BY SIMONE SMITH
Abuse! This one word has remained misunderstood by many. Why? Well, everyone’s thoughts about what constitutes abusive behaviour are different. Diana Matheson (2005) took some time to put together a play therapy workshop that explored the concept of abuse and how it can affect people differently. It is estimated that one in every ten Canadian women in a relationship is abused by her partner (Matheson, 2005). Ninety nine percent of the abuse that is reported to the authorities is directed at women and children. Now, this does not mean that men do not deal with abuse; there is abuse that occurs in homosexual relationships as well. These numbers are not as well documented, so I will not focus on those statistics in this article. If you want to really put this into perspective, when looking at numbers that have been reported from British Columbia, more women are abused by their partners than are injured by muggings, car accidents and rapes. This is a scary thought. To think, there are some women who are currently living in fear; not knowing when they might do something that may trigger their partner into an abusive rage.
Relationship abuse involves one individual using intimidation tactics with the intent of exerting power over another individual. The common intimidation tactics include threats or use of physical force (Matheson, 2005). Abuse can take on many forms: Emotional, economic, sexual or physical.
The most unfortunate issue surrounding abuse is the fact that many times children are witness to this. Witnessing abuse is defined as being within the visual range of violence or hearing violence and experiencing the effects of the aftermath (Matheson, 2005). Many times the children are not only witnesses of abuse, but victims as well. As might be expected, there are some predictable consequences to having these experiences. Children are forced to find ways to cope with what they have seen, heard and experienced. It is no wonder that these children will experience serious behavioral consequences.
These consequences include: Anxious Behavior such as: Nightmares, hyperactivity, fear and distrust of others and their environment, sleep problems, approval-seeking behavior, and sense of responsibility for protecting mothers and siblings and poor concentration. Acting-out Behavior including: Low frustration tolerance, poor impulse control and poor problem solving abilities. Depressive Behaviors including: Low self-esteem, helplessness and withdrawal from peers and environment. Lifestyle Change Behaviors including: Post traumatic stress disorder symptoms (Physiological Ailments: Headaches, stomach aches, digestive problems, school performance fluctuations), running away, suicidal thoughts and alcohol or drug abuse.
Now, these behaviors can vary depending on the longevity of the abuse and if the child has support systems set up in their lives. There are some tell tale signs that one can use when identifying children who have witnessed abuse. Children learn that power and dominance are effective ways of getting what they want. This is most often seen with young boys, but it can be seen with young girls as well. In a classroom, this can be seen as aggressive behavior towards classmates and peers. Tied into this aggressive behavior is the frequent emotional outburst. Children have a hard time learning how to deal with their emotions; they learn to deny their own feelings, which can lead to depression (Matheson, 2005). Many times these children lose out on their childhood; they may appear pseudo-mature because they are in a higher position then their mother. These children often keep to themselves and are great at keeping secrets; they have developed a sense of shame that can only be understood by someone who has go through that same experience. It is difficult for them to focus in the classroom and teachers may notice that this student frequently has incomplete homework or a total disinterest in work that is being done in class. It is a good time to remind readers that when anyone is dealing with emotional upheaval, the analytical and logical part of the brain stops working.
So what should a person do if they notice these behaviors in a child? One thing to do is to get an understanding about what is happening in the home; this might be difficult, but if the child is provided with a safe environment to disclose information, it is great start. The child needs to understand what abuse is and why it is wrong. They are most likely confused about what they are experiencing and need clarity as to what is going on. Another helpful strategy is to normalize the child’s experience; help them realize that they are not the only one’s going through this. It is normal for a child to feel like they are the only ones going through this situation. Abuse is an unfortunate but real scenario that occurs in our community; it is time that we become aware of what it is and how to deal with it.