The effects of child abuse often follows a child into adulthood. Child abuse is any act that results in actual or potential harm to a minor including, neglect, physical, sexual, or psychological mistreatment by parents, caregivers or other adults. Like many facets of abuse, it reaches all cultures, ethnicities, races, genders, and even socioeconomic classes.
The repercussions of psychological and emotional abuse are far-reaching. The risks of abuse increases in families dealing with substance abuse or poverty as a result of anger, stress, and anxiety which often accompany these trepidations. Increased awareness is necessary to protect those affected and bring healing to the victims.
There has always been a fine line between discipline and abuse. Historically, parents lacked accountability when correcting their children, often complicating the topic of child abuse.
When addressing child abuse in the book “Commentaries on the Laws of England,” William Blackstone said: In many cultures, a father has the power of life and death over his offspring. Based on the principle that since the father gave them life, he is free to take life from them.
The foundation of the American legal system is built on the British model and is more moderate. The law stated that parents have only three obligations to their offspring: maintain shelter and food, protect them, and make sure they were educated. Additionally, parents may use only the force necessary to keep a child in order and may lawfully correct them in a reasonable manner.
It was not until the late 1700s that the American legal system began to affect parental rights. At that time, parents and guardians that adequately provided for their kids were rarely prosecuted in child abuse cases, no matter how harsh their discipline tactics were.
The legal protection for children increased in the 1960s after politicians became aware of an overwhelming amount of stories involving abused minors. Child Protective Service agencies were set up in every state. The federal government began a mandatory process for doctors, teachers, and other professionals to submit any suspicions to authorities.
The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act says the minimum definition of abuse is: Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.
In the 1970s, awareness of sexual abuse against children became a widely discussed topic, causing legal systems to become more aggressive.
There are many forms of child abuse affecting children worldwide. While physical abuse is easier to identify, the result of emotional abuse is often mislabeled as “bad behavior.” Sexual assault is another form that is not apparent to the naked eye but is relatively easy to define.
Usually, a sexual assault occurs when someone touches any part of another person’s body for self gratification, even through clothes, without that person’s consent.
The consequences of child abuse often accompany victims into adulthood causing problems of mental illness, impulse control, attachments to others, increased instances of drug addiction, legal difficulties, domestic abuse, increased health costs, and lost wages.
The effect of child abuse on the brain has been shown to involve changes in how the limbic system or emotional center of the brain functions. Studies have shown an increased rate of abnormalities in this region of the brain, based on the type of abuse a person experiences. When various kinds of abuses are combined, this rate soars as high as 113 percent.
Changes to this region of the brain are typically associated with the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the limbic system also plays a dominant role in survival instincts, such as flight, fight or freeze. Maladaptive reactions to stimuli can negatively influence the limbic system, causing stress reactions that are inappropriate to the immediate environment once the person is removed from the source of abuse.
Trauma affects other areas of the brain as well. Stress reduces the ability for the cortex to function properly, diminishing a child’s capacity for problem-solving and rationalization when under high amounts of stress. Suppressed cortical activity can also aid in the reactiveness of the limbic system as it affects the child’s ability to process the events happening around them.
The good news is, the brain has a built in feature known as neural plasticity which means that, with treatment, the negative changes in a child’s brain can be redirected into more adaptive patterns of activity. With the removal of the abusive environment and the introduction of therapy and support, a child’s brain can begin to make positive adjustments that would permit them to develop more normally. Interventions in this vein would help lessen the impact of childhood trauma on adult life.
In order for society to change its present course, it must become aware of the fact that child abuse has long-term consequences. Awareness is the first step to healing. The responsibility for preventing the abuse of children rests with anyone who interacts with them. However, recognizing child abuse is not as simple as one might imagine. Federal, state, and local agencies are working to provide information to raise levels of awareness through public service programs. It is the hope of this author to contribute to the effort to propagate community and awareness of child abuse.
Written by Tanisha Jones
Edited by D. Chandler and C. Jackson
Psychology Today: Child Abuse
Marriage: History of Child Abuse Laws
Clarendon Press at Oxford: ‘Commentaries on the Laws of England;’ William Blackstone; Original Publication Date 1765
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Veronica Costa’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License