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Let's Talk About Child Abuse
Abuse? Why do we need to talk about it? Aren't we all Christians? A psychologist discusses the types of child abuse, their prevalence among Christians and their impact.

To see the word "abuse" in a church paper may be threatening or offensive to some individuals for a variety of reasons. Either they misunderstand the term, or it is a condemnation of the way they live their "Christian" life. Yet others would say that among Christians, abuse simply does not happen, or is blown out of proportion.

One of the major hot potatoes is the question of whether to spank or not to spank.

We only have to listen to the news or read the papers for constant reminders of interpersonal abuse or violence in society. No longer do we seem horrified to hear of fatal violence over the week-end. There is a little more sympathy when the headlines state that, despite a restraining order, a husband, an ex-husband, a boyfriend or an ex-boyfriend (in the majority of cases), has murdered a woman whom the legal system had tried to protect. When a child has been sexually abused, we all react with vehemence, and more so if the perpetrator is someone of social prominence.

Many hold the belief that abuse may exist in the world, but because we are Christians, it does not happen in our churches. The reality is that abuse in all its forms does exist in our churches, and the sooner we acknowledge it, the better for the church and the future of its membership.

Some who are reading this article were in their childhood or youth victims of abuse themselves at the hands of a parent, older sibling, relative or other trusted adult or church member. Some were (or lamentably still are) themselves perpetrators of abuse against others. You may find yourself being abusive to your spouse, your children or other individuals over whom you are in a position of power. The veil of silence that exists among Christians only serves to perpetuate abuse. Pretending it is not there does not mean it does not exist. Silence only empowers perpetrators, while at the same time shaming the victims and condemning them to feelings guilt and a diminished sense of self-worth that makes them unable to claim God's declaration of their worth.

I refer here to Jesus' pronouncement about the preciousness of children. He even declares a curse on anyone who puts a snare, trap, or stumbling block in the way to deter "one of these little ones" (Matthew 18:6). Countless adults who either were childhood victims or are currently victims of an abusive spouse, and children who suffer abuse either directly or indirectly, are surprised to find the text in Matthew 10 where Jesus declares that we are worth much more to Him than the sparrows. He even knows the number of hairs on our head. If the Creator of the universe declares us to be of so much worth, what right does anyone have to warp this assurance in the life of another human being?

The psalmist declares: "Children are an heritage from the Lord and the fruit of the womb is His reward" (Psalm 127:3-5). Simply put, children are gifts given to us by God. When we receive a gift, our usual response is not only gratitude, but a desire to use that gift with utmost care. Unfortunately, in every walk of life, in all areas of the globe, these precious gifts have been misused and mistreated. Multiplied numbers of children and adults are suffering because of the abuse someone in a position of power inflicted (or is inflicting) over them. They may live in our homes or attend our schools and churches while suffering the effects of abuse in silence.

In recent decades, there have been several social improvements, including laws, to protect children. One of the major hot potatoes is the question of whether to spank or not to spank. While many of us pride ourselves in not spanking our children, we conclude that by not spanking we are not abusing them. The sad news is that not spanking our children does not necessarily mean our children are safe.

… child abuse occurs when a parent, guardian or caregiver mistreats or neglects a child resulting in injury or significant emotional or psychological harm …

A word of caution about the use of statistics. In this article we share statistics when available and where applicable. Statistics, however, only give us an idea of how widespread a problem is. They represent the tip of the iceberg and do not paint the whole picture. Neither do they capture the impact of the problem on the victim or the family struggling through the devastation of abuse. Child abuse and neglect is a broad topic that addresses a complex experience which is debilitating for children. In this article we focus not so much on the extent to which a abuse happens, but on the greater tragedy that abuse happens at all.

In general, child abuse occurs when a parent, guardian or caregiver mistreats or neglects a child resulting in injury or significant emotional or psychological harm, or serious risk of harm to the child. It entails the betrayal of a caregiver's position of trust and authority over a child and can take many forms. We will briefly consider physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional abuse.

The first nation-wide study to examine the incidence of child abuse in Canada was carried out in all provinces and territories in 1998—the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect(CIS). The report is based on 7,672 investigations done over a three-month period (October to December) from 51 sites. In the United States, three million cases of child abuse and neglect were reported to Child Protective Services (CPS) in 1997. Physical abuse represented 22 percent of confirmed cases; sexual abuse eight percent; neglect 54 percent; emotional maltreatment, four percent; and other forms of maltreatment, 12 percent.

