A child-abuse victim shares his story of survival
“It was an incredibly scary environment.. All I could think was that he broke my hand this time, what will be next? The violence was just getting worse.”
This metro-area high school boy, let’s call him Jake, was talking about his father, and he, along with countless others, had suffered from child abuse. A report of child abuse in America is made every 10 seconds, according to ChildHelp, and more than four children die every day because of it. Many abused children will have nobody who is willing to hear their story, offer them help or recognize their painful struggle. In fact, the National Children’s Advocacy Center reports that thousands of child abuse scenarios go unreported every year. In the case of domestic child abuse, like what Jake went through, it’s often very hard for the abused to speak out against their family, and according to Jake, the world is often blind to the abuse.
The Neighborhood Involvement Program’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Center
The Neighborhood Involvement Program’s Rape and Sexual Abuse Center
“People often don’t look past what they see in front of them,” he said. “That’s why I try to constantly be aware…if someone’s being mean to you, or someone’s being really weird, they might be going through personal issues… and you don’t really have any idea about what is going on.”
Laurie Matthew, author of Groomed: An Uncle Who Went Too Far, a Mother Who Didn’t Care, a Little Girl Who Waited for Justice, agrees that the world often turns a blind eye.
“Many people don’t want to believe that child abuse exists, or are only willing to believe that certain kinds of abuse go on,” she wrote. “They don’t want to consider that something so horrific, and yet so widespread, is taking place in their community.”
Shame and intimidation
Life for abused children is often like living in their own volatile world, one foreign to feelings of safety, praise, and content. When trapped in the abusive cycle, it’s common for these children to be oblivious to life outside of it. This is part of what may make them seem “mean” or “really weird”; they don’t know how to act in the outside world.
According to HelpGuide.org the reason for this closed way of thinking is that, “abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation.” HelpGuide.org also claims the chief thing that abusers aim for is control. For a period Jake’s abuser had so much control that Jake couldn’t even recognize the abuse.
“[In my case] my dad threw things a lot.. But when I was young I thought that was what all families were like. That’s what my mom told me…I didn’t think it was abuse, I thought it was just anger.”
Marcia L. Milliken, the Executive Director at Minnesota Children’s Alliance, explains that “before abuse starts, kids are groomed. It’s very gradual and so [at first] they don’t understand…when the real abuse starts happening.”
Fear of rejection
Although it took time and a desire to really push into the outside world, Jake eventually managed to view what life was like outside of an abusive family. This was thanks in part to a two week stay with relatives out of state. He observed functional and healthy family dynamics and gained an appreciation for the patience and kindness that he saw. Because of this, his outlook on life was changed.
“When I got older I finally realized how damaging [the abuse] was,” he said. “I realized how other families did things differently, and better, I thought, than how my family did things.”
This common lack of knowledge about healthy family dynamics leads to a limited perception of how families work. This set-back often comes in addition to the physical damage done to the abused, and both combine with a variety of abuse caused psychological problems, often leading the child to make harmful and damaging decisions throughout their life. These psychological problems include depression, poor self-esteem, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and even suicide attempts, according to Adults Surviving Child Abuse (ASDC).
Changes in behavior
Abuse can also result in a tendency towards recklessness in children, which explains why, in general, children who experience child abuse and neglect are about nine times more likely to become involved in criminal activity as a teen or later in life. Milliken claims there is a wide range of abuse-caused changes.
“There can be substance abuse, sexual promiscuity,” she said. Even perfectionism can be a response.
To Milliken, the theme is behavior changes, but it doesn’t always manifest itself in illegal activities. One other effect of the psychological damage that is done in abusive situations is the anger that many abused children hold on to forever. Because they lack a suitable outlet, their anger at the atrocities done to them often festers under their skin until they reach the boiling point. This is why, according to Kidshealth.org, “some [abused] kids become bullies, [as they] have problems managing their anger and other strong emotions.” Jake may not have become a bully, but he did feel those strong emotions.
“As I grew up I started to get [more and more] angry with my father for being verbally abusive, threatening, and kicking us out of the house,” he said. “The cycle in my family was to forgive him every time, but after a while I gave up on that, because I knew there was no point. He would just do it again.”
Many abused people deal with this anger through destructive behavior, some of which Jake has witnessed first hand.
“I have friends who have similar family issues [to mine], and often they deal with it in negative ways, like drugs, alcohol, and things like that,” he continued.
It makes sense that Jake has witnessed this type of behavior. As many as two-thirds of the people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused or neglected as children, according to ChildHelp. But not all of abused children end up in situations like this. Jake has not.
With that as his proof of expertise, he advises others in similar situations that, “just because your parents are abusive to you, doesn’t mean that you have to come out abusive or bad…. Don’t let them control you.”
The problem is many abused children aren’t aware when they become the abuser themselves. That’s why about 30 percent of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, continuing the destructive cycle. But how does one escape that cycle? According to Jake, “you just have to be more patient and strong than you thought was possible… The way that people who abuse you win, is if you let them change you into a bad person yourself.”
Jake advised people stuck in abusive situations to create a better life themselves. He said that the key way to do that is to remember that, “biology has nothing to do with family. [Family] is about who cares for you and looks out for you. Sometimes that’s just not your family, and that’s hard, but what can you do? You just do the best you can you find people that will be there for you…Right now my friends are my family, and they are very important to me.”
Healing is also found, according to Milliken, “through therapy, closer connections to nature, and faith.” But really, she said there isn’t one ‘best’ way to heal. Healing methods change “depending on the person and their culture.”
According to Jeanne McElvaney, author of Healing Insights: Effects of Abuse for Adults Abused as Children, “you can recognize survivors of abuse by their courage. When silence is so very inviting, they step forward and share their truth so others know they aren’t alone.”
Jake is a survivor.
“Obviously [the abuse] wasn’t a healthy situation, and I’m obviously not happy about it, but I’m kind of thankful for it at the same time,” he said. “Without it I wouldn’t be who I am today…aware of issues and able to support everyone around with me. Also I plan to make my own family, and learn from my family’s mistakes right now to make a safe and supportive place for my children. I also want to get involved with spreading awareness and creating places that abused children who are very confused and don’t know where to go, can turn to.”