what is child abuse?

What Is Child Abuse?

With lines shifting and cultural views changing, just what is child abuse? To understand what falls under this spectrum of child abuse, I have found it helpful to focus on not only the behaviors but also the effects of those behaviors.

Before you read on further, be sure to induldge on the first article in this series Childhood abuse: 5 things to confront for your healing

I believe child abuse is a systematic, persistent pattern of psychological, physical, and/or sexual behaviors that denigrate and devalue the identity and worth of a child.

This child abuse shows itself in, I believe, four distinct and often interconnected ways—through emotional or psychological abuse, through physical abuse, through neglect, and through sexual abuse.

Child abuse is multilayered. Neglect and physical and sexual abuse are always accompanied by devastating emotional damage. This childhood abuse can appear as aggressive actions of harm as well as passive failures to act.

Child abuse can manifest as a pattern of behavior over time but can also encompass a single severe and traumatic event that undermines a child’s sense of self, immediate safety, and long-term security.

I will spend time going over various types of child abuse, the effects of such abuse, and ways to overcome and heal from abuse. But before I can do any of those things, I need to first deal with what I have seen as a significant barrier to healing from chil abuse, which is this persistent clinging to the illusion of normalcy.

What about you? What was your normal? Perhaps your normal growing up was a house full of yelling, cursing, and chaos. You may have grown up routinely being slapped or kept from food or sleep.

Your bedroom, when you were younger, may have been a place, not of dreams, but of nightmares. These situations were part of your normal life. You didn’t like living like that, but you didn’t know any other way.

That life was normal for you and you found a way through it. You may have even felt pride that you survived and turned out as well as you did.

Or you may, to this day, still experience deep shame regarding how you were treated and hide behind the curtain of normalcy.

Regardless, you did what you had to and got by another day. Truthfully, the last thing you want to do now is go back and relive what you’ve been trying to put behind you.

Others of you, early on, understood your “special” status; you knew you weren’t normal and believed you were to blame. You couldn’t hide from the truth of your abuse; instead, your goal was to hide the truth of your abuse from others.

You didn’t want anyone to know how you were being treated because of the deep guilt and shame you felt. The horror of your abuse was always accompanied by the terror of someone discovering your humiliation and degradation.

Deep down, you believed you were at fault. Either you deserved what happened to you or you were too weak to stop it.

If others found out, they would blame you too and do nothing to protect you. You pretended to be normal to hide the truth you weren’t.

If this is how you’ve dealt with the pain of your past, this illusion of normal may have become so engrained that it has taken on a life of its own.

The illusion seems much easier to deal with than the truth.

You may be trying to live your life completely in the present, avoiding any mention of your past, beyond the façade of normalcy you’ve hidden behind for years.

  Bringing the Past to the Present

Going back and dealing with your past may not be what you want to do, but I firmly believe it is what you need to do. Words that bite and scratch and dig deep into the soul leave scars.

Neglect and abandonment create holes of deprivation that resist being filled. Being used for the sexual gratification of others steals away identity and worth.

Physical, sexual, and psychological wounds leave scars, whether hidden or acknowledged.

Sbu looked back on his childhood as pretty normal. He lived in a normal house, in a normal neighborhood. Sure, his dad would periodically take a belt to his backside when he was younger, but he considered that normal.

However, Sbu told me he could barely sit after these sessions. He talked about how he tried to use his hands to shield the pain until his father started tying his wrists to a bedpost.

When I asked Sbu if his father said anything during these beatings, Sbu explained that he would punctuate each blow with a verbal assault. Sbu told me his father made sure he knew just why he deserved such punishment.

When I asked if anyone in the house ever came to his aid, Sbu admitted that sometimes his father seemed unable to stop the beatings until Sbu’s screams brought his mother’s reluctant intervention.

When he got older, Sbu said the beatings ended but the verbal assaults did not. Sbu didn’t consider the verbal assaults abusive because he was no longer being physically beaten, but the bruising just moved from the outside to the inside.

Sbu told me that was just the way the old man was. He learned to live with it back then and said he thought he’d put that past behind him. Then the panic attacks started and threatened to undo everything Sbu had done to make up for his past.

Sbu came for help to overcome the panic attacks, not realizing the key to his present problem could only be found in his past.

Dimpho considered her childhood pretty normal. She wasn’t one of the popular kids growing up, she admitted to me, but quickly added that neither were any of her friends.

She said she never wanted to be popular, but she wasn’t a “bad” kid either. Being bad or popular, Dimpho said, got you noticed at school, which wasn’t good. Getting noticed made you a target, and the last thing Dimpho wanted at school was to be a target. She got enough of that at home.

Dimpho confessed she often found herself the focus of her mother’s discontent, which could manifest at any time for obscure reasons. Dimpho was still confused about what would set her mother off.

