Say Something: How To Help When You See Symptoms Of Child Abuse

by Michele Chevrier

Child abuse is not a light, easy topic.

It’s not something we regularly sit around the table and discuss.

As a marriage and family therapist graduate student, child abuse was one of the most emotionally draining and difficult topics to analyze in class.

The first time I discovered a case of real-life child abuse, it shook me to the core.

But, however difficult it was for me, it was much worse for the child. I realized how damaging it was for me to put up blinders because it “upset me."

Child abuse is defined by non-accidental physical injury of a child by another person.

This brings us to, “unlawful corporal punishment,” which is a punishment or injury, which results in a condition of the body, like wounds, burns or bruises.

That leather belt grandpa used to hit you with, which left bruises all over your behind? Child abuse.

Child abuse is a broad term — an umbrella that attempts to capture much of the harm children experience.

We are aware of physical abuse, which is a form of abuse well-represented in the media. A cut or bruise is easy to spot, but sexual abuse is more difficult to recognize.

Is someone taking sexualized photos of a child? Touching a child where he or she should not? Gaining any sexual benefit from a child? These are forms of sexual abuse.

If you spot it, call Child Protective Services right away, even if you only strongly suspect it. Let CPS do the investigative work.

Neglect can be tricky as well. Is a child being taken care of? Fed, bathed regularly, given access to education and medical services? If the child needs emotional support but is denied it repeatedly, this can be neglect.

Any significant unmet need of a child is neglect. A friend of mine who is a teacher often complains some students come to school Monday morning still wearing the same dirty clothes from the previous Friday.

Some of her more extreme cases included children not eating all weekend. This is serious neglect.

Among all forms of child abuse, emotional abuse is thought to be one of the more long-term, damaging forms of abuse. Emotional abuse can go unrecognized, even by the abuser.

Parents yelling at their children in anger, accusing the child of being selfish or ruining their lives just for being born can have significant, long-term impact on the child's self-worth.

Exposure to parents yelling and fighting or witnessing domestic violence is emotional abuse. Threatening to take away objects or people important to the child can be emotional abuse.

Excessive fear tactics and frightening the child through intimidation or as a means of controlling the child is also emotional abuse.

Any repeated patterns that teach the child he or she is worthless, flawed, unwanted, endangered or only of value if of service to others is emotional abuse.

Emotional damage can cause long-term symptoms of severe anxiety, depression, withdrawal or serious aggressive behavior toward himself, herself or others.

Why does emotional abuse go unreported? One of the reasons is emotional abuse is so hard to define case by case.

Cultural values are a part of the dilemma, but the impact on the child can be difficult to measure, too.

Symptoms from emotional abuse aren’t as apparent as a bruise, cut or burn.

It’s a quiet torture that reveals itself slowly and over time. It’s a fight, flight or freeze behavior that wares within.

A survivor of child abuse once told me no one ever helped her.

She said the fact no one ever told her, “Hey, you’re worth something,” or even defended her caused her great pain. She urged me to tell others to help children in need.

What can you do if you spot child abuse? It is most important you don't judge the situation if a child comes to tell you of his or her abuse.

Don’t assume the child is lying, even if the parents appear to be “so nice.” Believe him or her because it takes great courage to speak out. Call CPS and make a report. It can be anonymous, if you choose.

Make sure you have written out the details of the abuse.

Child abuse is not a family matter; it’s a societal matter. The safety of children is a public issue, and anyone can be a hero. Children are everyone’s business.

If you strongly suspect abuse, be that voice in the crowd who says, “No, it’s not okay.”