03 February 2011

Child abuse: early warning signs

For Child Protection Week, we focus on factors that could make children vulnerable to abuse. If you become aware of these factors, you should be more alert about child abuse.


All children should be born equal, but they are not.

In fact, some children are more vulnerable to abuse than others by virtue of their parents, their family and their environment. These three factors, as well as the child’s own personality, behaviour and age may increase his/her risk of being abused, according to Rana Escher of Women against Child Abuse.

These factors may be regarded as “warning signs” to predict an inherent risk of child abuse. Do not ignore them.

1. Parental factors
It is well known that abusive parents often report having been physically, sexually or emotionally abused themselves as children. In the case of paedophiles in particular, there is strong evidence that they have experienced abuse as children – the cycle of abuse therefore continues.

However, there are parents who have not been abused as children who become abusive, as well as parents who have been abused as children and do not abuse their own children.

Characteristics identified in some abusive parents include: low self esteem, low intelligence, hostility, isolation and loneliness. These parents may also suffer from depression or anxiety and be apathetic. Many distrust others and fear that they will be rejected.

Substance abuse has become an increasing problem. The Child Protection Unit reports that drug use, combined with the parent’s history of abuse as children, is resulting in caseloads comprised of seriously dysfunctional families.

Parents’ lack of knowledge of childhood development may result in unreasonable or unrealistic expectations. Lack of parenting skills and inappropriate attitudes can contribute to abusive behaviour, for example, acceptance of violence as a way to solve problems.

Specific situations, such as unwanted pregnancy, physical illness and the poor ability to empathise with their children can substantially increase the likelihood of abuse, particularly when social stress and social isolation characterise the family.

2. Family factors
The specific life situation of some families can increase the likelihood of abuse, such as marital conflict, domestic violence, unemployment, financial stress and social isolation. However, these factors in themselves may not cause abuse.

Families involved in child abuse tend to exhibit a pattern of day-to-day interaction characterised by minimal social exchange, low responsiveness to positive behaviour and high responsiveness to negative behaviour.

Other research suggests that abusive parents display fewer appropriate caregiving behaviours than non-abusive parents, and they tend to use ineffective and inconsistent methods of punishment and discipline.

According to research by the HSRC into the sexual abuse of young children in South Africa, perpetrators are not a homogenous group and it is difficult to construct profiles of people who abuse children. A disturbing fact is that the majority of offenders live in the child’s household or close neighbourhood, and many are likely to be adolescents or youth.

3. Environmental factors
Environmental factors are often found in combination with the above factors. The incidence of child abuse is higher in some cultures and societies than others. What one culture defines as child abuse may be a socially acceptable interaction in other cultures.

Values concerning the role of the child in the family, attitudes about the use of physical punishment, and the degree of social support for parents seem to account for these differences.

Stress caused by poverty is associated with higher rates of reported child abuse, as evidenced at times of increased unemployment and economic recessions.

Abusive families are often isolated from their neighbours and the community. As a result, abusive families tend to participate less in community activities and make less use of available economic, health and social resources

4. Child factors
The child’s age and physical, mental, emotional and social development can greatly increase or decrease the likelihood of abuse.

Younger children, due to their physical size and developmental status, are particularly vulnerable to certain forms of abuse, such as the “battered child syndrome”, the “shaken infant syndrome” and the “failure to thrive syndrome”.

The child’s behaviour, for example unpleasant crying and unresponsiveness, can play a role, particularly if a parent has a poor ability to empathise with the child and a difficulty controlling his/her emotions.

In general, children who are perceived to be “different”, such as disabled children, are at greater risk. Children who are socially isolated may also be at high risk. For example, a child who does not have close relationships with his family and has few or no friends may be more susceptible to offers of attention and affection in exchange for sex.

Word of caution
Although the above factors are possible predictors of abuse, many families with these characteristics do not abuse their children. These warning signs can be used to identify vulnerable children and to address the underlying risk factors before they become problematic.

(Ilse Pauw, Health24)


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