She tried to learn to be compliant, doing what she was told as quickly and as quietly as possible, to try to please her mother. “Flying under the radar” was how she put it.

Dimpho told me, at some point, she gave up on receiving any kind of praise from her mother. The new standard Dimpho said she settled for was not to draw her mother’s attention.

Dimpho thought she’d put the past behind her but admitted she was becoming angrier at living her life devoted to drawing no attention to herself. She had already quit two jobs in the past three years because she secretly fumed over how unfairly she’d been treated.

Instead of saying anything and drawing attention to herself, she’d just quit. Dimpho quit those jobs, but she didn’t quit thinking about those jobs and how unappreciated she’d been. Well into adulthood, Dimpho found herself mad, surprisingly furious, with no idea how to handle her rage.

Bongani knew his life wasn’t normal but did everything he could to hide that fact. Normal people, he said, were happy to see their grandparents. Not Bongani.

When Bongani even looked at his grandfather, he got sick to his stomach and could feel an upwelling of that old, buried anger. Bongani was angry that, even after what happened, his grandfather could still show up at the house, smiling and hugging all the grandkids.

Bongani said he never told his parents what had happened. He just shrugged when I asked him why not. What was he supposed to say? Besides, Bongani said it had happened only twice during that summer he’d spent at his grandparents’ house in Middleburg.

He was young and hadn’t known what to do to escape. He assured me that when he was older, he made sure it never happened again.

Bongani talked about how he went on with his life, distancing himself from his family the older he got. His grandfather got older too. Bongani said he found it difficult to reconcile pictures of “that frail old man” with the one who had done those things so long ago.

Bongani said the way he handled it was just not to think about it, not talk about it. Above all else, he’d learned you don’t trust; you don’t let people close enough to hurt you. Then Bongani started his own family.

Sbu, Dimpho, and Bongani all sought to view or present their childhood experiences through that illusion of normalcy. They could not understand why, with the past in the past, they were having so much difficulty navigating the present.

Trying to keep the past pushed down wasn’t working so well. Each realized they were trying to fit a “normal” shape around the jagged, hurtful edges of their experiences.

Each had attempted over the years to outrun their past, moving on with life, careers, relationships, activities, family—going, doing, running.

The past, however, kept seeping up, like thick, sticky tar, gumming up their best intentions in the present.

  Childlike Faith

Sbu, Dimpho, and Bongani grew up because children do not stay children. As their worlds expanded, they came to realize the “normal” they experienced wasn’t really the same as what others had experienced.

The strategy of normalcy began to fray. What were they to do then? Stick with the façade of normalcy? Or come to accept a different kind of childhood?

How is a person to accept the pain and shame that come from truly acknowledging an abusive childhood?

Everyone knows there is no such thing as a perfect family, but that doesn’t stop a child from wanting one. Children have an incredibly powerful need to be loved, and they will hold on to that wish in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.

Why? Because children routinely believe in the impossible, mirrored in and fortified by childhood stories. In Disney’s Pinocchio, Jiminy CSbuet sings that “anything your heart desires will come to you.”

Lyrics like that and “when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true” promise children the power to change their worlds and do impossible things.

Children are dreamers. They are eternal optimists, as exemplified in the song “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie. In that song, an orphan, Annie, has a mantra for getting through difficult days by singing that the sun will come out tomorrow, while assuring herself that tomorrow is only a day away.

Children have the capacity to believe in the sun, even when it is obscured by clouds. I believe this capacity to see clouds today but believe in the sun tomorrow empowers abused children to survive their abuse.

The difficulty arises when illusion and truth, with clouds and sun, become confused and the child is no longer willing or able to differentiate one from the other.

In this blog, I’m asking you to take a risk by acknowledging the clouds in your life:

  1. I’m asking you to open up that lockbox of “it wasn’t so bad” and consider the possibility that it was.
  2. I’m asking you to open yourself up to accepting that what you experienced as a child was bad because it was wrong and painful.
  3. Moreover, I’m asking you to accept the truth, knowing acceptance will cause you more pain. And for those of you who are aware of the clouds you experienced as a child, I’m asking you to reach back, beyond the pain, humiliation, and devastation, to that child who still believed in the sun.
  4. I’m asking you to hold on to faith. The faith I’m asking for, however, isn’t found in the pages of a children’s book but, rather, in a different sort of “book.”
  5. I’m asking you to reawaken your childlike faith, a faith that starts in childhood yet reaches beyond adulthood. This is the faith, Jesus said, with the power to unlock the kingdom of heaven.
  6. I’m asking you to keep your faith in the impossible, even in the glare of reality’s harsh light. You may not be able to find the way to impossible things, but “with God all things are possible.”

