Parents are supposed to protect their child from abuse. But, what happens when parents turn abusers? Read on to know what parental abuse can do to a child.
By Mina Dilip
With protests against child rape gaining momentum, this is perhaps the right time to take a critical look at how we treat our children and what we should be doing to keep them safe. Dictionary.com defines child abuse as “mistreatment of a child by a parent or guardian, including neglect, beating, and sexual molestation.” However, the term ‘child abuse’ encompasses a great deal more than just physical or sexual abuse.
This article explores the various forms of abuse that children are subjected to, often unknowingly, by parents or caregivers. Furthermore, it suggests measures to safeguard children against any form of abuse or maltreatment.
The World Health Organization recognises all the below-listed forms of abuse as child maltreatment, resulting in life-long effects and consequences, not only at the individual level, but also at the global (macro) level.
Apathy and neglect: One of the least recognised forms of child abuse is neglect. Often, neglect is obvious but ignored. Neglect manifests in the form of malnutrition, poor health, lack of grooming and self-care, improper personal hygiene and absence of social skills.
Sadly, in our culture, parents give so much priority to being providers that they end up neglecting their child’s emotional needs and depriving them of their love, care and attention. Nowadays, it is common to see parents fiddling with the phone while their child is desperately trying to get their attention. Neglected children grow up to have very low self-esteem and are often low achievers.
Beating and corporal punishment: When a parent hits a child, it is no big deal. It is, in fact, portrayed as something noble. The concept of ‘discipline’ is so grossly misunderstood that many parents hardly give it a second thought before slapping, pinching or even hitting a child with a cane or belt. They rationalise such behaviour by saying that they are doing this for the benefit of the child, keeping his or her best interests in mind.
What parents do not realise is that physical punishment tend to escalate in intensity and frequency over time, sometimes to the extent of causing irreversible physical damage or even death. Many physically abused children grow up to be aggressive, violent and abusive adults; thus, the legacy of abuse continues.
Unusual forms of maltreatment: In my practice as a therapist, I have come across various forms of maltreatment, all in the name of ‘discipline’. One mother revealed that she would lock up her son in a dark room when he disobeyed her. Another parent confessed that she withheld food and water as a form of punishment when there were complaints against her daughter from the school. Yet another parent went to the extreme level of branding the child’s back with a hot spatula whenever he behaved inappropriately.
All these are forms of abuse, and none of them easy to identify. Children who undergo such forms of abuse grow up to be insecure, suspicious and passive-aggressive.
Sexual abuse: Most people associate sexual abuse with rape or penetrative sex only. However, when it comes to children, sexual abuse also includes inappropriate touching and fondling, forcing a child to touch the genitals of an adult, coercing a child to watch pornography or other sexually inappropriate material, making sexually lewd comments to a child, and making a child pose for inappropriate photographs or videos (child pornography).
Quite a large number of children are exposed to one or the other form of sexual abuse. What makes the situation worse is parental disbelief of a child’s disclosure of abuse. Most offenders happen to be those known to the family, owing to which a child’s complaints often fall on deaf ears. Some parents even blame the child! This compounds the issue, leading to immense harm to the child’s psyche. Sexually abused children suffer from serious psychological disorders even through adulthood.
Emotional and psychological abuse: While emotional and psychological abuse is an unhealthy practice, it is glorified by some sections of the media. The most common form of such abuse is emotional blackmail. It is common to see a mother tell her child, “If you don’t do your homework now, I won’t talk to you!” Quite a few parents also issue threats of self-harm to get their children to comply to their requests. “Do this for me,” is a common refrain used by parents in many households. What parents do not realise is that making a child do things for them essentially robs the child of the pleasure of doing anything. It is always about keeping Mummy happy or pleasing Daddy. It is never about what the child wants. The child’s feelings are trivialised and completely undermined. Another common form of emotional abuse is frequent and constant comparison with other children. This chips away steadily at a child’s self-worth and makes him feel completely worthless.
Emotionally or psychologically-abused children grow up with a complete lack of motivation and initiative. They are often apathetic and indifferent, and come across as aloof and flaky.
Abusing a child unknowingly or unintentionally is understandable. Doing it with awareness is cruel. Now that you are aware of the extent of child abuse and maltreatment, it may be worthwhile doing some genuine introspection and taking corrective measures. If you or someone you know is abusing your child in any one of the above ways, here is what you can do, using the acronym LOVE:
Look within: If you notice that you engage in one of the above forms of maltreatment, introspect to discover what is leading you to act this way. Seeking help to resolve your own psychological conflicts and receiving guidance on positive parenting skills can go a long way in helping you become the effective and nurturing parent you always wanted to be.
Observe your child: Perhaps you have never done any of the above. It is still wise to observe your child for any evident signs of abuse. This is because children may be abused anywhere, by anyone. Although there are no blanket symptoms to indicate abuse, you can always watch for sudden personality changes, unexplained mood-swings, physical injuries, sudden aggression or withdrawal — some signs that might be possible pointers of abuse.
Validate: If your child confides in you, validate his feelings. Believe him and talk him through the experience. Take the necessary measures to protect him. For example, if he has disclosed that his school van driver is abusing him, remove him from the offending environment by changing the mode of transport. Whether you want to confront the offender or not is up to you. Ensuring your child’s safety should be your priority.
Empower: Educate your child about personal safety. Assure her that you are always here to listen and support her if she ever faces any form of maltreatment from anyone. And, mean it when you say that!
Bringing up children has never been easy, more so in the present-day environment. When frustrations abound, you may snap sometimes and displace your anger on your helpless child. This is normal. After all, you are human. As long as such instances are few and far between, it is fine. However, if this begins to happen too frequently with increasing intensity, it is essential that you take a step back and follow the LOVE principle. If that fails to work, it may be helpful to seek professional help.
Mina Dilip, Child Psychologist, Trainee Practitioner in Therapeutic Play Skills (PTUK)
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