Neglect is the most widespread form of child abuse in the United States. It includes any careless actions that prevent a child from living a happy, healthy life. Most cases of child neglect deal with physical neglect, in which case the child is not given the basic requirements for life, such as food, clothing, shelter and/or supervision. He or she may suffer from grave illnesses or physical harm—such as cuts, bruises, or other injuries—and may fail to thrive in the home environment.
Forms of child neglect include educational neglect, continued spousal abuse in a child’s presence, allowing a child to use drugs or alcohol, and medical neglect. Children who are neglected may also experience other forms of abuse, emotional or physical.
Elder abuse is an ‘out of sight’ problem and tends to be committed mostly by family members in the privacy of the elder person’s home. As with most victims of abuse, whether child, adult, or elder, the victim may not realize he or she is being abused. Abuse is not a word in their vocabulary. All they know is that someone doesn’t like them and is treating them badly and they feel trapped. Elderly victims may think this is how it is when you get old and it is entirely their fault. They have done something to cause anger on the part of the abuser. The victim is afraid others won’t believe him if he reports what is going on and how he or she is being treated, or is afraid he will be institutionalized.
Fewer children suffer emotional abuse than they do sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect. Yet it is among the cruelest forms of abuse because it cuts right to child’s soul, to his or her very core and image of themselves. It affects every facet of a child’s health and makes a child question why he or she is not good enough. It makes them wonder: What’s wrong with me? Why don’t my parents love me or appreciate who I am as a person?
Emotional abuse can be verbal, denying affection, extreme discipline, bullying, as well as poor parental role models. Emotional abuse undermines a victim’s ego and sense of self and can lead to poor self-esteem, constant sadness or prolonged depression, anxiety attacks, not wanting to go to school or playing truant, self-harming, drug use, promiscuity, and even personality disorders. In older children, especially girls, eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia may present a way to “control” their surroundings. Victims may also become abusive to other children or even become bullies themselves.
Physical abuse involves bodily harm or injury to a child. It can include acts of aggression such as jerking, biting, whipping, pulling hair, striking, slapping, violent shaking and many more unimaginable acts. Not all parents who are physically abusive do so to knowingly hurt their children. Some parents simply believe that corporeal punishment is necessary in order to make children behave. Others are simply sadistic or impulsive, or do not control their own rage.
The emotional consequence of physical abuse depends on the age of the child. For young children, some of the signs include distrust of others (particularly of adults), a solitary nature, poor self-esteem, or even becoming a bully themselves. The older a child gets, the more he may suffer these effects. A physically abused child may never weep and may appear to be dissociated from his or her feelings. Or, conversely, he may cry often and be consumed with rage or emotion. Such children are at greater risk of turning to drugs or alcohol, and may struggle to control their own physicality or emotions and therefore lash out at others.
Sexual abuse robs children of their innocence and creates a loss of trust and feelings of shame about their sexuality and themselves. Very often, it leads to self-abusive behavior, such as cutting, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts. Disobedience, rebellion, or oppositional defiance disorders; despair and depression; a poor sense of self; low self-esteem; and promiscuity are all serious emotional problems that may arise in children who have been sexually abused. Such abuse can also lead to difficulty maintaining healthy intimate relationships later in life.
Child sexual abuse can be touching or non-touching and often takes place within the family or is perpetrated by a friend or neighbor, a teacher, or someone else in a position of power. However, in some cases abuse may be carried out by a stranger. No child is emotionally prepared to cope with repeated sexual stimulation. When sexual abuse occurs within the family, the child may fear the anger, jealousy, or shame of other family members, or may be afraid the family will break up if the secret is revealed.
A victim of prolonged sexual abuse usually develops low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness, and an abnormal or distorted view of sex. Such children often have difficulty relating to others, except on sexual terms. Some may become child abusers themselves, or may become sex workers or sexually promiscuous.
Children who have been sexually abused need professional evaluation and help to regain a sense of self-esteem, handle feelings of guilt about the abuse, and begin the process of overcoming the trauma. Ideally, the family should also be involved in the therapy sessions.