This blog, then, is about the reality of our lives as emotional, relational, and physical beings and how child abuse affects that reality.

However, this blogis also about the truth of our lives as spiritual beings and how faith, hope, and love can make impossible dreams come true.

Not Normal but Too Common

child abuse is more common than we thought God, she was tired. If she had to hear about one more problem, she swore she was going to explode. Pity the person who set her off; it wasn’t going to be pretty.

Nobody cared about her stress. All anybody cared about was what they needed, especially the kids. Give me this; I need that. The demands were endless.

Her feet and back hurt. All she wanted was peace and quiet, which never seemed to happen with the TV blaring or that obnoxious soundtrack from her nine-year-old’s latest video game, the one her ex bought him even though she had clearly said no.

The more Thuli thought about her life and her stresses, the madder she got. By the time she picked up the kids from after-school care, she was fuming.

Both must have sensed how she was feeling, because they didn’t say much as they got into the car. “Let’s go,” was all she said. That is, until Thoriso got out that new game and started playing it before she even left the parking lot.

That stupid, incessant music was the final straw—for the next ten minutes Thuli unloaded her anger, frustration, and resentment from the driver’s seat to the back seat. Starting with her son, she outlined his disobedience from the previous week.

Her daughter was hammered with the list of the things she’d done poorly or not at all. After arriving at home, both kids were sent to their rooms and the game taken away for a week. Thuli felt good that at least some things in her life were under her control.

Are you surprised that a scenario such as this would be in a blog about child abuse? Did Thuli beat her kids physically? No. Did she use them for her own sexual gratification? No. Did she fail to feed or clothe them? No.

Was Thuli abusive to her children? Yes. Thuli was emotionally abusive. She repeatedly blamed them for the problems in her life, over which they had no control and bore no responsibility.

She had a terrible habit of punishing them for being children and, thus, deprived them of the joy in being children. She devised ways to use this blame and punishment of her children for personal emotional gratification, creating psychological, or emotional, abuse.

Children, by nature, should be protected and nurtured by those stronger and more powerful. Yet children can often find themselves in vulnerable, targeted positions.

Child abuse is not normal, but, as a professional therapist, I find it distressingly common, especially when all types of childh abuse are factored—physical abuse, neglect, sexual abuse, and, most common of all, emotional or psychological abuse.

Emotional Child Abuse

Emotional child abuseYears ago, I began reading up on emotional abuse because I wasn’t finding much acknowledgment regarding the damage I was seeing in my parishioners from emotional or psychological abuse.

One question I have always asked, was why emotional abuse was so common. I concluded that emotional abuse was so prevalent because some people categorized emotional child abuse as normal.

How could something normal be considered abusive? So what if you were yelled at growing up, wasn’t everyone? Who cared if you were regularly dismissed as worthless? You just needed to try harder.

If you didn’t grow up feeling loved, that was just a generational thing you were supposed to get over. If you weren’t beaten within an inch of your life, you had nothing to complain about.

So people didn’t complain; they moved on with their lives. Yet some of those people kept having difficulties, difficulties that eventually led them to my office.

Do you remember the childhood story “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by Hans Christian Andersen? In this story, two weavers promise a vain emperor a fine suit of clothes.

However, these clothes could only be seen by those who were wise and knowledgeable. Those who were stupid or incompetent would be unfit to see the clothes.

The weavers purport to have finished the clothing, mimic dressing the emperor, and then proceed to parade him about the village.

The townspeople are afraid to be deemed unfit to see the splendid new clothes, so they ooh and aah and gush about the emperor’s new clothes, that is, until a young child cries out that the emperor isn’t wearing any.

At that point, the bubble bursts and the adults in the crowd find the courage to admit the obvious.

People are slow to admit the obvious in cases of emotional abuse for various reasons. When I was growing up, years of groupthink said that adults, especially parents, had the right to deal with children however they saw fit.

You weren’t supposed to involve yourself in another family’s “business.” If adults spoke harshly to children, well, they must have had a reason. It wasn’t your “place” to object—and certainly not in public.

My generation also grew up learning that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I remember repeating that rhyme to myself when other kids were mean to me.

I learned the lesson well and determined I wasn’t going to let other kids get to me. That rhyme wasn’t as successful when it came to hurtful words from adults, and certainly not my parents.

My father and mother still retained the power to hurt me with their words. Even my siblings could get under my guard with their words and sometimes go-away attitude.

Needless to say, I didn’t grow up in a perfect family. I also didn’t grow up in an abusive one. I grew up in a truly normal family, with parents who loved and cared for me, who gave me words of encouragement, and who sometimes hurt me with their words.

