Child Abuse – Know the Signs

Over the weekend, I uploaded a post in recognition of April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. (Thanks to Soul Survivor over at Bipolar for Life for raising awareness with this post.) My post has since been removed for personal reasons. However, child abuse is such a serious issue in this country, that I couldn’t just pull down the previous post without a replacement. Fortunately (and who would ever have thought I’d be saying this), I have more than one child abuse story in my backpack 🙂

One of the reasons I feel so strongly about raising awareness is child abuse and mental health can be interrelated. Many experts believe some forms of mental illness require both a genetic pre-disposition and a triggering event. The trigger can be anything from work/job stress to puberty to a traumatic event. I’d say child abuse is pretty traumatic. Also some child abuse occurs at the hands of adults who have uncontrolled/undiagnosed mental illness. When we hear the term “child abuse”, most of us immediately jump in our minds to “sexual abuse”, but there are other forms — physical, emotional, neglect. Adults struggling with mental illness may, for example, neglect their kids. They may be so out of their right mind that they’re unable to meet the child’s basic physical and emotional needs.

Next to sexual abuse, emotional abuse is probably the most difficult to discern. Particularly when the perpetrator is a parent who interacts differently with the child in public than in private. Its taken me many decades to reach the conclusion Jerri and I were emotionally, and perhaps physically, abused as children. I don’t think our mom intentionally set out to harm us. Her mother, who was also abusive, was her primary role model for parenting. Mom married when she was only 17, so add immaturity to poor parenting skills, throw in a probable personality disorder and you pretty much have the perfect cocktail for abuse. And when I read articles like Childhood Abuse and Neglect it only affirms my suspicions.

Interestingly enough, its difficult to isolate specific memories that illustrate the abuse. A lot of it was verbal. We were expected to stop whatever we were doing immediately when Mom gave us an assignment. Failure to do so resulted in screaming, threats, and name-calling. Even simple things like “Terri, please go get the mail” could escalate:

“Didn’t I tell you to go get the mail?”
“Yes, I’m waiting for a commercial.”
“I don’t care what you’re doing, go get the mail.”
“But Mom, its right in the middle of the program.”

Not that she ever did actually beat us senseless or even to the point of leaving a whelp. She would threaten to “knock our blocks off.” In public places, she would jerk us up on our toes by an elbow and hustle us out to the car, all the while threatening us through gritted teeth. I was in college before I realized most parents don’t talk to their kids this way. And by that point it was already deeply ingrained in me that I was lazy and what I wanted didn’t matter. That I didn’t matter. My boss, BTW, would tell you how much he admires my work ethic.

I think one of the reasons I can’t recall specific instances is because they were so commonplace. It happened all the time. It was just part of life like brushing my teeth. I can’t remember specific instances of brushing my teeth either. But I did it everyday. (And still do 🙂 for those of you taking notes.)

Mom would routinely point out my physical flaws. I started getting acne when I was 12. She’d say things like, “Your skin looks terrible.” “Your hair is so stringy.” “You have the worst overbite.” And I don’t mean she’d say these thing once or twice. She’d say them hundreds of times. It was like she had no filter on what came out of her mouth and no concept of how damaging her words were to a gangly, introverted, little girl. I was ugly. I knew I was ugly. I still know it deep in my soul no matter how many times my sweet husband tells me otherwise. I look in the mirror and I see ugly. I wonder sometimes at work how people can even bear to look at me. One of the last times I saw my mother, she said, “Oh, just look at your eyes. You’re going to have bags under them for the rest of your life just like mine.” She said this gleefully.

I was told repeatedly that I was over-sensitive. Therefore, if her words hurt me, it was my own fault.

Jerri was told: “You’re uncoordinated.” “You aren’t any good at that.” “You never finish anything you start.” And when she was older, “You look like a slut.” “You dress so trashy.” And Mom constantly compared her to me. She was told my IQ was higher than hers, my grades were better, I applied myself more.

I sucked my thumb until I was about 10 years old. Funny, right? It’s one of the signs of emotional abuse – so no, not really. I was also extremely compliant. The idea of breaking the rules made me break out in a sweat. What if Momma found out? The thought terrified me. This is another sign of emotional abuse.

Childhood Abuse and Neglect describes the difference between using physical punishment to discipline and physical abuse. “The point of disciplining children,” the article says, “is to teach them right from wrong, not to make them live in fear”:

Physical abuse vs. Discipline
In physical abuse, unlike physical forms of discipline, the following elements are present:

  • Unpredictability. The child never knows what is going to set the parent off. There are no clear boundaries or rules. The child is constantly walking on eggshells, never sure what behavior will trigger a physical assault.
  • Lashing out in anger. Physically abusive parents act out of anger and the desire to assert control, not the motivation to lovingly teach the child. The angrier the parent, the more intense the abuse.
  • Using fear to control behavior. Parents who are physically abusive may believe that their children need to fear them in order to behave, so they use physical abuse to “keep their child in line.” However, what children are really learning is how to avoid being hit, not how to behave or grow as individuals.
  • Even when Mom never touched us, these 3 elements applied. We never knew what would trigger her rage and the verbal abuse that would follow. She almost always lashed out in anger. When she punished us, she would say things like, “You’re going to learn to respect me.” “You’re going to learn to do what I tell you.” But all I really learned was to be afraid of her and to loathe myself.

    My purpose for sharing details here is not out of vindictiveness or to malign Mom’s character. Oh, I still get plenty angry at times but my inner grown-up says, “children don’t come with a user’s guide and most people parent the same way theirs did.” And that just makes me sad for Mom. My goal here is to increase awareness of what emotional abuse looks like so others can recognize it when they see it (or are doing it) and intervene.

    Oh, and since I didn’t cover sexual abuse, here are some good links:

    Things you can do to help protect your children from sexual abuse
    Signs of sexual abuse.