Physical abuse

When we speak of child abuse, some think of physical abuse. Much attention has been given to the issue of abuse. Several cases have been publicized. One was the case of five-year-old Matthew John Vaudreuil in British Columbia who was found dead with fractured ribs and a limb, and bruises all over his body. He had been tortured, denied food, and then murdered by his mother. Twenty-four doctors had attended to him on dozens of occasions, but the abuse did not stop.

Another is the case of three-year-old John Ryan Turner of New Brunswick who died a victim of severe emotional and physical abuse and neglect. He too had been seen by a number of professionals prior to his death.

In Ontario Randal Dooley was physically abused over a period of months upon migrating to Canada with his older brother to join his father and stepmother. In the end, he was found dead in his bed, yet the perpetrators denied physically abusing him. In fact, he was blamed for his bruises and injuries. Randal's case was described as "one of the worst cases of child abuse in Canadian legal history." His parents were convicted of second-degree murder in April, 2002. The press was told by Randal's brother Teego that the night before he died, his step-mother had beaten him. Randal reportedly died of head injuries, a lacerated liver and 14 broken ribs.

Physical abuse defined: Physical abuse is the "deliberate application of force to any part of a child's body, which results or may result in a non-accidental injury." It is also defined as the beating of a child, and can include burning, hitting, kicking, throwing, holding a child under water, shaking, choking, biting, or any other harm or restraint. Sometimes parents and care-givers' abusive behaviour toward children is mistakenly called "discipline." However, this false type of "discipline" has been found to escalate into more violent beatings.

Thirty-four percent of investigations of physical abuse in the 1998 nationwide CIS study were substantiated. The majority of these cases involved inappropriate punishment (69 percent), and included the forms of physical abuse mentioned above.

Emotional abuse

Emotional abuse is rooted in power and control. The verbal component of emotional abuse includes put-downs, verbal threats, name-calling such as "You are good for nothing;" "You will never amount to anything;" "You're big; you're fat; you're ugly;" "Stupid"! "Idiot"! It includes swearing and yelling at the child, and publicly humiliating him.

Emotional abuse … is tantamount to "mental violence."

Parents sometimes, in their eagerness to overcome their own sense of failure or inadequacy, make unreasonable demands of their children. For example, they may put them into contact sports at an age that is developmentally too early, or pressure them to master musical instruments which their little fingers cannot yet handle. When little Johnny does not become the dream genius, dad or mom's sense of failure is sharpened. Instead of realizing their mistakes, parents resort to blaming and shaming the child, or calling him names and indulging in very hurtful forms of emotional abuse. The result is that they create in another generation a sense of low self-worth, and set in motion the potential for this kind of pressure and abuse to continue into future generations.

Emotional abuse defined: Emotional abuse/maltreatment is defined as "acts of commission and omission by parents, or those caring for children." These acts cause, or have the potential to cause, serious behavioural, cognitive, emotional, or mental disorders. Emotional abuse can include verbal threats, socially isolating the child, intimidation, exploitation, terrorizing, and making unreasonable demands of the child. This form of abuse is hard to detect. Emotional abuse does not occur as a single incident, but is repeated and is tantamount to "mental violence." It damages a child's sense of self. While the effects of emotional abuse are not always readily seen, they manifest themselves in powerfully harmful and damaging ways later in a child's development, from teenage years into adulthood.

Unfortunately, parents and adults abuse children in multiple ways. Do you remember when you were a child trying to answer the cruel taunts of other children with the familiar response: "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can do me no harm"? How untrue that statement is!

Some children may even prefer a spanking to the damaging words spoken to them by an adult. You may remember some such words spoken to you. You may have continued to play these hurtful statements in your mind over the years. You may have attempted to thrive in spite of the damage they have done by trying to block out their effects. But have you ever forgotten those words? Or, have you forgotten the person who spoke them? Do you recall these incidents joyfully?

