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Short and long-term effects of child abuse

Far too many of our children are being abused by their parents, other relatives and acquaintances. The abuse includes sexual abuse (rape, molestation, etc.), other forms of physical abuse, psychological and emotional abuse, intimidation, threats and more. Far too many parents operate like military leaders in the home. There is very little or no honor, caring, listening, loving and respect. These parents operate by commands and demands. Many children are being wounded for the rest of their lives by the dysfunctional behavior and maltreatment in the home. How does abuse impact children? I will present the effects of child abuse through the age span. Note carefully what happens at each age.

INFANTS AND TODDLERS (0 to 2 1/2 years)

Developmental delay: Failure to thrive due to the chaotic, loud and harmful environment. Emotional withdrawal and low frustration tolerance. There are also physical problems.

PRE-SCHOOL (3 to 6 years)

Developmental delay, especially in language development: The child may be afraid to speak, afraid of becoming the target of anger. This is due in part to not being spoken to by adults or experiencing meaningful discussion with adults.

Low frustration tolerance: The child cries easily and often. Their world is so chaotic, they cannot handle ordinary stress. They usually have not witnessed appropriate ways of dealing with stress.

Acting out aggressively toward peers and adults: They model the aggressive behavior observed in the home.

Inability to play constructively: Lots of throwing or kicking. Possible destruction of play things. Many children have not been shown how to play. Children are working out their frustration and worry in play.

Inconsistent or inappropriate display of emotions: Abuse can result in the child not learning appropriate emotional responses, as well as not being in touch with true feelings.

SCHOOL AGE (7 to 11 years)

Scholastically delayed/poor school performance: The child finds studying and learning difficult when he cannot keep from worrying about what happened at home last night or who is going to get hurt, or maybe killed, later tonight.

Behavior problems with peers and adults: Because of the lack of observable appropriate interpersonal relationships, the child has not learned appropriate ways to interact with others. The child may be crying out for help, the only way he can still keep the “family secret”.

Aggressive acting out becomes more severe and purposeful: The child models the violent behavior witnessed in the home.

Fearful/nightmares/night terrors: The child relives fears in sleep. They may be afraid of sleep because of incidents of physical and/or sexual abuse that occur at night. They may have a history of being wakened by mother’s screams and father’s yelling.

Withdrawals/depressed/hopeless/despondent: Life offers little, other than physical and/or emotional pain. Joy is lost.

Chronic physical complaints: There are headaches and stomachaches. The child knows no other way to realize or describe emotional distress. The stress level is too high for the child to cope.

Beginning to mimic adult roles: Generally, girls adopt the role of victims; boys become aggressive and abusive.

Chronic low self-esteem: The child blames self for the situation at home. The child’s good feelings about himself have not been nurtured.

ADOLESCENCE (12 to 17 years)

Depression: There is a loss of hope and joy. The adolescent is full of sadness.

Signs of physical injuries, maiming, crippling, scarring: Too often, abuse leaves long-term or permanent scars on the adolescent.

Aggression/delinquency/running away: The adolescent realizes no one will take care of his needs, except himself. The adolescent will use the only coping skills they have learned – violence and self-destruction.

Poor school adjustment: The adolescent is academically and socially unable to perform.

Early sexual activity/marriage: It is common for adolescents who experience or witness abuse to engage in early sex or marriage as a means of escape or acting out.

Alcohol/drug experimentation or use: This is another form of escapism or self-medication for the pain. The adolescent models the behavior of adults closest to her.

Death by suicide or murder: The adolescent takes his own life to end the pain, or intervenes to protect the mother. This results in harm or death of the adolescent, or adolescent kills the abuser. Many Bahamian children attempt suicide each year.

Expansion of violence into the community: Criminal activity sometimes through gang involvement where the teen finds a surrogate family. Anger and frustration spills over into the community.

It is time that we must speak out about all forms of child abuse. Let us not rob our children of the joys of childhood. Let us do our best from birth to have a healthy, vibrant adult life.


• Barrington Brennen is a marriage and family therapist. Send your questions or comments to
question@soencouragment.org, telephone 327-1980 or visit www.soencouragement.org. 

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