Melanie Edwards was trying to do everything right at a time when her world was collapsing. She had left her husband—a controlling, abusive man who beat her, choked her and repeatedly threatened to kill her.
Melanie petitioned the court system for protection for herself and her 2-year-old daughter. She hired a lawyer versed in domestic violence, found and used a victim's advocate and concealed her new address. In spite of all these efforts, however, her estranged husband found and fatally shot Melanie and her daughter. He later shot and killed himself.
Conclusive research by legendary FBI behavioral scientist Robert Ressler has shown that violence in one's childhood is often a strong predictor of violent criminality. His research "confirmed an astonishingly consistent statistic about serial killers: 100 percent had been abused as children, either with violence, neglect or humiliation."
Proliferation of Child Abuse
Child abuse has become rife throughout the world. As indicated in a recent Cable News Network report, over one million children are abused in the United States each year. A variety of social problems have contributed to this growing plague. The normalizing and even glorifying of violence through the media have added to the problem. Drug and alcohol abuse, poverty and increased family alienation are also contributing factors. Violence within families has threatened the survival of the basic building block of human society and has spawned cycles of abuse from one generation to the next.
All forms of abuse—verbal, emotional, physical, sexual or just plain neglect—produce symptoms in children. Below are some of the signs that may indicate abuse. (There are, however, certain problems and disorders in children that may include some of the following symptoms, but do not indicate abuse. These may include attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other difficulties.)
• The child may look undernourished, with unkempt or inadequate clothing.
• The child may show a loss of natural affection with the abuser.
• The child may act out the abuse, either when alone or when with other children.
• The child may act out anger on smaller children or on small animals.
• The child may fear going somewhere with the abuser.
• The child may resist the abuser's touch.
• The child may show signs of provocativeness in dress, talk or actions.
• The child may become promiscuous.
• The child may have symptoms of anxiety, depression, psychosomatic disorders, sleeping problems or eating disorders.
• The child may have school problems: underachieving, oppositional and defiant behavior, fighting, drug and alcohol abuse.
• The child may have difficulty managing his or her anger.
Child abuse is the unleashing of physical, verbal, mental, emotional or spiritual damage upon a child. In effect, child abuse is any action or intent that damages a child's development. It involves much more than the obvious things that emblazon the headlines—from the abandonment of newborns to the unconscionable beating, molestation, rape, torture or killing of children. The worst part about child abuse, in any of its various forms, is that it not only robs a child of his or her present potential, but also robs his or her future potential as well.
Awesome Potential of Children
The formative years of early childhood should be a marvelous time of growth and development. Child development specialists strongly emphasize the importance of these early years. Research continues to decipher how experiences and environment profoundly mold the supple, neural structure of a child's young, growing brain. In the article "Your Child's Brain," pediatric neurobiologist Harry Chugani of Wayne State University says, "Early experiences are so powerful…they can completely change the way a person turns out. By adulthood the brain is crisscrossed with more than 100 billion neurons, each reaching out to thousands of others so that, all told, the brain has more than 100 trillion connections. It is those connections—more than the number of galaxies in the known universe—that give the brain its unrivaled powers."
So how should we care for such a bundle of potentiality? Scripture exhorts us, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it" (Proverbs 22:6). We are also warned, "…do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4).
Children are a wonderful blessing from the Creator God to the human family. The Bible presents an extremely positive portrayal of their value and worth. "Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one's youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them" (Psalm 127:3—5).
Tragically, the world has been deceived into believing and espousing a very negative message about even newborn children. Freudian psychology has influenced many to feel our task is to somehow psychosocialize children as they grow up. Even much of religion tenaciously clings to the notion of children being born evil. The act of procreation is believed to transmit so-called "original sin."
But, what do the scriptures say? "At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, 'Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?' And Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me'" (Matthew 18:1-5). What a revolutionary, positive perspective on children!
The alarming increase in the number of children affected by abuse in our society today can seem overwhelming in its powerfully negative impact. Are there any solutions available to us? How can we provide our children with an emotionally healthy foundation? What is the connection between spiritual health and emotional health? Let's examine the platforms upon which emotional and spiritual health are built.
Building Emotional Health
Parental love. "He who does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1 John 4:8). Love is essential to our spiritual and emotional development. Parental love is a starting point. Its presence is crucial to emotional health. Parents who are good role models, who are emotionally secure themselves and who provide physical and verbal demonstrations of their love for their children are instilling a solid emotional foundation. Parental love includes warm expressions of appreciation for the child at all times, not just when the child achieves unqualified success. A close personal relationship with God as our Parent will increase parental love. Even so, parental love does not stand alone. It must be balanced with two additional building blocks of emotional health—trust and security.
