Though not yet an official diagnosis according to the American Psychiatric Association, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) is being informally recognized as a more severe form of PTSD caused by prolonged trauma. Often, that trauma begins in childhood. Trauma that takes place during a person’s formative years is incredibly damaging. It establishes a sense of normalcy around abuse, creating a harmful pattern that can be extremely difficult to break from–or even recognize. The earlier the trauma begins, the more difficult it becomes for the victim to understand her experience as abnormal.
Child Abuse Comes In Many Forms, And Is Never Okay
When we think of child abuse, we usually imagine a scared little kid covered in bruises or reeling from the shame and confusion of sexual assault. Physical and sexual abuse of children definitely–and horrifyingly–takes place, and is a huge problem that we absolutely need to stop. But kids can experience other types of abuse as well–and these other forms of abuse likewise establish a pattern of harm and negativity that has the potential to affect the child for the rest of her life.
No type of child abuse is ever okay, but when it comes to assessing danger, there are a few important factors that should not be ignored. Of course, assessing the child is most important. If a child is in imminent danger–showing obvious physical signs of abuse or neglect, excessive anger, or a signs that they fear their caregivers–that trumps everything else. But some networks charged with overseeing the safety of children fail to perform proper assessments. In some tragic cases, they leave children in homes where they continue to be harmed. In others, they remove children from loving parents without performing a proper investigation, which is also a tragedy.
A factor that some child care workers overlook is intention. Do the parents mean to harm their kids? Of course, ignorance or lack of intention doesn’t make child abuse okay–but it does mean that with some help or awareness, that caregiver could learn to stop behaviors he may not have even realized were hurting his kids.
Another factor is disability, including mental illness. Although it’s not acceptable for a child to be neglected because of a caregiver’s disability, providing accommodations and supports for that caregiver could allow her to be a better parent. Is a child suffering because his or her caregivers are abusive people, or because the caregivers need a little help? Those are two very different situations–and it certainly wouldn’t help the child to take punitive measures against a loving caregiver who just needs a little support.
But some people are genuinely abusive. And it doesn’t always look the way we think it does. Sometimes the low-income mom who has such high anxiety she can’t always go outside, but embeds a mindfulness routine into playtime so that she can care for her children and herself concurrently, is more capable and loving than the wealthy grandparent who buys loads of treats for the kids but views them as pawns. Our society has a pretty broken view of good parenting. Understanding the less obvious types of child abuse and neglect can help us recognize and repair families affected by this bias. Let’s look at a few of these types of abuse.
Using Children As The Means To An End
This type of child abuse comes up often in family court situations, but it can also play out in the home. Sometimes there are very good reasons for keeping a child from a parent or other family member. For example, in my life, keeping my son away from our abuser–“The Ex”–is dire, considering the extent and depravity of his abuse, my son’s disability and inability to communicate, and The Ex’s ongoing harassment and deception, which indicate a clearly unchanged character.
But sometimes when parents or caregivers fight about personal matters, they use their shared children as a means of exerting control or punishing the other party. Family members can fight. Family members can even hate each other. But if there isn’t an actual safety concern, withholding a child from a parent is wrong. On the flipside, withholding time with a parent from a child is abuse. Especially when there is a significant bond between the child and their parent (which there almost always is if the parent has been loving and present), limiting time with a parent, taking a child from a parent, or using time with the child as a means of exerting some kind of personally beneficial behavioral change from the parent is absolutely traumatizing and abusive for the child. This can also look like trash-talking or threatening the parent in front of the child.
Children experiencing this kind of abuse will become confused, sad, and angry. They will feel torn between their homes, and may even feel as though they are supposed to take sides. This kind of dynamic is extremely destructive to a child. If you’re engaging in it, you’re abusing that child–maybe without even realizing it. But once you realize what you’re doing and the effect it has on the child, if you continue, you’re willfully abusing that kid. Your personal dislike of a person, if it does not stem from egregious acts like extreme violence, is not an excuse for withholding time with her kids. You are engaging in child abuse.
Teaching Children Hate-Speech
Children are naturally loving beings. Yes, they are also naturally selfish beings. Siblings squabble. Toddlers snatch toys. Kids say mean things to their parents and each other, but truly hateful behavior is learned.
