Children of Abuse - How Social Workers Help Them Heal
Abuse takes many forms, and child victims may experience it differently. Whether they are victims of violence themselves or witnesses, even audibly, the effects can last a lifetime.
There are many reasons that parents stay in abusive relationships— and it’s often mothers, who represent up to 85% of the victims of domestic abuse, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The reasons for staying in an abusive relationship include a fear of retribution, the inability to provide for children alone, the belief that abuse is normal or deserved, lack of resources, and simply nowhere to go.
But even if they flee, the damage of domestic violence may already be done, posing a serious threat to children’s emotional, psychological, and physical well-being.
The effects of domestic violence on children
Living in constant fear of being harmed or witnessing violence can cause generalized and severe anxiety. Starved for attention and affection, children of abuse may suffer from low self-esteem, act out in school, or react in the form of nightmares, withdrawal, irritability, and even depression.
Exposure to violence can also have a direct and negative impact on cognitive and social development, especially at a time when children’s brains are undergoing critical growth for future functioning, per a report by UNICEF. Many struggle in school and, feeling socially isolated, have difficulty making friends.
Raised to believe violence is an effective way to solve conflict, with conceptions of intimate relationships tangled in intimidation, control, and violence leads many to repeat the same behaviors on the playground and into adulthood. Many children of abuse also grow up to become addicted to drugs, self-medicating to numb the pain, to control negative sensations, and even to forget — if only temporarily. In fact, as many as two-thirds of the people in treatment for drug abuse reported being abused or neglected as children.
Social workers can help
Of the 6.6 million children who are referred to child protective services annually, only 3.2 million receive an investigated report, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This lack of response shows how great the need is for social workers to act.
With expert and dedicated help, however, children can heal and go on to lead happy, healthy adult lives. From shelters, to courthouses, to after-school programs, social workers can help children of abuse in a variety of settings.
The social worker’s priority should be to get the children to safety. There are many safe shelters throughout the country to help achieve this. Through roles such as community education coordinator, social workers can use their empathy and cultural sensitivity to help these children understand that they are not alone and the abuse is not their fault. Social workers can also act as positive adult role models — the presence of caring relationships with the stable adults in their lives help relieve the stress children feel at home.
After school programs and community centers can offer similar safe spaces, as well as important socialization and support from peers. This can be instrumental in reducing anxiety for children of abuse, especially those with exacerbated feelings of isolation. Working in these types of programs, social workers can facilitate social play that makes them comfortable, paying them the special attention they need.
For social workers licensed to provide counseling through private practice, it will be similarly important to emphasize that these children are not alone and that nothing they have experienced is their fault. Often children of abuse do not even understand that what they’ve been subjected to is wrong and not an appropriate show of affection.
Social workers bring cultural competence to complex situations, considering environmental factors when assessing a family’s dysfunction. They know how important it is to work with the whole family, helping identify and address the challenges they face as individuals, as a family, and as part of their communities. This sensitivity is essential to repair adult behavior and provide children with the tools to understand abuse, cope with it, and regain self-esteem.
Domestic violence is prevalent across the globe and does not discriminate against class or race. Raising awareness is critical and social workers can play a key role. Many of the mothers experiencing intimate partner violence have been silenced by fear. Social workers can be their voice, making the issue known and informing women of their legal, medical, and financial options, in turn bringing the child closer to safety.
Advocates also can help validate victims’ feelings of neglect and mistreatment, facilitate their access to resources, and assist in regaining control through shelters, community agencies, hotlines, or victim services agencies.
Breaking the cycle
Unfortunately, many child abuse cases go unreported. Whether you work in child services, youth programs, court advocacy, or otherwise, collect data! The more facts and figures we have on the issue, the more compelling of a case we can make as to how prevalent domestic violence against children is — and how urgent it is that we act.
In order to break the cycle of violence, however, we need to work with perpetrators. Through voluntary or court-mandated batterer-intervention programs and family counseling, social workers can provide valuable services, including therapy and group discussion facilitation, to those who inflict this abuse. Chances are they were children of abuse themselves.
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