Forms of emotional abuse: Besides verbal abuse, children can be emotionally maltreated in other ways. The 1998 CIS study identified four forms of emotional maltreatment. Emotional abuse was identified as a situation in which a child suffered or was at risk for mental, emotional or developmental problems caused by openly hostile, punitive treatment, or by habitual or extreme verbal abuse (such as threatening and belittling).

When a child under three years of age suffers significant growth retardation for which there is no organic basis, the form of abuse is identified as "non-organic failure to thrive."

Emotional neglect is the form of emotional abuse linked to a child suffering, or at risk of suffering, mental, emotional or developmental problems caused by a lack of nurturance and affection.

Emotional abuse suffered when a child witnesses, or is involved with family violence within the home, is classified as exposure to family violence. It involves hearing the abuse, or seeing the physical injuries of the caregiver the following day.

Of the four forms of emotional maltreatment in the CIS study, the most common form is exposure to family violence which was seen in 58 percent of the cases. Emotional abuse was identified in 34 percent of the cases investigated and emotional neglect in 16 percent.

Now is the time to carefully and thoughtfully examine the extent to which we might be starving our children emotionally.

Sometimes a child may have over-heard bits of conversation among adults in which the suggestion was made that somehow she was not good enough. Either the child was not pretty enough, not intelligent or "bright" enough, or simply was too fat or too skinny to be worthy of love, affection, positive attention and nurturance. Some young adults also report that their emotionally abusive parents, often the mother, have hurled a range of hurtful statements at them, from claiming that the offspring was a mistake, or that the parent would be better off had they not been born, to blaming the son or daughter for everything that has gone wrong in the parent's life including their own poor choices.

Child neglect

Child neglect is a failure on the part of parents or significant caregivers to provide the necessities of life for a child. Necessities include physical, emotional and psychological needs. As in the case of emotional abuse, child neglect is often not readily noticeable, but its effects are nonetheless pervasive and devastating.

… eight forms of neglect were tracked.

Another definition suggests that emotional neglect of a child includes failing to meet his needs to feel loved, wanted, safe and worthy. It may manifest itself in the unavailability of the caregiver or open rejection of the child. Rejection of the child may or may not be obvious, but there is a lack of interest (on the part of the parent or caregiver) in such a child. Child neglect occurs when a caregiver is inattentive to areas essential for the child's physical, intellectual, or emotional development. This includes the child's need for food, clothing, shelter, safety, nurturance and belonging, medical care, and education. These definitions suggest that there is more to caring for a child than giving birth or simply providing the very bare necessities.

In the CIS study, eight forms of neglect were tracked. Of substantiated cases, failure to supervise leading to physical harm was associated with 48 percent of cases. Physical neglect permitting criminal behaviour and abandonment, educational neglect, and medical neglect were also identified. Failure to supervise leading to sexual harm and failure to provide necessary treatment were the remaining forms tracked. Overall, in the context of child abuse, child neglect was the most frequently investigated category.

Sexual abuse

Sexual abuse defined: Sexual abuse occurs when "a child is used for sexual purposes by an adult or adolescent. It involves exposing a child to any sexual activity or behaviour. Sexual abuse most often involves fondling and may include inviting a child to touch or be touched sexually . … "

The CIS study distinguishes among seven subtypes of sexual abuse: sexual activity completed (oral, anal, vaginal); sexual activity attempted; touching/fondling of genitals; adult exposing genitals to child; sexual exploitation (prostitution, pornography); sexual harassment and voyeurism.

Touching and fondling of genitals was the most common form substantiated having occurred in 68 percent of the cases. Attempted and completed sexual activity was substantiated in 35 percent of the cases investigated.

Each province and territory has laws stipulating the extent of our public and professional responsibility to protect children. This means that legally we can no longer know about the abuse of a child and look away, pretending that we did not see.

Disclosure of abuse

Children who have been abused usually show signs of abuse but may not speak about it. They often have either been coerced into secrecy or threatened into silence. Often in the case of sexual abuse, the child knows the abuser who might be a family member or a friend of the family. Fathers, step-fathers and grandfathers have been identified among the more prevalent perpetrators of child abuse. If untreated, the child will suffer severe emotional problems. It takes, on average, a decade before a child discloses the abuse. It is not within the scope of this paper to detail examples of incest and other forms of sexual abuse. Parents, or others to whom sexual or any forms of abuse are reported, need to be supportive of the child who has finally mustered up courage to speak. It is important to be understanding and assure the child that the abuse was not his/her fault. She did not cause an adult or adolescent to hurt her because of the way she was dressed, or because she was beautiful, or because she needed comfort.

