When you hear the words “child abuse” – does your heart stop? Does a cold shiver go down your spine? And do you quickly close your eyes and pray that your child should never suffer from child abuse?
I am sure the answer to all those questions is “Yes”.
As parents – each and every one of us pray that our children should never suffer from child abuse.
However, it is not enough to just wish and pray. It is important to understand what exactly constitutes child abuse and how to protect our children from child abuse.
Most of the parents think that the term “child abuse” refers to “sexual abuse” of a child.
However, that is not exactly true.
Child sexual abuse is one of the worst forms of abuse, but it is not the only way in which a child can be abused.
Child abuse can be divided into the following 4 types.
- Abuse due to neglect
- Physical abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Sexual abuse
A child may be suffering from one or more kinds of abuse at a given time. And the abuse may be happening within the family, in a community or in an institution.
The abuser is typically an adult – but an older child may be an abuser too.
However, it is usually someone in a position of power and trusted with the care of the child.
Abuse due to neglect can be of two types.
- Abuse due to physical neglect
- Abuse due to emotional neglect
a. Abuse due to physical neglect
A child who is deprived of the basic needs of food, clothes, hygienic surroundings, medical care, education, and/or supervision such that the lack of supervision becomes a threat to her/his safety is a child who is suffering from abuse due to physical neglect.
The signs that a child is suffering from physical neglect are rather obvious and are easy to identify.
Children suffering from abuse due to physical neglect are likely to look malnourished, unkempt, dirty and ill. They are likely to be found not going to school and playing unsupervised in dangerous circumstances.
It is improbable that children from economically stable families will show these signs. These signs are more typical of poorer families or families where one of the parents are suffering from physical or mental illness.
However, sometimes abuse due to physical neglect can be seen in economically well off families as well. This happens when there are frequent fights among parents which may or may not be violent.
Both parents, in this case, are unable to focus on the child because they are preoccupied with their own issues and the child is neglected.
b. Abuse due to emotional neglect
While physical neglect is uncommon in families with a stable source of income, emotional neglect is quite common and is seen in all kinds of families. It is common even in families that have no financial challenges or are well to do.
Abuse due to emotional neglect is more common when the child has a physical or mental challenge or suffering from a disability.
It is also common in families with single parents or parents who are constantly fighting with each other or where one parent is missing from the life of the child either physically or emotionally.
It can also happen when parents are not able to access good childcare facilities to look after their child in their absence – such as when they are away at work.
Emotional neglect can sometimes happen in families where there is more than one child and the parents focus on the needs of one child more than the other.
When a child is subject to abuse due to emotional neglect she/he is likely to show the following signs
- Poor self-esteem
- Difficulty in learning
- Poor school performance.
How to protect children from child abuse due to neglect
A) Remove poverty
Since poverty is the chief cause of physical and emotional neglect one of the main ways to protect children from child abuse due to neglect is by ensuring that the parents have jobs and earn enough.
In the absence of a stable source of sufficient income, parents cannot possibly provide for the needs of the child – either physical or emotional and cannot be blamed for neglect.
B) Provide affordable schools and medical facilities
Loving parents who want to do their best for their children are sometimes unable to provide for their children because of the phenomenal costs of education and healthcare. Neglect then becomes inevitable.
The only solution to this is the creation of affordable education and health care facilities.
C) Provide affordable and accessible childcare facilities
More than anything else – children require care from their parents. And when their parents are absent because they are working – they need other adults who can care for them.
Unfortunately, good childcare that is affordable and accessible is difficult to find even for parents who can pay for it. And things are tougher for parents who can’t afford it.
Provision of affordable and accessible childcare facilities are key to preventing abuse due to neglect.
D) Solve family issues that result in frequent fights
When there are fights in the family the child is likely to suffer both physical and emotional neglect because neither of the parents are able to focus on her/him.
The only way to protect children from such neglect is to reach out for help to resolve family issues. The help of family counseling services can be invaluable in such a scenario.
E) Learn to identify the signs of emotional neglect.
Many times emotional neglect happens without the knowledge of the parents because they fail to recognize the signs of emotional neglect.
If you see the signs of emotional neglect in your child – reach out for expert help to learn how to participate in the life of your child such that the child feels valued and visible.
F) Understand what your child truly needs in order to fulfill her/his needs
Every child needs to feel that she/he is the most important person in the life of at least one adult. Every child needs to feel that there is at least one adult who believes in her/him and will love her/him irrespective of what she/he does or does not do.
Tell your child that she/he is capable and can rely on you to help her/him build further skills and capabilities.
Do not constantly look disappointed with your child. More than anything else – children want to make their parents happy.
