To tell you the truth, this series is painful for me to write. For one thing, it’s triggering my PTSD because I was abused as a child. For another thing, it’s triggering my PTSD because I worked with a child abuse response team member for several years, after which I became an expert witness for a county prosecutor’s office on child sexual abuse. It’s gut-wrenching work. But it’s so important to talk about.
For instance, January was Human Trafficking Awareness Month. I found myself studying the dark pathways by which children end up trafficked into prostitution. The common thread was abuse at home, which left the youngsters (and I do mean young: the average age of entry into prostitution is 11-14) vulnerable to grooming by “lover-boy” pimps, who take advantage of the girl’s need for love and acceptance, and then funnel them into prostitution. So sad and wrong.
And that in its turn got me thinking again of the various patterns of abuse that can betray a child’s innocence and indeed rob a child of its childhood completely.
And those patterns of abuse include (and this is by no means a comprehensive list):
1. Physical abuse, where harm is done to the child’s body with the intent of causing pain;
2. Sexual abuse, which ranges from inappropriate sexual touching, other sex acts including intercourse, exposure to sexually explicit media, forcing the child to act as a model for pornographic images or video, forcing the child to perform sex acts with others (either children or adults), and more.
3. Verbal abuse. I cannot stress strongly enough how terribly destructive verbal abuse is. It tears down a child’s self esteem and leads to depression and despair, eating disorders, self-harming behaviors, substance abuse, and other self-destructive patterns including suicide.
4. Emotional abuse. Typically a push-me, pull-you pattern of drawing the child in through affectionate behaviors and then violently pushing the child away, often using verbal and/or physical abuse. Emotionally abusing parents will often reverse the parent-child role relationship, so that the child feels responsible for the parent’s well-being. This is often associated with parental substance abuse.
5. Psychological abuse. This is a deliberate program of tearing down a child’s self-esteem for the benefit of building the parent’s ego. The abusing parent envelops the child in a net of control, holding the reins very tightly, and playing on the child’s emotions as on the keys of a piano. This type of parent is extremely intelligent, insecure, and is often the product of a highly abusive home. S/he is highly narcissistic and needs complete control over everything. Think “Mommy Dearest.”
All five main types of child abuse are forms of torture that produce permanently wounded people. The extent to which they are able to recover, once out of the abusing environment, seems to depend on the resiliency of their temperament. I’ve known resilient people who were horribly abused as children, yet grew up to be happy, well-adjusted adults. And I’ve known less resilient people who’ve ended up so permanently damaged that they fell into addiction and eventually suicide.
What can we do to help?
For one thing, if we have contact with children through our work (teachers, health care workers, day care workers, lunchroom ladies, bus drivers, hairdressers/barbers, etc. etc. you get the idea), we can be on the lookout for telltale signs of abuse, and not be shy about reporting suspicions to the Child Protective authorities. In fact, certain professionals are mandated to report suspected abuse: teachers, health care workers, and anyone whose job primarily involves children.
In my next post, I will describe some features of each form of abuse, so that you will know what to look for.