… unsupportive parents … go a step further by blaming the child, often the daughter, for being hurt.

Abuse on the whole is a question of power and advantage. Especially in the case of sexual abuse, children often do not disclose because of the fear that they would not be believed. Many cases have identified unsupportive parents who go a step further by blaming the child, often the daughter, for being hurt. This leads to a child regretting making the disclosure. Besides being blamed by others, she also blames herself for the chaos and even for family break-up that happens in the aftermath of abuse. Negative responses to disclosure by caregivers have been associated in victims with multiple symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, trauma and dissociation.

In multiple instances parents have been aware of the abuse but have kept silent, or have enabled it. A New Zealand trial illustrated this. A nine-year-old girl told her mother of being abused by a 19-year-old boarder. Her deeply religious mother told them she forgave them and would pray for them. Although told repeatedly that the abuse was continuing, she took no measures to protect her child. It continued until the child was 14. At a church camp the young woman realized that she had been wronged and eventually reported the abuse to the police.

Causes of abuse in families

Abuse exists in contexts of power and control. Those who hold the least power in society are the most likely to experience abuse. Child abuse is not reserved for a specific social class and occurs in all segments of society regardless of religion, race, gender or social class. Poverty and economic disadvantage, however, tend to contribute to child neglect. Unemployment and major illness are among the stresses in the family that set the stage for child abuse. Other factors that increase the likelihood of child abuse are alcohol or drug addiction, mental illness, limited education or parenting skills of the adults, and disability or chronic behavioural problems in children. Living in high-risk communities or in single-parent families can also contribute.

Individuals who sexually abuse children do not interact well at an adult level with their peers and find it easier to deal with children. Pedophiles, for example, develop a winsome approach to children, making it easy for them to gain access. Within families sexual abuse can occur in varied situations. When there is parental conflict and an available daughter (in most cases), incest is likely to occur. It can occur when the mother has a mental or physical illness and the father turns to his daughter for gratification. Any child, especially a daughter in a parental role to alcoholic parents or other siblings, is at risk for incest or sexual abuse. Lengthy parental absence, including when a parent works at night, is also a possible predictor for sexual abuse.

A word about forgiveness

When children have been abused, especially in the case of sexual abuse, many mistakenly are too quick to push the young ones to forgive, and often use the line that if we are Christians we will forgive the person. The child's needs and healing must be attended to first. Forgiveness is only a part, and not the initial part, in the process of healing. Rushing a child into forgiveness without the child understanding it often creates more confusion and delays healing. The child must understand the role of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not about freeing the offender from the consequences of the wrongdoing. There is always a penalty for sin. In the life of the Christian, it is the death of Christ.

Some statistics

Child maltreatment and other forms of serious family problems affect between 20 and 40 percent of all Canadian families. One in two females and one in three males have been victims of unwanted and unsolicited sexual advances, and 80 percent of these happened before the person was 18 years of age. Forty-three percent of street youth in one study had been physically abused and 21 percent sexually abused. Between a third to three quarters of male and female runaways surveyed were victims of child maltreatment. Within one denomination, 30 percent of women have been abused. At an area youth camp, a survey revealed that half the girls reported that they had been abused by a father or relative. In a Southeastern California survey, 30 percent were physically abused at home before age 18; 43 percent were verbally or emotionally abused at home before age 18; 16 percent experienced incest; 13 percent used drugs or alcohol; and 27 percent were prone to suicidal behaviour.

Parents do well to remember that children view God based on how they are treated by their parents and by other adults. Many victims of abuse have a difficult time relating to God as a loving father, especially if their abuse was at the hand of a father-figure. Reacting to a response from Kay Kuzma to a female who reported that she had been sexually abused by her father, another victim of incest said the following: "Another thing I wish you had mentioned is how difficult the struggle can be to sort through the whole idea of an earthly father who represents God to us in our early life … Fathers who do such horrible things to their daughters often attend church and take some sort of leadership role … I was so angry with God that I couldn't deal with anything related to Him for several years . … " (Adv Review, May 4, 2000). Loving treatment makes it easier for children to love and trust God.