Hate is a toxic emotion. It eats away inside of you. When that hatred is justified–if someone sexually assaults you, for example–it is still a self-destructive emotion. When that hatred isn’t justified–like hatred which is directed at a group of people for a senseless reason–it can change who you are as a person, warp your perception of people and society, and rob you of valuable friendships and experiences with people from that group.
Teaching hate speech and hateful thoughts to a child is, in my opinion, a form of child abuse. It doesn’t even have to be done intentionally. You don’t have to get your kid a white power birthday cake to damage his perceptions of the world. Children mimic the people around them. Making snide comments about queer people will lead your child to adopt those views. Even if you’re “just joking” about black people, you’re teaching racism to your child. Hate speech is insidious, and even moreso for children who are still trying to figure out the world.
This phenomenon becomes even more problematic when somebody engages in hate speech that is directed at a group which the child is a part of. It doesn’t even have to be intentional. A dark-skinned Latina could complain about her own skin or hair color, and accidentally teach the dark-skinned child nearby that she’s ugly. A well-meaning grandparent could tell a young girl that cooking and cleaning is “woman’s work,” and thus begin decimating her idea of her place in the world. The examples in this paragraph aren’t intentional abuse, and they don’t indicate that someone is “bad–” but they are harmful behaviors that need to be recognized and curbed.
Abusing The Other Parent
A common misconception about physical abusers is that they are rageaholics. Really angry people can commit rash and even abusive acts. But serial abusers hide their abuse from the world–they hit their victim in places where the marks are easily hidden. They wait to commit the abuse until there are no witnesses. They come up with excuses for their anger, rather than acting on the anger itself. Abusers don’t have anger management problems and won’t benefit from classes that teach them to be less angry. So, it is entirely possible for an abuser to target his partner but not his kids. Unfortunately, he is still abusing his kids.
Witnessing the abuse of a parent or caregiver by another family member is an extremely confusing ordeal for a child. Whether it’s physical abuse, sexual assault, or emotional/verbal abuse, seeing one trusted adult mistreated by another trusted adult is terrifying. It leads to a sense of instability and distrust in the world. It can even cause kids to grow up to be abusers themselves.
The child doesn’t even have to see or hear the abuse to be affected by it. Of course, a baby who is on the bed while his mother is being raped will be extremely traumatized by the event–but a child who feels the tension or sees the impact of abuse on his parent is also going to become sad, scared, and confused. Often, these kids grow up to suffer from emotional trauma, whether they were direct victims of the abuse or not.
Belittling Or Ignoring The Child
Children, as we all know, are young human beings learning about the world and their place in it. Thus, they require nurturing and encouragement. That doesn’t have to translate into participation ribbons, but it does mean celebrating a success, or comforting a child after a failure.
When we yell at children for making mistakes, we teach them that it’s not okay to try. If we ignore a child’s accomplishments, we tell him that his dreams and goals don’t matter. If we ridicule a child for failing, we teach her that her worth is contingent upon success. Children need to be nurtured. If we place demanding expectations on children, it sets us up to get upset if those expectations are not met. Believing in our children is essential; expecting perfection is harmful; treating them poorly if they don’t achieve perfection is abusive; ignoring them when they do something wonderful is neglectful.
Parents Are Human
Parents and caregivers are human, and humans are fallible. We all make mistakes. We all, frankly, fuck up sometimes. The difference between being abusive and being human is in our willingness to acknowledge and amend our mistakes. There are many forms of child abuse–these are just four. If you recognize your behaviors in these categories, or in any other category of abuse, then it’s time to make a change. You’re not a bad person until you refuse to stop.
It’s never too late to stop being abusive, and if you haven’t crossed an indelible line, it’s never too late to make amends. In the 12-steps, people are encouraged to make amends with those they have wronged, often by directly apologizing to that person (unless it would cause the victim further harm to do so). This can be really hard for some people, and that difficulty can get in the way of change. If saying sorry is too difficult for you, that’s something to look into, but it’s also not a good reason to continue harmful behaviors. You don’t necessarily have to say sorry to change.
The first step is acknowledging what you’ve done. Have you been withholding visits with your co-parent because she said or did something you didn’t like? Recognize that you’re using the child as a pawn for your own personal ego, and fix that behavior. Making amends can be as simple as choosing to stop being petty.