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What Is
Child Abuse?

What Is Child Abuse...

Despite the passing of legislation that makes children's rights and parents responsibilities clear, children are still neglected and abused in different ways.

Why Does Child Abuse Occur?

Research shows that abuse does not occur entirely at random, but is more likely to happen in some situations than others.
What Is Child Abuse

There is a wide variety of predisposing factors that make abuse of neglect more likely to occur.

Abuse is usually the result of a number of these factors occuring together.

In each case, there will be a different combination of factors. The relative importance of each of them will also vary.

The danger in trying to understand abuse is that it might lead to a prediction that if certain characteristics are present abuse will happen, or that all people with those characteristics will become abusers.

This is definitely not so. However, it is possible to look at certain factors, and find that a combination of them is usually present in many cases of abuse.

These factors enable us to recognise, understand and work with families where there is a higher risk of abuse.

Predisposing Factors

Researchers have identified five family types that illustrate the range of background characteristics to be borne in mind when abuse is suspected.

They are...

  • multiproblem families
  • specific problem families
  • acutely distressed families
  • those with perpetrators from outside the family
  • those with perpetrators from inside the family.

Predisposing factors in many cases of abuse may include...

  • factors in the adult's background and personality
  • the presence of some kind of difficulty and stress in the adult's life or environment
  • factors relating to the child.

Factors In An Adult's Personality And Background

A combination of some of the following characteristics has been noticed in abusing parents (remember that non-abusing parents may also have some of these characteristics).

  • Immaturity: Some people have not developed a mature level of self-control in their reactions to life and its challenges. Faced with stressful situations, an adult may lack self-control and react strongly just as a young child might, in a temper or with aggression.
  • Low self-esteem: Some people have a very poor self-image; they have not experienced being valued and loved for themselves. If they are struggling to care for a child, they may feel inadequate and blame the child for making them feel worse about themselves because they are finding it difficult.
  • An unhappy childhood where they never learnt to trust others: Parents who have experienced unhappiness in childhood may be less likely to appreciate the happiness in childhood may be less likely to appreciate the happiness that children can bring to their lives. They have not had a good role model to create a happy and caring environment for their children.
  • Difficulty in experiencing pleasure: An inability to enjoy life and have fun may be a sign of stress and anxiety. This person may also have challenges in coping with the stress of parenting and gain little pleasure from it.
  • Having unsatisfactory relationships: When parents are experiencing difficulties in relationships, whether sexual or other difficulties, this can form an underlying base of stress and unhappiness in their lives. There may also be a general background of neglect or family violence within which there is little respect for any individual.
  • Being prone to violence when frustrated: The damaging effects of long-term family violence on children has been recognised. Research shows that children who regularly see their mother beaten can suffer as much as if they had been frequently hit themselves.
  • Being socially isolated: Parents who have no friends or family nearby have little or no support at times of need; they have no one to share their anxieties with, or to call on for practical help.
  • Adults whose responses are low on warmth and high on criticism: In such families, children can easily feel unloved and negative incidents can build up into violence.
  • Having a fear of spoiling the child and a belief in the value of punishment: Some people have little understanding of the value of rewards in dealing with children's behaviour; they think children should be punished to understand what is right, they think that responding to a child's needs will inevitably 'spoil' the child. They are more likely to leave a child to cry and not be warm and spontaneous in their reactions to them.
  • A belief in the value of strict discipline: There are many variations in parenting styles, family structures and relationships; these are not neccessarily better or worse than each other. They meet the needs of children in different ways. Some styles of discipline use punishment (both physical and emotional) rather than rewards. This is more likely to lead to abuse when other stressful factors are present.
  • An inability to control children: Parents under pressure seldom have much time for their children and are more apt to lash out in rage at the frustrations of everyday interactions.
  • Not seeing children realistically: This involves having little or no understanding of child development and the normal behaviour of children at different stages; such adults are more likely to react negatively to behaviour that causes them difficulty, rather than accepting it as normal. They may punish a young child inappropriately for crying, wetting, having tantrums or making a mess.
  • Being unable to empathise with the needs of a child and to respond appropriately: Some people have difficulty in understanding the needs of children; they may react negatively when children make their needs known and demand attention.
  • Having been abused themselves as children: These parents may have a number of unmet needs themselves and are therefore less likely to be able to meet the needs of a dependant child; they have also had a poor role model for parenting and family life.
  • Have experienced difficulties during pregnancy and/or birth, or separation from their child following birth: Research shows that difficulties during pregnancy and childbirth, or early separation of a mother from her child, can result in a parent being less positive towards a child. Faced with this child's demands, they may be less able to cope. They may lose their temper more quickly and resort to violence more easily.

Difficulty And Stress In The Adult's Life And Environment

Stress of some kind is found in many cases of abuse or neglect. Stress may be short or long-term. It may have many causes.

The experience of stress drains people's energy and leaves them with fewer resources available to cope with meeting the demands of children.

The experience of multiple stresses can weaken a person's ability to cope but it does not neccessarily mean that they are irresponsible or lack affection for their children.

It can however affect the capacity of a person to care for their children.

People who have constant worries and who have to endure long-term difficulties probably experience more stress than those without such worries.

This can provide a background of unhappiness that may be significant if it is experienced in combination with other factors outlined below...

  • Social isolation, few friends, no family
  • Domestic violence, usually of a man towards a woman
  • Physical ill-health
  • Misuse of alcohol
  • Poverty
  • Debt and money worries
  • Misuse of drugs
  • Criminal behaviour within the family
  • Unemployment
  • Poor environmental conditions
  • High levels of pressure in everyday life
  • Bereavement
  • Pressure and discrimination from people outside the family
  • Poor housing
  • Mental ill-health
  • General unhappiness
  • The loss of a relationship, especially through desertion
  • Chaotic lifestyles.

Factors Relating To The Child

In addition, some things about a child can make them less easy to love by some parents or carers. This does not mean that the child deserves ill-treatment but, combined with other factors, it can be significant.

The significant factors about a particular child may include...

  • A crying child: Most people can sympathise with the stress created by a child who cries a lot; when a carer is tired, and other factors are present, the stress brought about by crying can make a child vulnerable to a violent response.
  • Interference in early bonding or attachment between carer and child: There is a wealth of research from Bowlby onwards of the possible ill-effects of early separation of parent and child.There is evidence that a carer is more likely to abuse a child when the attachment to them is weak rather than strong; it is for this reason that modern antenatal and postnatal care aims to keep parents with their newborn babies and encourage the development of a strong bond between parent and child.
  • Children who are felt by their carers to be more difficult to care for at a specific stage of development: Some people find babies particularly demanding and difficlut, others have difficulty caring for toddlers or older children.
  • Children who 'invite' abuse: These children have learned that the only attention they get is abusive; they learn to bring about certain negative reactions in their carers because this is preferable to having no attention at all.

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