Abuse, especially emotional and sexual, also takes place in church settings. This makes the case for carefully screening individuals who work with, or care for, our children in church. What m of us ignore, however, is the extent of emotional abuse that we mete out to children in our churches. Teachers church staff need to be very careful of the picture they paint of God when dealing with active or misbehaving children. I have heard teachers, in their effort to quiet a class, tell them: "You are going to hell because you are bad." Other children have heard: "Because you behave like this, Jesus won't love you."

An overlooked form of emotional abuse directed at both children and teenagers is in the form of comments about their physical appearance. Children (especially girls) are set up for eating disorders when, having been accustomed to the message that they are "fat" or "over-weight," they suddenly receive compliments that they look good: "You should keep off the fat now." "You are really beautiful." Their sense of low self-esteem increases because the message they receive is that they were not worth much when they were fat or had any form of physical blemish. One young woman asked me: "What was I before then, before all this attention? Now I get asked to do things in church or get invitations to youth activities. At first it felt good but now I am confused and don't know what to tell them."

It is time for us to truly parent our children following the directives for teaching in Deuteronomy 6:6,7.

Prevention of abuse

Parents, you can prevent abuse of your children by doing some of the following:

  • discipline them well and you will be less likely to need to administer punishment;

  • be clear and consistent with your messages about your expectations and boundaries, including a good daily schedule for bedtime, meals and rising;

  • diminish stress in your own life by taking time to relax, rest and take occasional breaks;

  • familiarize yourselves with child development, knowing what to expect of children at different ages and stages of development. If a behaviour was "cute" yesterday, do not punish it tomorrow. Consistency is the key;

  • be clear about your values and transmit them to your children in ways that they understand;

  • be realistic with punishment for misbehaviour and have different options of punishment for misbehaviour

  • be sure that punishment matches the offence and that the child understands why he is being punished.

What does this discussion say to us as Christians?

It is time for us to truly parent our children following the directives for teaching in Deuteronomy 6:6,7. The continuous training of our children is a clear mandate but cannot be done if we neglect their needs. Discipline is still an important component of training but must not be confused with punishment. They must experience the natural consequences for their actions. While spanking (appropriately done) is not against the law in Canada, it must not take the place of more productive forms of discipline. It is punishment, and punishment should not be further confused with abuse. Parents who have a problem with anger control should not lift a finger against their children, and this is especially imperative if they are irate about something the child has done.

We must be attuned to our children's behaviour, especially if they are also in the care of others. It is important to ask them how their day went. Listen to their fears. Be alert to changes in behaviour, and take action. When a child reveals abuse, stay calm, assure the child of your love and show appreciation for her courage to tell. Be sure to follow up on any disclosure, including reporting it to the authorities—a must. Failing to take action communicates the disturbing message to our children that their well-being is unimportant. It leads to worse emotional disorders and greater problems in adolescence and adulthood.

In the pursuit of our careers and church responsibilities, let us not neglect the precious gifts that God has given us. When they are not with us, do we know with whom they spend their time? With whom do they chat on the Internet? What games are they playing on the computer? What about the people who look after them? What groups are they involved with? Do you know who their friends are? What about sleep-overs? Do you really know what happens when you allow your children to participate in these activities? These are some questions for you to ponder and explore carefully with a view to being more proactive in preventing child abuse among us.

"Many who are now bemoaning the waywardness of their children have only themselves to blame … "

In the book, The Adventist Home, Ellen White charges the problems of youth behaviour to the neglect of our responsibilities to our children. She states: "Many who are now bemoaning the waywardness of their children have only themselves to blame … the need to humble themselves and to repent before God for their neglect to follow His directions in the training of their children."

In these times, ensuring the well-being and training of our children is not an option; it is our obligation if we are indeed heading to the kingdom.

May we have the courage to not only remind our children of their great value to God, but to treat them accordingly so that they will not have to struggle in later years with the concept of God being a loving Father.

Dr. Ermine Leader, a registered psychologist and public speaker, works in the Counselling and Development Centre, York University, Toronto, Ontario. In her private practice she also provides counselling for individuals and couples. For counselling or community speaking engagements she can be reached at (905) 474-3099.

Originally published in the Canadian Adventist Messenger, October 2002.




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