Somewhere close to you, a child is crying for help. A tiny arm is broken. Snap! Just like that.
Right now, the seconds are passing slowly for a child who is getting an overzealous whipping for spilling his milk or breaking a dish. He’ll cry himself to sleep tonight because he is small and the world is so big and full of terrors.
The realities of physical child abuse are unspeakably common and devastating. By the time you see it, it often looks like an angry teenage boy who scares his teachers and parents or a promiscuous girl struggling with a teen pregnancy only to repeat the cycle for the baby she brings into the world (Abused girls are 25% more likely to experience teen pregnancy). The reality of child abuse looks like an ever-increasing high school dropout rate and it sounds like the slamming door of a jail cell. The long term results of child abuse extend to every level of society. Abuse leads to homelessness, criminal activity, failing education, drug use, and domestic violence. In a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study of homeless youth, it found that 46% of those surveyed had escaped a home where they suffered physical abuse, and 17% left because of sexual abuse. Children who experience child abuse and neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit a violent crime.
Abuse rarely comes in a one-size fits all package. It is usually a combination of neglect, physical abuse, emotional/mental abuse, or sexual abuse. Physical is the easiest to see and is the second most common. It represents 21 percent of the cases reported in Idaho and about 18 percent of cases in the United States.
Physical abuse is often a byproduct of overly stressed parents and can happen in any household, from any circumstance. Abuse is cyclical which is why more than 1/3 of physically abused children grow up to abuse their children. When abuse is a way of life, it is a crutch to fall on. One study found 8 out of 10 abused children have also witnessed violence between their parents or caregivers.
Abuse sometimes begins as punishment. A spanking delivered in anger and frustration by an overstressed parent can change into a beating. Think of the “hot sauce mom” who punished her son by making him hold hot sauce in his mouth for minutes at a time while he cried and begged her to stop. She saw this is a punishment for a bad boy, and a means of teaching how to behave. Thus, abuse also stems from a lack of support and education about how children learn. Many parents believe children are being willfully malicious or trying to cause trouble. They don’t understand that children learn, in part, through exploration and are bound to make mistakes. Nor do many parents have the skills to teach and reinforce positive behavior in their children as opposed to punishing “bad behavior.” If you need further proof of this, consider the fact that 81 percent of prison inmates were abused as children.
Consequently, abused children who often exhibit bad behavior. It is very much a “monkey see, monkey do” proposition. A child who learns positive behavior from their parents is much less likely to get into trouble than a child who learns to hit by being hit. Long term, studies find of young adults who suffered child abuse or neglect, 80% met criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder by age 21, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and suicide attempts.
What can you do?
Where there is no visible sign of abuse, but things don’t look quite right,
Scenario: Stress is the strongest trigger for child abuse and it often comes in the form of punishment. Everyone has seen the stressed out mother at Target jerking her child around as he wails for a new toy or a snack or maybe your sister-in-law is having a hard time while her husband is away. We all know that face that looks like a ticking time bomb of rage, resentment, stress, and desperation as she snarls under her breath at her child and she just starts to “lose it.”
What to do: Make a quick comment to calm the parent down. It’s important to keep it light and say something like, “Gosh, I know how hard that is. I’ve been there, too. Is there anything I can do to help you?” Will this is hard to do? Yes, but you could be saving that child from an awful future.
The parent will most likely become aware of the scene she will calm down. Although she might be embarrassed, it will help remind her that she is not alone.
Don’t: Do not criticize the parent. Doing so will likely make the situation worse and most likely increase their anger.
Next Steps: If the situation continues to escalate, then you should call the police. In a public place, try to get the license plate number or report it before they can leave the store. It is unwise to involve yourself because it could put you in danger.
What to do when you see abuse.
Scenario: When you notice a neighbor boy who is bruised all too often or afraid, or you have a niece who cries in fear of spilling her juice or doesn’t want to go home, it is time to call for help.
What to do: Call CPS. It is not the goal of CPS to take the child out of the home. In fact, the opposite is true. It is often in the best case of the child and the family to be made aware of resources available in the community, such as the Idaho Youth Ranch Family Services, to get the family back on track and to give the parents skills to raise their children in a healthy and effective manner.
Not only does this help prevent the child abuse today, but it will also help stop the cycle as those children grow and have families of their own.
Next steps: If the problem continues to escalate, call again. Do not get involved personally.
Knowing the signs:
- Fear and anxiety are common behaviors from kids who are abused. For example, a child who seems afraid to go home or those who worry about letting down a parent or seem afraid to disobey.
- Aggression is also a common behavior for kids suffering abuse or neglect. It is for this reason that boys who experience abuse are twice as likely to abuse their partners and children as an adult.
- Sudden changes in school performance are a strong indicator at the onset of child abuse.
- Particularly in girls, eating habits and sudden weight loss are signs of abuse as well. Female child abuse victims are likely to develop eating disorders in their teens.
- Visible, frequent bruising is a strong indicator, especially around the ears, neck, and torso areas. These are areas that are not as likely to sustain an injury during normal child play or sports.
- Trouble walking or sitting is a tragic determinant of child abuse.
If you suspect child abuse is going on, please reach out immediately to the Department of Health and Welfare. This is not about being polite. These kids do not have a voice and need your protection. 1-855-5437.