We’ve all seen the horrid stories of abuse on the evening news—of children being starved and locked in their basements, or beaten until their small bodies are black and blue or sexually molested by a drug-addicted relative. The stories are horrific, but the good news is that many of those children are able to grow into healthy adults who later thrive in their careers and families.
Here, in honor of Child Abuse Awareness Month, four former victims of abuse shed light on their experiences and offer suggestions to help parents avoid the same tragic fate for their own children.
There are always red flags.
If you’re a parent, paying attention to even slight changes in the behavior of your child is the first step to spotting—and stopping—abuse. And after enduring emotional, physical, sexual and verbal abuse at the hands of a mentally unstable parent, Niki Smart of Los Angeles, Calif., is well aware of the warning signs that abused children tend to present. “For young children, any noticeable change in character can be a signal that something is wrong,” she says, “including withdrawing from usual activities and friends, becoming more aggressive or engaging in violence, being more tearful and clingy than usual, being more fearful than usual, bedwetting or regressing to more childish behaviors, acting out sexually with other children, and, of course, having bruises or marks on their body.”
Additionally, says Smart, some of the biggest red flags that point to an endangered child can come from stressed-out parents. She has worked at a crisis intervention shelter for teenagers for the past 16 years, and she has seen first-hand how potentially well-meaning parents can spiral into a cycle of abuse.
“I can tell that the parents at the shelter where I work love their children; they just don’t know how to parent them, as it relates to setting clear boundaries, disciplining with love, listening without judging, using positive reinforcement and setting healthy examples,” Smart says. “In today’s stressful society, child abuse is a growing problem, and it would behoove us greatly to figure out some possible solutions. In order to stop child abuse, I think we need parents to be more educated in what it means to parent.”
Recovery is a long process.
Today, Jan Arnow is able to leverage her many skills as an acclaimed author (her latest book is titled In the Line of Fire: Raising Kids in a Violent World) and international speaker. But many years ago, she was a battered child, developing those talents as a way to convince her abusive mother to love and accept her. “I became an accomplished ballet dancer, and when that didn’t do it, I became a skilled artist and photographer,” Arnow says. “When that didn’t work either, I excelled at writing, at public speaking and at learning languages—all before I left high school. When I left home, and left my mother behind me, I carried those talents and abilities with me and knew that I could probably learn and carry out anything I wanted to do. But this time, I realized I would be doing them for my own self-love rather than the love of a mother who was unable or unwilling to exhibit affection for me. That was an enormous esteem-builder for me.”
Even still, says Arnow, the realization that she must love herself first before expecting anyone else to didn’t automatically negate the years of abuse she endured, or their long-lasting effects. “I recognize that my years of abuse created a mindset of being damaged goods, and that has either allowed or propelled me toward participating in high-risk activities, like traveling to parts of the world that others wouldn’t even consider going to because of tribal and/or cultural wars,” she explains. “My many years of abuse either beat out of me or allowed me to shed my fear response, so I have done many things that a fear base might have prevented me from doing.”
For Shannon Deitz, it only takes a slight trigger to send her mind racing back to the tragic time when she was a young girl being abused by a family member. “It can be the smell of coffee or a feather-like touch on the nape of my neck, and my body tenses in response to the engrained memory of what happened years ago,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t even realize I’ve been triggered until I make myself work through why I responded with defense or disgust. When I acknowledge the triggers, talk about them and work through them, they lose their power.”
That process of working through the pain is critical to the recovery process, and in 2011, Deitz started Hopeful Hearts Ministry to empower and encourage other victims of abuse through their journey. “My experience in helping survivors of abuse is no matter the age or the type of abuse, you don’t feel like you have a voice,” she explains. “You are either shamed into silence, made to feel guilty, or belittled enough that you begin to believe you deserve what is being done or said. I think it’s time for survivors to recognize that they do matter and they are not alone. It is my desire to be a voice for them and hopefully encourage survivors regardless of age, gender or race to begin the conversation about abuse. The more we talk about it, the better chance the cycle will be broken.”
Prevention is possible.
As a parent reading this, you may be worried and fearful that there’s no way to protect your child from potential abuse, but that’s not the case, says Denise Martin, a professional writer and mom of one from Lake Oswego, Oregon. Martin says she was abused as a child in a high-powered family, and that history of abuse caused her to attract an abusive relationship in adulthood. Still, though, she is committed to ensuring that her son didn’t repeat her pattern.
“The vast majority of child abusers are the child’s parents, so if you suspect that your mate has some depression or substance abuse of any kind, start looking for help before they endanger your children in any way,” Martin says. “As for strangers, be very discerning about who you send your child off with. Child molesters are master manipulators. They are often charming and great with kids and parents, and they don’t always show their true colors in public.”
Taking her own advice, Martin is careful to ensure that her son is always in a safe environment. “The best thing that I have done as a parent to keep my son safe is to create a home that all the children wanted to hang out at,” she says. “As my son was growing up, we had a trampoline and cool games and fresh baked goods. I would rather mother everyone’s kids then send mine off to a stranger’s home.” And being on guard, Martin adds, doesn’t just apply to strangers.
“If your mate tells you that they experienced an abusive childhood, then assume that Uncle Johnny and Grandpa might be a threat,” she says. “Just because they are family doesn’t make them safe. In an abusive family tree the opposite is true. Most of all, trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right with a child, it probably isn’t!”
To learn more about how you can spot abuse and help in the fight to prevent it, visit childwelfare.gov.