Child abuse can be emotional, physical, or sexual, as well as neglect. Most of the time children are abused within their own families. Risk of child abuse is increased in homes where there is domestic violence or substance abuse, adolescent parents, parents suffering from depression or other mental health issues, or who were themselves abused as children.
Child abuse is not always obvious and for many reasons mistreated children are typically afraid to tell what is happening to them. They may think no one will believe their story, be scared of being blamed, or feel afraid of their abuser. Children may also feel profound love for their abuser and fear what might happen to them or their abuser if they speak up. When families and caregivers are not aware of the abuse children are left alone to cope, which can increase the risk of trauma.
Children who experience abuse and mistreatment can be helped to heal by receiving support and treatment from experienced professionals. Supportive adults do well to pay attention to unusual or unexplained changes in a child’s behaviour, which can point to resulting stress and anxiety, or physical injuries, which can signal an incident of physical abuse.
The impacts of childhood mistreatment or trauma can last into adulthood and reduce quality of life; lead to struggles with eating, sleeping, working and studying; reduce mental and physical health; and impact relationships and intimacy. People abused as children may have learned to ignore or deny their feelings to protect themselves and cope with the situation. They may also redirect their feelings about the abuse or abuser, such as shame and anger, at themselves. Over time these habits can cause loneliness and alienation, anxiety, sadness, self-blame, and/or a sense of helpless, hopeless or powerlessness. Using cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or other addictive behaviours can be a means of reducing despair or soothing emotional pain.
Counselling can help children or adults who have been abused make new meaning of their experiences. They can learn about their emotions: how to identify, understand and manage their feelings in new or healthier ways. In therapy people can learn about how their stress response was shaped by their past experiences of danger, and how it may continue to impact them in the present. Another important part of the healing in learning to feel lovable, deserving, whole, and valuable by separating themselves from their abuse and gradually rebuilding their identity and sense of worth.