Trust to a child can be compared to the indispensable quality of faith in a Christian's life. "The fear of man brings a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord shall be safe" (Proverbs 29:25). What facilitates the development of trust? Parent-child bonding is an important beginning. This is accomplished through successfully meeting the child's emotional and physical needs. Providing a calm environment is also essential to this process as well as the basics of food, clothing and sanitary living conditions. Supplying appropriate physical contact, such as hugging and kissing, further develops a child's trust. Verbal expressions of love continue to reinforce the bond of trust in a child's life.
Security. "For You are my rock and my fortress" (Psalm 31:3). Total confidence in God is our greatest source of spiritual security. Similarly, emotional security comes from a child seeing his or her parents' love as unconditional. This does not mean that all behavior is acceptable, since a child cannot feel secure without reasonable parental boundaries. Such boundary setting must be intertwined with love, which is "the fulfillment of the law" (Romans 13:10). Nonetheless, a child should know that his or her value to the parent is not based merely on good behavior, but on the child's intrinsic worth.
The setting of reasonable limits on a child needs to be done in a clear way, so the child knows exactly what is expected of him or her. It must be accompanied with parental consistency, predictability and the willingness to enforce limits in a firm but loving manner. Implementation of a schedule also helps build a positive sense of security.
Once a child has developed the ability to trust, feel secure and loved, this must be maintained. For example, physical abuse or neglect can erase or destroy that ability. There are two vital aspects: (1) helping the child learn to trust and (2) avoiding traumas or tragedies that destroy trust.
Risk taking. Appropriate risk taking is another building block of emotional health. Some people may initially question its inclusion. However, appropriate risk taking must be one of our goals for our children, if we truly want them to succeed in life. There is no such thing as a risk-free life, but there are both appropriate and inappropriate risks. Trying out for the team or working diligently to make the academic honor roll are examples of appropriate risks. Smoking or taking drugs are examples of inappropriate risks. Parental instruction and encouragement should help children see the difference between the good and the bad. The emotional platforms of security and trust provide the launching pad for appropriate risk taking. Spiritually, this is walking "by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).
A sense of accomplishment is the next emotional platform. This is the ability to succeed. Encouragement is a crucial part that is often overlooked or neglected. To be effective, encouragement must first be deserved. It must also be genuinely encouraging and uplifting, not a form of manipulation or introduction to criticism. We all need encouragement, but it is especially important in child development. Acceptance and a positive outlook also send powerful messages that translate into an "I can" attitude in a child's life. Spiritually, this translates into the attitude expressed by the apostle Paul: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).
Sympathy is another part of emotional health. Scripture describes this as "having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" (Philippians 2:2). This aspect is often neglected or overlooked in our society today, with sad results. Sympathy is identification with another person's feelings, often because we have had the same or similar experience or feeling. Learning and nurturing the ability to feel sympathy for the suffering of others is a vital part of developing healthy relationships with other people.
Empathy is a somewhat rare emotional ability to feel and express genuine concern for another person's suffering. This requires a high degree of emotional maturity, beyond what should be expected for children. In fact, many adults lack empathy. Spiritually, we can liken empathy to agape , the outgoing love of God. This is manifested in our lives through the Holy Spirit. None of us is complete emotionally or spiritually without God's Spirit. "For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind" (2 Timothy 1:7).
Prevention of child abuse is an important obligation of each person, particularly parents. Parents who have been abused and have concerns about the possibility of abusing their own children should seek counseling through a qualified minister or abuse counselor. It is often necessary for adults who have been abused as children to get help in order to break the cycle of abuse. With God's help and that of qualified professionals, healing and the development of healthy parent-child relationships can occur.
It is our goal as Christians to become emotionally and spiritually healthy in every way. However, reality reminds us that many lives have been scarred by the ravages of verbal, emotional, physical or sexual abuse. All these abuses are the result of sin. When we quit sinning we will also quit abusing. God's world of the future will expunge this great negator and destroyer of human potential. In the meantime, we need to take the necessary steps now to prevent or overcome childhood abuse and trauma.
Part 2 in this series explains the arduous but marvelous process of emotional healing.
(This article was first published in United News, January, 2000.)
This article appears in the following topics:
Abuse - Mental/Physical/Sexual