. Abuse in childhood can colour and ruin your ability to establish happy, healthy relationships of your own, and can even lead you to become an abusive parent yourself. Children who are abused by their parents may even become so depressed that they commit suicide…or, in extreme cases, be killed by their own parents. It’s a bleak picture. But, if parental abuse is picked up and acted upon, it can be stopped and the children can be helped to recover.
Also see our child abuse help article.
What is parental abuse?
An abusive parent is someone who mistreats their child. The abuse may be intentional or unintentional, and may take various forms or occur for a variety of reasons. Parental abuse of children can be categorized into the following forms:
- Physical Abuse: Physical abuse usually involves an injury or the intentional infliction of pain, but it doesn’t have to be high level violence to classify. Physical abuse may be a slap, a shove, kicking, beating, punching, burning, scalding, shaking or cutting. It can be said to be any abusive action that touches a child physically and causes harm or distress. It is often intentional, but not always. A parent who is emotionally unable to cope with the demands of disciplining a child may lash out in anger and frustration. Or, a parent who has themselves grown up in an abusive environment may be blindly following the pattern of their own upbringing. Some parents are unable to draw the line between abuse and normal discipline.
- Emotional/psychological abuse: Emotional and psychological abuse is far harder to see from the outside than physical abuse. It can, however, be even more damaging. Emotional abuse of a child can lead to a deconstruction of a child’s personality as he or she loses all confidence in the world. A parent, carer or person in authority is the center of a child’s universe, so when this relationship is abusive the child really feels he or she has nowhere to turn. A parent who is emotionally abusive towards a child can remove the child’s perception of normality. The child is unable to follow a normal set of rules and never knows when he will have pleased or displeased the parent, nor understands why. Emotional abuse may take the form of belittling or name calling, shouting or threatening. An abusive parent may also withdraw affection from a child, refusing to speak to him or her or withdrawing physical comforts like hugs and closeness. It also, sometimes, means forcing a child to live in an abusive environment where he is witness to acts of violence or emotional abuse towards his mother or other family member. As a result, the child sees the world as an unpredictable and unsafe place from which he has no escape. A child who is constantly told by a parent that he or she is worthless, stupid, fat, lazy or ugly quickly begins to believe this. The parent is the center of a child’s world, and they are easily led to believe that what a parent says must be true. And, as it’s much harder for a child to find avenues of escape or support than it is for an adult, they tend to remain in a secretive, abusive world for far longer.
- Sexual child abuse: Sexual abuse of a child is another form of physical abuse, and will always impact on a child’s emotional/psychological well being to some degree. It can happen to boys and girls alike, and to children of any age. When the sexual abuse of a child is perpetrated by a parent, the child can feel that it is something that they have to endure in order to be loved, or to prove their love. The sexual abuse of a child can involve physical contact, such as inappropriate touching, forced oral sex or penetrative sex, but it can also involve non contact forms of abuse. A child who is made to witness sexual acts or view pornographic material is also being sexually abused.
- Neglect: Neglect is a very common form of child abuse. Neglect is a failure to provide for a child’s needs, be they emotional or physical. It may involve not providing enough food, warmth, shelter or clothing. It may also be a case of not giving the child a secure and safe emotional base. Neglect may or may not be an intentional abuse. Some abusive parents may use neglect to control a child’s behavior and emotions. However, it can equally be unintentional if a parent lacks the emotional maturity to understand a child’s needs. Neglect can also result from poverty.
Why does parental abuse happen?
To most parents, the very idea of abusing one’s own children in any way is abhorrent. All parents make mistakes, of course, and few would claim to be perfect, but abuse is rather more than the occasional moment of inattention or a snappy response in a moment of stress. Abuse is prolonged and deeply damaging.
A parent may abuse a child because he or she is themselves damaged, perhaps by an abusive childhood or experience of their own. A child who is abused by their parents and untreated can grow into an adult who has no understanding of healthy, normal relationships between adults and children. They approach child rearing in the only way they know, which may be violent, insensitive or neglectful. Even the sexual abuse of a child by his parent can be caused by the parent’s own childhood abuse by his parents. Depression, personality disorders and mental illnesses are other causes of parental abuse, as can be drug or alcohol addiction.
The fracture of a family can also be a factor in initiating parental abuse. As couples divorce and remarry or move in with new partners, new instant families are created. It can be difficult for an adult to love or cope with their partner’s children, and equally difficult for the children to fit into a new family headed by an adult who they may resent. Behavioral problems can ensue, and a frustrated step parent may begin to behave in uncharacteristic ways. This is often referred to as ‘The Cinderella Effect’.
A common form of parental abuse is also neglect. Neglect often occurs because a parent lacks the skills, education or the financial means to care properly for a child. Immaturity is another factor, when parents have children far too young and are ill equipped to cope. In many of these cases, help can be provided for both the parents and the children, and recovery is possible.
