Child abuse is a physically, mentally and emotionally taxing experience for the victims involved. It usually also scars them for life and results in depression, stress, trust issues and other mental health concerns when they are older. To solve child abuse, we must understand why it occurs and prevent such cases from happening in the first place.
There is no single answer as to why some adults are more prone to hurting children. In many cases, there is a complex mix of factors that can involve the adult’s past history, personal issues, relationship with the child and environmental stress.
Generally, an adult may be at higher risk of hurting a child if they are dealing with the following problems:
This includes the adult having experienced neglect or abuse themselves, particularly in their own childhood, and feeling that they have the right to mistreat the child or believing that child abuse is normal and acceptable. The adult could also have a record of substance abuse, making them especially volatile and prone to fits of rage that could be directed toward the child.
The adult may be dealing with various mental health issues, such as poor self-esteem, depression, anxiety, feelings of incompetence or shame, psychotic disorders or other challenges that may render them less capable of taking care of themselves, much less a child. In some cases, the adult could have their own delusions that cause them to believe the child is in the wrong, leading them to wrongly punish the child.
The adult may have a poor relationship with the child, such as lack of closeness or a failure to understand the limits of the child’s capability. Parents may sometimes expect the child to be capable of tasks before they are old enough to do so, lending to frustration and anger at a child’s poor performance. Some people become parents without a knowledge of basic parenting skills and find themselves unable to deal with the challenges of raising a child.
In cases where the child is dealing with physical or intellectual disabilities, similar difficulties can arise where the adult feels stressed from catering to the child’s special needs, or has to make more efforts to care for the child adequately. Sometimes, the adult may not even be aware that the child has special needs. This can give rise to instances where the adult blames the child for being too high-maintenance.
Stress from outside sources can contribute to frustration, anger and violence. The adult may be dealing with socioeconomic factors such as unemployment or financial problems. They may also be going through social problems with other people such as domestic violence, separation or divorce, difficulties at the workplace, estrangement from family or a lack of support from their community.
Genie, born 1957, suffered severe child abuse and neglect. Her father, Clark Wiley, grew up without adequate parental support. He was originally given a feminine first name by his mother, causing him to harbor extreme resentment towards her. Later on in adulthood, Wiley’s mother began to spend more time with him, leading him to focus almost singularly on their relationship.
Genie’s mother was Irene Oglesby, who suffered from degenerative vision in one eye due to a head injury she sustained in childhood. Her eyesight continued to deteriorate from a combination of neurological damage, cataracts and a detached retina, causing her to be almost blind and increasingly dependent on her husband.
Shortly after the couple married, Wiley began to place severe restrictions on his household. He forbade his wife from going out of the house and beat her regularly. He strongly disliked noise and did not want children because he found them noisy. When Oglesby became pregnant, Wiley beat her throughout the pregnancy and even attempted to strangle her to death, but she gave birth to a healthy daughter. Annoyed at the baby’s cries, Wiley placed her in the garage where she caught pneumonia and died at ten weeks of age.
The couple had another child that died at two days old, and then Genie’s older brother, and finally Genie. Wiley forced his wife to keep the infants quiet, delaying their physical and linguistic development. Furthermore, as he believed that Genie was mentally retarded, he made it a point not to pay attention to her and made his wife and son do the same.
The child abuse took a turn for the worse when Wiley’s mother was killed in a hit-and-run accident, with the driver facing only a light sentence. Wiley held his son responsible for the death because his son had been walking with Wiley’s mother at the time of the accident. He believed that society had failed him, going on to isolate the family and lock Genie up in a small room to “protect her”. Genie was tied to a child’s potty in a straitjacket during the day and restrained in a crib at night. The whole family, especially Genie, was forbidden by Wiley from making noise at all. If they shirked his command, they would be beaten harshly.
Genie was always fed soft foods in a hurry as Wiley believed that the family should spend as little time with her as possible. If she choked on the food, it would be rubbed in her face. For the rest of the day, she would be left immobilized in the room with no external stimuli of any sort. She endured thirteen years of life in this manner.
As a result, Genie suffered from extreme malnutrition and never developed normally. When she was taken over by the authorities at thirteen, she looked to be about six or seven years old, had the mental age of a thirteen-month-old and made no sounds at all.
While most cases of child abuse may not take place to the extent of Genie’s situation, it is still a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
Perhaps the most direct way to prevent child abuse would be to address the child abuse risk factors noted above. The Administration for Children and Families has identified several areas that families can work on to protect themselves against child abuse.
Raising a child involves more than feeding and clothing them, but also nurturing them and developing a close bond. A child that receives regular affection early in life will be more likely to have better grades, improved social interactions, healthier behaviors and an increased capability to deal with stress.
Instead of making unrealistic expectations of their children, parents should understand that their role is to encourage healthy development by creating a positive environment. Even if a child has been diagnosed with special needs or pervasive development, parents should not neglect the child, but rather support them even more in dealing with those challenges.
Raising a child can be challenging, especially for first-time parents. If the parents familiarize themselves with what to expect, they can be better equipped to deal with the demands of their children.
One way to bolster parental resilience is to have a strong support network. Instead of isolating the family like Genie’s father did, building a support network of family and friends helps parents with managing the weight of raising children.
Parents should have all the physical resources they need to promote healthy growth of their children, such as food, water, shelter, transportation and clothing. They should also have reliable access to essential services such as healthcare and childcare to aid in caring for their children throughout all stages of life.
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