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Examples of Child Abuse

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Updated July 15, 2007

Children who are being abused may demonstrate a change in behavior. Many become more aggressive, destructive, fearful, or withdrawn. Often, in an effort to avoid the abuse, they will stay away from home as much as possible. They may see school as a safe environment. Some children are abused because their parents have higher expectations of them than the children are able to achieve or because the expectations are developmentally inappropriate. The case example below illustrates this point.
    Case Example

    Sandy was 10 years old when her teacher became concerned about possible abuse. She was extremely shy and withdrawn and often took a great deal of time to grasp ideas, despite the fact that testing showed no significant organic or perceptual difficulties. Her mother, a professional artist who had chosen to stay home with her four children, and her father, an accountant, found Sandy's slowness especially distressing.

    As the homework required of Sandy increased, she became more withdrawn. The teacher suggested she ask for help at home, especially with her math. At first Sandy began coming to school with peculiar marks on her hands and arms. On another day she arrived with a burn mark covering a good part of her hand. It had not been treated and had become infected. In asking Sandy about her injuries, the teacher learned that Sandy was being abused by her father. After several drinks, he would "help her" with her homework, become angered by her slowness, and prod her with his lit cigarette. The latest burn was a result of Sandy's hand being pressed on an iron when her father had taken over her mother's efforts to teach Sandy how to "iron properly."
Sandy's story of parents who expect too much is common. The child's withdrawn behavior was indicative of her poor self-concept and exacerbated by her experiences at home. Cigarettes are tools for abuse due to their ready accessibility, as are objects such as irons, electric cords, and other household items. Substance abuse also may be a factor in child maltreatment cases.

Despite their need for help, many children and adolescents do not initially admit to being abused. Rather they often may invent seemingly plausible explanations, but the explanations tend not to fit the injury. Despite the abuse, children often are understandably fearful of being taken from their families or getting their parents into trouble. Other children also may just assume that this behavior is normal.

Sometimes, it is assumed that physical abuse does not occur typically with adolescents or that, since they often are more difficult or provocative, they "invite" abuse. After all, adolescents are stronger, have more resources, and can run away. In fact, neither resistance nor flight is a good option for most adolescents. Resistance might further ignite their parents' anger, and unless they want to deal with the harsh realities of life on the street, flight is not an option for most adolescents. In addition, since adolescents often are perceived as more capable, adults are less likely to intervene or alert them to the resources available that can address personal or family issues.

    Case Example

    Dara, a ninth-grade student, began complaining to her gym teacher after a particularly intense argument with her parents. Despite her complaints, Dara insisted that her bruised face was the result of "bumping into a door." The teacher suspected otherwise because of the location of the bruise and Dara's frightened demeanor, but chose not to act. It was not until Dara began vomiting several months later and was doubled over in pain that the situation came to anyone's attention. It was discovered that Dara had internal injuries from a severe blow to the abdomen. The girl finally admitted to the teacher about months of physical abuse she received from her father.
Abuse situations similar to Dara's happen to adolescents for various reasons. In Dara's home, adolescence, with its emerging sexuality, created problems. Her father sought to control her with force, perhaps fearful that she would become pregnant before marriage, as her sister had done. The fear of losing a child can sometimes paradoxically drive parents to abuse. In other homes, physical punishment already present may increase and escalate into abuse as the child matures.

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