Common Signs of Domestic Abuse
(With special focus on Childhood Abuse)
Regardless of the type of abuse a child experiences, it will leave scars. And they may not be visible at first, but if not dealt with and remedied (ie taken out of the abusive situation and counseling thereafter) these scars can later split wide open, leaving emotional bloodshed on us all. Why �all� of us? Because when a child is at risk of, or actually being abused, our silence is complicity and then we�re as guilty as anyone.
You may have heard of the �cycle of abuse.� What this means is that an abused child grows up to either abuse his/her own child(ren) or seek out abusive relationships, as that is what they see as a �normal� home life. Many times the abuser grew up in a controlling, isolated environment where either or both of the parents drank, used drugs, were aggressive toward each other, mentally or emotionally unstable, lacked restraint with anger issues, and stressed out or overwhelmed due to losses, financial problems, divorce, child custody issues, etc. These are but some of the reasons; however they are not excuses, by any means. The abused child then grows up and attempts to re-create his/her own abusive childhood, by controlling and abusing others. Thus, the �cycle� continues.
But it gets worse: abusers can start out appearing to be concerned, but the �concern� often grows into control, isolation, intimidation and finally terror, which he/she perpetrates on everyone in his/her household, including spouse, kids and pets. To the outside world however, abuse often looks like an average home, a regular or normal household. Sometimes the head of household is even a minister or police officer. But if we look more closely, there are red flags all over the place. And in order for society to stop the cycle of abuse, we must be willing to face some hard truths, to look behind the smiles hiding the bruises, and to advocate for the battered child, abused spouse and neglected or suspiciously injured pet in the home.
It�s not too hard to spot abuse and neglect if you�re willing to open your eyes. And if you�re in a teaching or care-giving profession or work environment you�re in a good position to see the signs. If you notice a child who is withdrawn or conversely, needing excessive affection, running away a lot, depressed, and perhaps as teenagers turning to alcohol or drugs to numb themselves, has many unexplained bruises/injuries, is hospitalized frequently or has little medical treatment and not under a consistent physician�s care, pay close attention. He/she will often exhibit anger management issues and rage, aggression or hostility toward others, is often unkempt and with poor hygiene, is hungry or underweight, or desperately avoids going home. These children can startle easily, at things most kids wouldn�t notice: a touch, a fast movement, a hyper vigilance in general. These are huge red flags!
Let�s look at the specific signs of the main types of abuse: emotional, physical and sexual. Bear in mind however, that many signs cross over on the spectrum of abuse, and sometimes only a professional can tell for sure what type of abuse, if any, the child is undergoing. Also remember that rarely is a child abused in just one category; often there will be several kinds of abuse going on simultaneously.
The emotionally abused or neglected child may have poor self esteem. They will often complain of somatic problems such as stomach aches, headaches, nightmares, dropping grades or decreased attendance in kindergarten/school, rapid mood changes, anxiety or nervousness, an exaggerated startle reflex, unrealistic fears, and desperate attempts to avoid the abusive environment. He/she has very little self-confidence and even lower self-esteem. Their overriding attitude is one of helplessness or hopelessness.
The physically abused child will often have cuts, bruises or other injuries that don�t match his/her or the parents� explanation. Starvation is another sign that food is being withheld from the child, perhaps as punishment. The child might be seen stealing food or going to a neighbor�s house frequently to �get a snack� and then eat huge amounts of food. At worst, they will �dumpster dive� in attempt to fill their hungry bellies.
The sexually abused child will often act out their abuse in sexual behavior way beyond what most kids do or say at their age level. Much of their play with other children may be sexually explicit. They may even use dolls to simulate things they�ve experienced or seen: ie sexual positioning and pantomime. The child who is abused sexually might also have many physical manifestations such as bed wetting, soiling of linens, urinary tract infections, yeast or sexually transmitted infections, and become very guarded when innocently touched by teachers, strangers or parents. This child may also be constantly lacking in sleep - staying awake throughout the night listening for footsteps coming down the hallway. Disciplinary problems and depression/mood changes are often present when a child is being sexualized.
