The children’s saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” is far from true. While we often think of abuse as being only physical harm, emotional abuse and neglect are just as damaging. And these forms of abuse are on the rise, primarily because they leave no physical scars.
Screaming, intimidation, tongue-lashing, and humiliation are all forms of emotional abuse. Neglect isn’t just the failure of a parent to feed and look after a child – it includes a lack of parental interaction with a child and failure to provide love and affection. Over time, these actions take away the self-esteem of a child. The resulting mental and emotional scars can never be fully repaired and permanently impact the way an adult relates to his or her environment.
Many abused and neglected children are babies who are born premature, colicky, or sickly. As a result, they cry a lot and tend to create anxiety in their parents. Young families are most likely to be unable to cope with such a situation. In many cases, psychologists find that one parent becomes the prime abuser, while the other becomes the enabler of the child. Sometimes their children display the very characteristics and traits that these parents see in themselves and, therefore, find disquieting. Occasionally, the abused or neglected child is the scapegoat for the entire family.
Children who experience neglect and abuse operate differently than their siblings and friends. When abused children go to school, they are abusive themselves and display generalized anger and rage. Their need for attention, even negative attention, can reach unreasonable heights. It’s easy to spot these children, as they avoid other kids, approach adults in a lateral way as an equal, and display a range of needy behavior. Abused children learn at an early age not to trust adults. These are the kids that act out, pull out their hair, bite their nails, wet their beds, and talk incessantly.
Not only do victims of emotional abuse become underachievers, they actually expect to fail. Moreover, abused children may follow the model of abuse and become abusive parents, continuing a legacy of abuse.
How do we stop the cycle of abused children growing up to become abusive parents? One answer is in finding sensitive and trained caregivers who can help parents of at-risk children from the moment of birth. Other remedies include group counseling, which can occur using the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, in which the support of a meaningful person can be engaged to help the abuser. Other times, lay people who can visit and be empathetic can often head off problems before they start. Task forces and child protection services, as well as friends, doctors, teachers, and other professionals, can also intervene in emotional abuse.
Educating and remediating parents and children to discover alternative ways of interacting offers the greatest opportunity for social and emotional well-being in our schools and homes. It is important to recognize that abusive parents can be rehabilitated and the cycle of abuse stopped. The solution may be simpler than we think.