D'Arcy Lyness, Ph.D.
Amy's finger was so swollen that she couldn't get her ring off. She didn't think her finger was broken because she could still bend it. It had been a week since her dad had grabbed her hand and then shoved her into the wall, but her finger still hurt a lot. She was so embarrassed that she didn't tell anyone. Amy hated the way her dad called her lots of names - and accused her of all sorts of things she didn't do - especially after he had been drinking. It made her feel awful. She wished he would stop, but didn't feel very hopeful that anything would change.
What Is Abuse?
Abuse in families can take many forms. It may be physical, sexual, emotional, verbal, or a combination of any or all of those. Neglect - when parents don't take care of the basic needs of the children who depend on them - can be a form of abuse.
Family violence can affect anyone, regardless of religion, color, or social standing. It happens in both wealthy and poor families and in single-parent or two-parent households. Sometimes parents abuse each other, which can be hard for a child to witness. Some parents abuse their children by using physical or verbal cruelty as a way of discipline. Both girls and guys can experience abusive physical punishment by a parent - but male children are beaten more often than female children.
Physical abuse is often the most obvious form of abuse. It may be any kind of hitting, shaking, burning, pinching, biting, choking, throwing, whipping, paddling, beating, and other actions that cause physical injury, leave marks, or produce significant physical pain.
Sexual abuse is any type of sexual contact between an adult and child or between a significantly older child and a younger child. If a person is abused by a member of his or her immediate family, this is called incest.
Emotional abuse can be difficult to pin down because there are no physical signs to look for. Sure, people yell at each other, express anger, and call each other names sometimes, and expressing anger can sometimes be healthy. But emotional abuse generally occurs when the yelling and anger go too far or when a parent constantly belittles, threatens, or dismisses a child until the child's self-esteem and feelings of self-worth are damaged. And just like physical abuse can cause physical scars, emotional abuse can bring about emotional damage.
Neglect is probably the hardest type of abuse to define. Neglect occurs when a child doesn't have adequate food, housing, clothes, medical care, or supervision. Emotional neglect happens when a parent doesn't provide enough emotional support or deliberately and consistently pays very little or no attention to a child. But it's not neglect if a parent doesn't give a kid something he or she wants, like a new computer or a cell phone.
Abuse doesn't just happen in families, of course. Bullying is a form of abusive behavior that may happen in a peer group - among people of any age. Bullying someone by intimidation, threats, or humiliation can be just as abusive as beating someone up. People who bully others have often been abused themselves. This is also true of people who abuse someone they're dating. But being abused is still no excuse for abusing someone else.
Abuse can also take the form of hate crimes directed at people just because of their race, religion, abilities, gender, or sexual orientation.
It may sound strange, but people sometimes have trouble recognizing that they are being abused. For example, Amy has been abused but she doesn't think of it that way. Recognizing abuse may be especially difficult for someone who has lived with it for many years. A person might think that it's just the way things are and that there's nothing that can be done about it. People who are abused might mistakenly think they bring it on themselves by misbehaving or by not living up to someone's expectations.
Someone growing up in a violent or abusive family may not know that there are other ways for family members to treat each other. A person who has only known an abusive relationship may mistakenly think that hitting, beating, pushing, shoving, or angry name-calling are perfectly normal ways to treat someone when you're mad. Seeing parents treat each other in abusive ways may lead a child to think that's a normal relationship. It's important for people who grow up with abuse to know that it is not a normal, or healthy, or acceptable way to treat people.
Why Does It Happen?
There is no one reason why people abuse others, although there are some factors that seem to make it more likely that a person may become abusive. Growing up in an abusive family, for example, can teach someone that abuse is a way of life. Fortunately, though, many people who grow up in abusive families realize that abuse is not acceptable and are able to break patterns of abuse.
Some people become abusive because they are not able to manage their feelings properly. For example, people who are unable to control their anger or people who can't cope with stressful personal situations (like the loss of a job or marital problems) may lash out at others inappropriately. Certain types of personality disorders or mental illness can also interfere with a person's ability to relate to others in healthy ways or cause people to have problems with aggression or self-control. Of course, not everyone with a personality disorder or mental illness becomes abusive.
Substance abuse, such as alcoholism or drug use, can also play a role in abuse by making it difficult for the abuser to control his or her actions.
Of course, just because someone may have a problem, it doesn't automatically mean that person will become abusive. If you're one of the thousands of people living in an abusive situation, though, it can help to understand why some people abuse - and to realize that violence is all about the person doing it, not the fault of the person being abused.
Even if someone close to you has behavioral or other problems that cause him or her to abuse others, these don't make the abuse acceptable, normal, or excusable. Abuse can always be corrected, and everyone can learn how to stop.
What Are the Effects of Abuse?
If someone is abused, it can affect every aspect of that person's life, especially self-esteem. How much abuse damages a person depends on the circumstances surrounding the abuse, how often and how long the abuse occurs, the age of the person who was abused, and lots of other factors.
Of course, every family has arguments. In fact, it's rare when a family doesn't have some rough times, disagreements, and anger. Punishments and discipline - like removing privileges, grounding, or being sent to your room - are normal in most families. It becomes a problem, though, when the punishment is physically or emotionally damaging. That's called abuse.
Abused teens often have trouble sleeping, eating, and concentrating. They may perform poorly at school because they are angry or frightened or because they don't care or can't concentrate.
Many people who are abused distrust others. They may feel a lot of anger toward other people and themselves, and it can be hard to make friends. Some abused teens become depressed. Some may engage in self-destructive behavior, such as cutting or abusing drugs or alcohol. They may even attempt suicide.
It's normal for people who have been abused by the people they love to not only feel upset but also confused about what happened to them. They may feel guilty and embarrassed and blame themselves, especially if the abuse is sexual. But abuse is never the fault of the person who is being abused, no matter how much the abuser tries to blame it on them.
Abusers often try to manipulate the people they're abusing into either thinking the abuse is their fault or to keep the abuse quiet. An abuser might say things like: "This is a secret between you and me," or "If you ever tell anybody, I'll hurt you or your mom," or "You're going to get in trouble if you tell. No one will believe you and you'll go to jail for lying." This is the abuser's way of making a person feel like nothing can be done so that he or she won't take any action to stop or report the abuse.
People who are abused may have trouble getting help because it means they'd be reporting on someone they love - someone who may be wonderful much of the time and awful to them only some of the time. So abuse often goes unreported.
What Should Someone Who's Being Abused Do?
People who are being abused need to get help. Keeping the abuse a secret doesn't protect a person from being abused - it only makes it more likely that the abuse will continue.
If you or anyone you know is being abused, talk to someone you or your friend can trust - a family member, a friend, a trusted teacher, a doctor, or an adult who works with youth at school or in a place of worship. Many teachers and counselors, for instance, have training in how to recognize and report abuse.
Telephone directories list local child abuse and family violence hotline numbers that you can call for help. There's also Childhelp USA at (800) 4-A-CHILD ( 422-4453).
Sometimes people who are being abused by someone in their own home need to find a safe place to live temporarily. It is never easy to have to leave home, but it's sometimes necessary to be protected from further abuse. People who need to leave home to stay safe can find local shelters listed in the phone book or they can contact an abuse helpline. Sometimes a person can stay with a relative or friend.
People who are experiencing abuse often feel weird or alone. But they're not. No one deserves to be abused. Getting help and support is an important first step to change the situation. Many teens who have experienced abuse find that painful emotions may linger even after the abuse stops. Working with a therapist is one way for a person to sort through the complicated feelings and reactions that being abused creates, and the process can help to rebuild feelings of safety, confidence, and self-esteem.