Why don�t these kids speak out? Many reasons! Usually their abuser threatens another member of the family or something else the child holds dear (such as a sibling or a pet) with injury or death if they tell anyone. Abusers also are quite adept at manipulation, and will convince a child that no one will believe him/her, or that he/she is as guilty as they are. Or they may tell the child what would happen if anyone knew of the abuse: they�d be placed in foster homes, they�d never see their mother/sister, etc again, they�d live the rest of their childhood neglected and unloved in an orphanage, they�re �lucky� to have a home in the first place, because no one else would even want the child, and so on. Remember that children are much like innocent animals in some respects: they want to please people, and they want to trust and to be loved - and in the context of those facts, will often believe whatever is told to them.
The battered woman will often exhibit many of the same signs that an abused child will. They tend to be very guarded, not making friends (often because they know the abuser will never let them go �out with the girls,� or that friendship would provoke questions and observations about bruises and scars.) The abused often have a highly sensitive startle reflex or jump at the sound of the abuser�s voice or presence. Their bruises may be explained away as �I fell� or if they own up to being abused, they�ll say �I deserved it� or �I provoked it� or �He�s under a lot of stress right now.� And you can bet that any children in the household are emotionally traumatized at the very least, if their parent is abused. Can you imagine lying awake at night listening to the person you love most in the world crying, screaming, being beaten?? And usually these children are victims of some sort of abuse beyond just the emotional.
Why don�t these women speak out? Again, many reasons. They may have grown up in an abusive home and thus think it abuse is normal behavior. They may likely be dependent on the abuser financially and even emotionally. They may be addicted to drugs. They often feel they deserve the abuse, or �asked for it.� They fear loneliness and loss their home and sense of security. They may be afraid of repercussions - such as the abuser turning to the child(ren) to abuse, or even kidnapping. They may have been brainwashed to believe no one else would ever love them like the abuser does. They may not want to leave their family pet(s) with the abuser. Or they may just want to believe that things will get better, the abuser will change, he�ll stop the abuse once he gets that raise and monetary stress is lessened, etc.
But the fact remains that very few abusers ever stop - and even more rarely do they stop the abuse without intensive counseling, motivation (ie court-mandated therapy or treatment) or until they kill the abused. Yes, you read that right: every single day in the US there are approximately (depending on which statistics you look at) 3-6 children and women who die from abuse in this country alone!
We as parents essentially take a vow upon giving birth, to provide the safest and best possible childhood experience for our child(ren). We are ultimately responsible legally, emotionally and physically for our child�s and our own safety and well-being.
But often it falls to a concerned and watchful community to spot abuse and take measures to get help and aid for the abused. Remember that to report abuse you do not have to identify yourself; you can make an anonymous call to the Dept. of Social Services and they can do a home check. You can also call the child�s school or physician, with your concerns. You can ask the police to do a �security check� on the household. You can give the abused woman or child a business card for a �help-line� or a number to call if they are afraid.
Countless organizations exist online to help direct you to a helpline in your own country or state. You can also look in the front of your local telephone book under �Social Services� to find a number to call for suspected abuse, or if you need help yourself. Don�t be afraid to call 911 if you feel the circumstances are emergent. Be sure to let the abused know that you are there to help him/her, and not the abuser. And bear in mind that the most dangerous time for victims of abuse is when they are preparing to leave the situation. This is because the abuser becomes enraged and often violent when he sees that he is losing control.
Laws and measures to protect victims continue to advance. As an example, recently Paula Abdul, former American Idol judge, signed on to be a spokesperson for PAWS (Pets and Women�s Shelters Program) which enables women and children to bring their beloved pets with them to some shelters. Laws continue to tighten for abusers, and protection for the abused is gaining legal ground as well. So there is help; there is hope! Pray, pray, pray for the oppressed and abused, but also take pro-active measures on their behalf, especially when it comes to children, who usually aren�t able to find available resources on their own.
Please, don�t let someone you know, or a neighbor or student, continue to suffer, even if they refuse your offers of help and deny any on-going abuse. You may be saving a life by making a simple phone call on their behalf. If you�re wrong, no harm done. But if you�re right, you may very well be saving a life. Domestic violence is not only a crime; it�s also a crying shame. Don�t compound the atrocity by being silent. Silence is complicity.