By Kattie Shumaker-Ellis
Children suffering abuse develop a range of maladaptive, anti-social and self-destructive behaviors and thoughts by trying to cope with the abuse and trying to understand the situation and why the abuse is happening.
Think of it like this: a person is robbed and beaten while walking down the street at night. In trying to deal with the situation, the person thinks, “I shouldn’t have walked down that street,” or “I shouldn’t have been there at that time of night,” or “I should have walked with more confidence,” or “I shouldn’t have made eye contact,” or “I should have given in quicker,” or “I should have fought back,” or any number of other ideas. The point is the person feels a sense of control over the situation if they can blame themselves or something they did for the attack. Instead of the world being a dangerous place where violence occurs at random, the world becomes a safe place within certain behavioral parameters.
Children experience the same kinds of thoughts when they suffer abuse, except they are much more immature and often make much less sense because the violence is occurring in their own family, and nothing makes sense in that situation.
And the abuse suffered by children occurs much more frequently. If the adult in the above example is attacked and mugged every week despite changing their behavior each time, it won’t be long before the person starts coming up with bizarre explanations for the violence and becomes afraid to leave the house entirely. If the person has a chance to talk with the attacker after every attack – like in cartoons where the rabbit asks the fox “why did you attack me?” and the fox comes up with a different silly reason each time, similar to child abuse where the victim and the perpetrator interact constantly.
The person will be sent through a psychological maze of smoke and mirrors leading to any number of bizarre ideas about how to avoid the attack next week. By coming up with ideas about what they did to cause the abuse and what they can do differently to avoid the abuse, children also develop a range of maladaptive behaviors which can become pathological problems.
In addition to distorting children’s thoughts, abuse also forces children into a position of having to “hide the family secret”. This prevents children from having real relationships and has life-long effects. And because our ability to form healthy social relationships is learned, abused children are deprived of many skills necessary to navigate the social world. Their entire concept of a relationship is distorted. This leads to problematic relationships in life and even on the job.
Here are things to look for, some or all:
Alcohol and/or other drug abuse
Compulsive sexual behaviors
Dangerous behavior such as speeding
Failure to thrive
Fear or shyness
Fear of certain adults or places
Physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches
Risky sexual behaviors
Thumb-sucking or any age-inappropriate behavior