As far as I knew, the kids I hung out with growing up also lived in normal families, though the ratio of good-to-bad ran the gambit, from the house with what we used to call “the Oros mom” to the house with the dad who drank during the day.

We didn’t know any different. As kids, we roamed the neighborhood, reading the temperature of our block of houses, seeking out the best moods and best food.

We didn’t think about emotional abuse; we just knew the people and the houses to avoid. And we felt sorry for the kids who didn’t have that option.

Growing up, we had a school friend with an abusive father. The only thing we could do for him, who didn’t have that option, was to invite him to sleepovers at a common friend’s house as much as possible.

When the answer was no to sleeping over at the friend’s house, we’d find the courage to go to his house, hoping our being there would, in some way, keep him from being as much of a target. At that age, being his friend was our way of helping him.

As a kid, my buddy’s life was his life and we found ways to work around the rough parts. One of those ways was for both of us to pretend the drunken tirades weren’t so bad. My friend would make jokes about his dad and make-believe he didn’t care; we’d laugh and let him.

They moved and we lost touch, as kids often do. I’ve wondered, though, over the years, how he’s doing with those rough parts of his life.

To this day, I can still remember some of the terrible words his inebriated father would hurl in his direction. I’ve relived them in the lives and stories of those I’ve counseled.

When I started my ministry years ago, I committed to unclothe the lie that “words can never hurt.” They can and they do, in stunning and devastating ways. When society collectively comes to that conclusion, the emotional abuse of children will become less common.

Physical Child Abuse

physical child abuseEmotional or psychological abuse underlies all other types of child abuse. Sadly, children become not only verbal punching bags but also literal ones.

As a society, we continue to wrestle with the lines between physical discipline of a child and physical abuse of a child. Most of us over a certain age grew up with spanking and slapping.

If we misbehaved in school, we were possibly paddled as discipline. So, if a child can be hit by an adult in one situation, where is the line between discipline and abuse?

This debate was reignited several years ago, when a popular NFL player was indicted on charges of child abuse for hitting his four-year-old son with a wooden switch hard enough to cause welts.

He pled no contest to child endangerment and spent part of a year suspended by the NFL but was reinstated after a court ruling overturned that suspension. People came to his defense, saying they had been similarly disciplined as children and turned out fine.

Others, however, questioned the use of such discipline on a four-year-old. Some felt hitting a child with an open hand, such as spanking or slapping, was acceptable but hitting a child with a closed hand, a fist, or an object was not.

Others threw Proverbs 13:24 into the discussion. Growing up and going to church, I remember the shortened version of that proverb being, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

The full version is: “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.”

Some questioned the definition of the word discipline, suggesting the root of that word is about teaching or instruction and does not refer to punishment.

One person posited that the rod in question was a shepherd’s crook (as in, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me” from Psalm 23:4) used to guide and not to hit.

Defining physical child abuse in this one instance, with this one family, became a national conversation.

What about you? How do you define physical abuse of a child? Is your definition tied to what you experienced as a child yourself? Were you swatted, spanked, or “whooped” as a child? Were you hit, beaten, or kicked?

Were you picked up, thrown against walls, knocked down stairs? Were you burned or scratched or cut? Were you too sore to move, sit, or walk afterward? And how did you feel about what happened?

How did you feel about yourself? Was it your fault? Could you have made it better if only you’d tried harder to be good?

What was the reason for the physical actions against you? Were they to teach you a lesson? Were they because you were stupid or useless? Were they because the other person was tired or frustrated or angry or drunk or high? How often did they happen? Once in a blue moon? Once a month? Once a week? Once a day?

Some people believe spanking or swatting a child with an open hand is an effective way to gain that child’s attention. If you believe that, is there a difference if that child is five or fifteen?

Is it discipline to slap a child across the face once but physical chil abuse to do it again and again? Furthermore, is there a difference if the physical action is taken by a parent, a teacher, or a coach?

So many questions, and the answers do not find universal acceptance, as has been the case since time in memoria, and exacerbated by today’s liberal culture.

I answer the question of what is physically abusive the following way: physical abuse is the use of physical force to intentionally cause injury to a child, with that injury causing not only physical but also emotional damage.

A court may rule on parental discipline, but the court of public opinion is still deliberating over the line between appropriate discipline and inappropriate and unacceptable physical abuse.

In the case of your life and childhood, you will need to come to your own conclusions after a thorough look at your experiences and how those experiences were meant to make you feel.

The lines are shifting, but until a widely accepted cultural conclusion is reached, physical child abuse will remain too common.

As you read these articles, discover your questions, search for your answers, and hang on to hope. Watch for hope to do amazing things.

Book your counselling session today https://www.cyrilpeterson.co.za/product/biblical-counselling/

Disclaimer: Fictional names were used and identifying details of the stories told were omitted for privacy purposes

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