When they realize that they are making their parents unhappy, they develop low self-esteem and become depressed.
G) Learn how to connect with your child.
In the current times connecting has become a challenge because parents are constantly connected to the virtual world through their mobile phones and as a result are disconnected from their children. Make sure you are not doing that.
Plan device free connection time with your child several times a day. Talk to your child.
More importantly, listen to your child with your full focus. Look into your child’s eyes and try to understand what your child is saying.
When you listen like this your child feels important and not neglected. It builds self-esteem like nothing else can.
H) Be vigilant when a new baby arrives
When a new sibling is born – the older child needs a lot of attention and reassurance that she/he is valued and loved.
Unfortunately, because of all the work around the new baby – the older one does not receive the love and attention she/he needs and this can cascade into emotional neglect.
This can happen in a reverse way as well where the older one has the full focus of the parent’s attention because she/he is engaged in some activity that requires a lot of focus and the younger one suffers emotional neglect.
If there are two or more children in the family – plan alone time with each of them every day so that they can share their life with you and feel valued and seen.
For a child any action that puts her/him at the risk of physical injury or actually causes physical injury amounts to physical abuse.
When we think of physical abuse we think of suffocation, poisoning or female genital mutilation.
Most of us would never dream of subjecting our children to these terrible things – so we imagine that our children are safe from physical abuse.
But they are not.
Many of us do resort to physical abuse and hurt our children physically when we lose control of our temper.
When you beat, slap, hit, kick, push, shake, pinch or pull your child’s hair – you are subjecting your child to physical abuse.
No. It is not alright to do it even once in a while. Physically attacking someone who is smaller and weaker than you and therefore helpless – is a misuse of your parental power.
It is not uncommon to find children in the emergency rooms of hospitals who have suffered from loss of hearing because of eardrum injury after being slapped hard by a parent.
Injuries like this can be disabling and result in physical and emotional scarring for life.
It is also not uncommon to find burn injuries on the bodies of children from affectionate families.
Many parents when they are frustrated subject burn children with hot spoons or even the iron box in a fit of anger. This is physical abuse and is punishable if reported.
How to protect your child from physical child abuse
- Never hit, slap, shake, pinch, shake or mishandle your child.
- If you are angry – move away from your child until you have calmed down sufficiently.
- Be vigilant about any other adult hitting or otherwise physically mishandling your child.
- Keep an eye out for bullying by other children.
Children need attention, love and approval. And they need these consistently, such that they can rely on them.
An occasional scolding delivered to correct a child does not amount to emotional abuse if the child can rely on the parent for comfort, love, fun, play, praise and encouragement at all other times.
What may amount to emotional abuse
- Constantly criticizing a child in order to correct her/him.
- Using sarcasm to demean the child.
- Not talking to a child for several hours when you are angry and withdrawing love as a form of punishment.
- Non-violent punishment like locking a child away in a room for doing something wrong.
- Age inappropriate expectations from a child.
- Giving your child more love when she/he fulfills your expectations and withdrawing love when she/he does not do what you expect amounts to bullying even if you do not physically abuse your child.
- Extreme over protection where you isolate your child from others is also an abuse.
- Fighting physically or verbally in front of your child in a manner that amounts to violence.
Isolated incidents are unlikely to impact the child. But when repeated incidents happen frequently and persistently in the absence of other protective factors, it amounts to emotional abuse.
Signs of emotional abuse
Emotional abuse is not visible directly but can be seen as
- Unhappiness in the child
- Low self-esteem
- Lagging development
- Poor performance
- Unnecessary and foolish risk-taking
- Violent behavior.
How to protect your child from emotional child abuse
- Do not stay angry with your child for long periods of time.
- Even if you are angry – never stop talking to your child.
- Immediately after a scolding – express your love and affection to your child.
- If you are moving cities or houses – make a special effort to stay connected with your child and help her/him to transition.
- Do not needlessly criticize your child. Instead, offer praise and encouragement to motivate your child.
- Do not blame your child for bad things that are happening to you or to your family. If another family member is in the habit of doing this – ask them to stop – or cut connections with them.
- Do not subject your child to conditional love where you express your love for your child only when she/he meets your expectations and not otherwise.
- Never subject your child to punishments like locking away in a bathroom. Even though you are not hurting your child physically – you are causing terrible emotional damage.
- Make sure your child does not see fights in the family – either physical or verbal.
- Allow your child to have friends and connect with other people on her/his own terms. Children need social connections. Even if you are just trying to protect your child from bad influences – you will be subjecting your child to emotional abuse if you are isolating your child.
According to WHO, child sexual abuse is the involvement of a child in sexual activity that she/he does not fully understand, cannot give consent for, is not developmentally prepared for and violates the current laws and social customs.