Then, sadly, there are some individuals who are simply abusive by nature, and should never be left in charge of children.
How to recognize the signs of child abuse
Because children are so vulnerable and less able to recognize the abuses perpetrated on them than adults, it is vital that those who are around them are able to spot the signs of parental abuse. The different forms of parental abuse may result in varying symptoms, but knowing what to watch out for is essential.
- Signs of physical parental abuse: A child who is being physically abused may have obvious signs of injury such as cuts, bruises, burns or welts. If these are seen regularly, abuse must be suspected. It can be a tough call, as children do fall or hurt themselves in the normal way of things, but regular injuries of this type need to be noted. Asking the child how he obtained the injuries can be telling. If he is unable or unwilling to explain, or seems uptight or gives an unrealistic explanation, abuse may be behind it. A child who wears long sleeved or high necked clothing even in warm weather may be trying to cover up injuries. Another warning sign of physical child abuse is flinching from sudden movements by others as though expecting to be hit. If a parent avoids coming into the child’s school to discuss his progress with the teachers or appears evasive when asked about the child’s injuries, abuse may be suspected.
- Signs of emotional parental abuse: A child who becomes withdrawn, anxious or fearful may be being abused emotionally by a parent. Sudden changes in personality or behavior can also be signs. It is also worth noting that a child who appears to regress to babyish behavior, thumb sucking or rocking, perhaps, may be experiencing psychological damage from emotional abuse at home.
- Signs of sexual child abuse: If a child is being sexually abused he or she may show obvious signs of discomfort sitting or walking. They may become reluctant to undress or change in public. Conversely, child victims of sexual abuse can become excessively interested in sex, talking about it, looking at pornography or even becoming sexually active or sexually abusive to others.
- Signs of neglect: A neglected child may be dressed in ill fitting, dirty or inappropriate clothing. They may give off body odor, be excessively hungry or lose weight. A child whose needs are not met at home may be frequently absent from school, or clearly left unsupervised for periods of time.
What to do if you are a child who is being abused by a parent
If you are suffering abuse, there may be a trusted adult that you can turn to in the first instance. However, if you are being abused by a parent, it can be difficult for another member of your family to accept or believe the situation, so it may be better to turn to a teacher, a friend’s parents or your doctor or minister.
If you are a victim of parental abuse who feels that there is no-one in your immediate life who you can turn to, it is important for you to know that there are organisations and professionals who will help you. Phone numbers and website addresses are given under the Resources section at the end. However, there may be extra services in your area that you can find by doing internet searches. You will not be judged or ignored. No one will belittle your fears or concerns and you will always be taken seriously.
It’s also important to understand that when you turn to a help organisation for a problem of child abuse, your safety will be treated as paramount. You will be advised on how to protect yourself, and can be given a place of safety to escape to if necessary. Counselling can be provided for you too, to help you to recover from the effects of abuse.
Children at risk can also call emergency services or go to the police or their local accident and emergency department of the hospital.
What to do if you suspect that a child you know is being abused by a parent
The role of the outsider is more important than ever when it comes to cases of parental abuse. This is because children may be too young to be able to find help themselves, or may be too frightened. They may also feel a misguided sense of loyalty to the abusive parent and be unwilling to report the abuse. So, being on the lookout for signs of parental abuse can save lives.
If you suspect that a child you know is being abused by a parent, there are several things that you can do. If the child is old enough and you have a good relationship with her, you can make time to talk to her and let her know that you are always there to listen. If the abuse is mild and seems to stem from poverty or lack of education you may feel able to speak to the parent herself and explain how she can find help. In some cases, simply being around and offering your help to give the parent a break and ease the stress can make a difference.
However, if it is apparent that abuse is taking place, it is best to contact the professionals who can handle the case safely for all concerned. You can, of course, make sure that the child knows that she can find a place of safety with you while things are resolved.
For help and advice, you can turn to your doctor, social worker, domestic violence or child helplines and websites (given under Resources below). Or, if the danger is immediate, call emergency services. Your anonymity will be protected if you wish, in most cases there is no need to give your name.
Treatments and solutions for parental abuse
Children who have been abused by their parents may need to be taken into care or placed in foster homes. However, if the abuse is not severe and the authorities believe that it can be resolved within the family with professional help, this is also possible. Treatments for abused children usually involve specialist counselling sessions.
Help for parents who may be being abusive without intending to be so can include parenting classes and financial support where appropriate. Parents who are exhausted by the demands of raising a disabled child, for example, may neglect their other children as a consequence. Cases like this can be sympathetically dealt with, so don’t be afraid to ask for help if this is what’s happening in your family. Respite care may be offered and can make all the difference.