The sexual activity is carried out by a person who is in a position of trust, responsibility or power. And the activity is intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the more powerful person.
The abuser may or may not be an adult.
How to identify child abuse
- Unexplained injuries like cuts bruises and burns on the body or genital areas
- Recurrent genital infections
- Bedwetting or passing stools in the bed after a certain reasonable age
- Pain on passing urine or urinary infections
- Going back to infantile behaviors like thumb sucking
- Clingy behavior with the child refusing to leave the parent’s side
- Poor school performance
- Sleep disturbances
- Eating disorders
- Complaints from school
- Age inappropriate sexual behaviors
- Low self-esteem
- Withdrawal and sadness or even depression
- Refusal to meet friends and family because of the loss of social competence.
It is important to note that sometimes there may be no signs even when a child is being sexually abused. Many times this may lead to sexual abuse going undetected for long periods of time.
- Complaining of stomach ache which may evolve into IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or gastric ulcers.
- Gynecological diseases.
- Preoccupation with the body and constant complains of non-specific aches and pains.
a. Child abuse is not uncommon. Never think “it won’t happen to my child”.
b. Boys are at as much risk of child abuse as girls. Do not relax if you are the parent of a boy.
c. A large percentage of child abusers are people who the child knows very well and are people whom the child depends upon for care and comfort.
Teaching children about “stranger danger” has very limited utility in child abuse prevention. Because childhood sexual abuse is typically carried out by a person whom the child knows very well.
d. When a child is abused – she/he will usually not tell anyone. Even the most vocal and talkative children will not talk about abuse because they have been groomed to keep quiet by the abuser.
Encourage your child to tell you everything but do not relax thinking that your child will always tell you if she/he is abused.
e. Do not be fooled into thinking that your child is safe at home. Most cases of abuse happen in the safe environment of the house when the child lets down her/his guard.
Many parents are fooled into believing that child abuse is about someone touching the child’s private parts. This is an incorrect belief and can actually lead to abuse going unreported for long periods of time.
It is important to understand that the abuser will never begin abuse by touching a child’s private parts.
At first, the abuser will only touch parts of the body that are socially acceptable for her/him to touch. So the abuser may start with a game of tickling. The child may enjoy the game at first.
Later when the abuser starts pushing personal boundaries the child may want to protest but may feel confused because she/he has been told that an alarm must be raised only when private parts are touched.
By the time the abuser starts touching the private parts, the child will start feeling that it is too late to say anything and keep quiet and keep suffering the abuse. This may go on for years.
It is important to teach children about consent.
Teach your child that
“It does not matter where you are being touched.”
“It does not even matter if you are not being touched.”
“If you don’t like what is happening to you or around you – you can say “no” and also complain. “
“You are free to dislike something that you may have liked before”
It is important to understand that abusers are on the lookout for children who feel isolated. They look for children who lack intimate connections in their lives. They look for children who have no one to talk to.
Child abuse happens when the abuser is able to convince the child that she/he (the abuser) is the only one who cares.
Child abuse happens when the child is convinced that the abuser genuinely loves her/him.
That is when the child lets down her/his guard – and the abuser is able to come closer.
To protect your child from abuse
- Spend device free connection time with your child every day.
- Listen to your child.
- Play with your child and when you play, make sure you emphasize what cannot be considered as play. For example, tell your child that removing clothes is not part of the play. Touching private parts is also not part of play.
- Do not constantly scold and criticize your child to the point that your child begins to believe that she/he is not lovable.
- Tell your child that she/he does not have to make everyone happy.
- Teach your child that it is alright to say NO.
Remember – it is extremely difficult to talk about child abuse for two reasons.
- The child is ashamed of what she/he is allowing because the abuser has convinced the child that what is happening (the abuse) is the child’s fault.
- The child is extremely close to the abuser emotionally – so complaining about the abuser feels like a betrayal to her/him.
So if your child has found the courage to come and tell you about not liking to be in the company of a certain person – do not look for reasons or proof.
Just believe your child and take action to remove your child from the person or place that is making her/him uncomfortable.
Do not always expect a YES from your child. Learn to listen to her/his NO.
Listening to a child’s NO should start from listening to the child when she/he says “I don’t want to eat anymore”.
If you force your child at this point – you are telling your child “Your NO has no value”. And that is something dangerous to convey to a child. Because the child slowly learns not to say no and begins to do things she/he doesn’t really want to do.
Abusers take advantage of children who are too obedient and too worried about what other people will say.
Many parents make the mistake of teaching their children to be wary of all kinds of touch.
“Don’t let anyone touch you” is the wrong thing to teach children.
This is because of two reasons
a. Child abuse can happen even without touching the child. Making a child watch pornography, clicking pictures of a naked child and compelling a child to watch someone undress or masturbate is also child abuse. These forms of abuse will then go unreported.
Instead, teach your child that –
“When you don’t like something happening to you or around you – say NO and get out of there”
b. Touch is the natural human way of connecting. All of us welcome touch because it feels good. That is why a pat on the back or a hug are used to show love.
When a child is used to lots of loving good touches – she/he will immediately recognize a bad touch and tell it apart.
Otherwise – since the human brain is programmed to welcome touch – the child may find it difficult to recognize bad touch.
It is easy to understand this if you think of the different kinds of touches in terms of colors.
If good touch is represented by yellow and bad touch is represented by red. It is important that a child sees a lot of yellow’s before she/he can immediately identify the red.
Children require the courage to say NO to child abuse. Never make the mistake of teaching your child to be afraid of abusers (or anyone else).
Instead, fill your child with courage and confidence.
It is only when your child has high self-esteem, confidence in her/his abilities and courage that she/he will be able to say no to the abuser.
- Teach your child self-care. As soon as possible your child must learn how to put on and take off her/his clothes.
- Teach your child how to do chores. A child who is self-reliant will be confident because she/he is not dependent on another person.
- Build your child’s physical ability by encouraging participation in sports. A child who is physically strong will also be mentally strong.
Abusers build a pact of silence with the child they are abusing. They then use this to keep the child quiet.
The usual modus operandi of the abuser is to start sharing secrets with the child about something small.
So the abuser may give a child who has been told not to eat chocolate – a bar of chocolate and ask her/him to keep it a secret saying that “Don’t tell anyone otherwise your parents will scold you”.
By doing this the abuser distances the child from you and comes closer and closer to the child.
The child feels grown up because she/he is keeping the secret. And the abuser uses this to abuse the child.
The abuser then starts blackmailing the child into keeping quiet by saying “If you tell your Mom then – I will tell her about all the other things you haven’t told her previously and she will be very angry”
Teach your child that there are no secrets in the family. Everyone in the family always knows everything about everyone else. And no one gets angry when the truth is told.
Make sure you lead by example and don’t have secrets yourself. “Don’t tell Papa” or something similar can send a completely contradictory and confusing message to your child.
Many times abusers seem like God sends to adults because they are willing to take on all kinds of household responsibilities.
They will offer to take children to activities and bring them back – they will be willing baby sitters – they will take the child shopping and swimming and so on.
If you are a busy parent you may love a person who is willing to do so much for you. But always be careful. What sounds too good to be true probably is too good to be true.
- Always be wary of adults who are keen to spend too much time alone with your child.
- Never force your child to be with someone they don’t want to be with even if that person seems like an angel in disguise
Obedience is convenient for parents but disastrous for children.
Teach children that they must obey rules that keep them safe. And encourage them to question everything else.
Encourage them to ask “Why should I do it?” Encourage them to say “No. I don’t want to do this”
Helping children express their opinions in a safe environment teaches them confidence and courage. This confidence and courage will help them if they are in adverse situations.
Child abuse is a mind game.
When we start giving children presents to compensate for our absence and show our love – children begin to equate present with love. And they think that anyone who is giving them presents loves them.
Abusers use this misconception and give children presents to show them that they love them. That is how they come close to the child and once they are close enough they start child abuse.
If you suspect child abuse – trust your instincts and take action. Do not wait for proof. It may be too late to do anything by then.
First, take action to protect your child from further abuse. Then take action to have the abuser punished.
If you suspect that your child may be a victim of child abuse you are likely to get extremely angry. But do not let your anger prompt you to do something that is not lawful.
Do not assault the abuser or do anything else that amounts to taking the law in your hands.
Reach out to Child Protection Services and report the abuse and allow them to take the required action.
Child abuse is not a private family matter. Make sure you speak up and have the abuser punished.
As your child’s guardian – you owe it to your child.
It is important to assess the degree of trauma your child has been subjected to – both physically and mentally first.
Also, a traumatized child is likely to need professional help to recover from the trauma.
In their panic-stricken state – parents sometimes may do more harm than good when they deal with their child’s trauma alone.
An abused child may need to speak to a counselor for several months to come out of the terrible experience.
Reach out to a counselor whom you trust and take your child for as many sessions as she/he requires.
Childhood is supposed to be the most beautiful time of life. It is beautiful because children have the ability to trust everyone and never suspect anyone’s motives. However, this trust is what can lead to child abuse.
As soon as you learn of abuse – take action to remove the child from the abusers reach immediately. First, work towards healing the child’s mind and body. Then ensure that the abuser is punished and does not abuse another child.