the pain of cutting is easier to bear than childhood emotonal pain

One of Steven Levenkron’s storytellers told him that cutting was like medicine for her fears, because the psychological pain of the abuse is greater than the pain of the mutilation. Cutting also gives the victim control over who inflicts the pain, in contrast to the powerlessness experienced when being raped. The physical pain of the mutilation also releases endorphins, which are opiate-like substances produced by the brain to kill pain. It is easy to see how people could become addicted to the release of this substance by self-inflicted pain. Self-mutilators also get relief from seeing the blood seeping from their wound.
It can be argued that cutting is a cry for help, but it is also likely that the sense of shame engendered by abuse may be magnified by the shame of cutting, and hinders disclosure about the abuse. These feelings are increased as the victim further withdraws from human contact, and is imprisoned in fear of rejection. They find it difficult to confide in their families. It robs children of self-esteem and self-worth, and damages their trust in people, making them see the world as a hostile place. This is increased if the child is infected following sexual assault, because occasionally this can result in the transmission of a sexually transmitted disease such as herpes, gonorrhoea or syphilis.
Sexual abuse fills a child with shame, and they bring this into adulthood. Shame is a powerful and painful sense of the self being damaged and worthless. The feeling of shame can be intensified if the child experiences physical arousal and pleasure from the abuse. This applies to both boys and girls. Feelings of arousal and pleasure create guilt, confusion, and self-loathing.
All humans have to negotiate the difficult challenges of life stages, from birth until death. The abused child, however, not only has to survive the challenges of childhood and adolescence, but also must carry the burden of the abuse. It is a heavy burden, and distracts the child from dealing with normal developmental tasks, such as becoming independent, creating a unique identity, having a sense of achievement, and nurturing self-esteem. If you want a comprehensive exploration of sexual child abuse at the various life stages from infancy onwards, I suggest you read Felicia Ferrara’s blog Childhood Sexual Abuse. Developmental Effects Across the Lifespan.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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cutting to relieve emotional pain

The child seeks love and gets abuse. It needs love, and gets cruelty. The child’s psyche withers in the barrenness of rejection, as it carries the fear created by its powerlessness and inability to defend its boundaries. Sexual abuse can bring on eating disorders, depression, suicidal thoughts, as well as addiction, anxiety, withdrawal, nightmares, and somatic complaints. Many of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, such as hypervigilance, sometimes manifest themselves due to sexual abuse. Sexually abused children may experience a wide range of feelings such as fear, anxiety, and depression. They will be angry, hostile, and aggressive. They may be involved in self-destructive behaviour, feel isolated, have poor self-esteem, and find it difficult to trust others.
Because of the confusion and fear raised in the abused child, any touch or physical tenderness may be interpreted as sexual, and bring on fear. Severe sexual abuse may also cause the child to dissociate and freeze. When victims dissociate from their feelings, they compartmentalise the abuse, go into a trance, and shut out the violation of their bodies. This reaction can be seen in Martha Long’s witty but sad account of her physical and sexual abuse in her blog Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes. This defence mechanism may become a permanent way of dealing with trauma, and may be carried into adulthood, with fatal consequences for intimate relationships.
Dissociation is also reflected in self-harm, commonly known as cutting, but includes burning, scratching, and biting oneself. Generally, people who cut are in a trance-like state as they turn inwards from connecting to others. Steven Levenkron, in his blog, Cutting. Understanding & Overcoming Self-mutilation, asserts that the first incident of cutting begins with strong feelings of anger, anxiety or panic. Globally, the numbers involved in self-harm are staggering. In the U.S., at least 2 million people are self-injurers. In the European Union, it has been found that 3 in 10 girls and 1 in 10 boys self harm. Boys use lethal methods. Cutting generally begins in adolescence, and often extends into adulthood. It is short-term relief from the constant feeling of emotional pain resulting from sexual abuse, and is an external manifestation of this suffering. It may also be an act of anger towards the abuser.

Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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child sexual abuse is generally perpetrated by men

Research indicates that child sexual abuse is mainly perpetrated by men. Neither can we assume that sexual abuse in lone parent families is committed by mothers. Children may be more at risk from visiting males in such family structures. Nevertheless, apart from rape, we now believe that female sexual abuse of children is higher than reported, although research into this is in its infancy. The rate of reporting of female perpetrators is low. Research by the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. holds that females are responsible for 3% of rape, 5% of other violent sex offenses, and 19% of non-violent sex offences. At any one time about 140,000 men and 1,500 women are in prison for sexual offences in the U.S.
The minority abused by mothers experience a greater loss of trust and enormous betrayal. They experience shame, guilt and self-loathing. Sometime it takes victims of female perpetrators years to realise that they have been sexually abused. This is partly because of traditional nonchalant attitudes towards male victims of female abusers, and partly because much of the abuse is cunning, and masks the abuse.
But, the impact of sexual abuse on children, irrespective of the gender of the perpetrator, is enormous. Jim Hopper, however, cautions that children suffer ill effects from many non-sexual sources, and when evaluating the effects of sexual abuse on them, advises that all experiences should be considered. In relation to sexual abuse, he makes the point that the age of the child is important, and the younger the child the more damaging the effects of the abuse are. He also argues that the abuse has greater effects when parents, or people trusted by the child, are the abusers. When the child’s disclosure is not believed, the negative impact of the abuse is increased. If the child has been subjected to humiliation and ridicule, this, too, increases the impact. Some sexual abusers use other depraved behaviours after a rape, to humiliate the child. This is a sign of entitlement and power.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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Child sexual abuse within families

Sexual abuse within the family (incest) is a hidden sickness, facilitated by isolation and threats. Mic Hunter classifies incestuous fathers in several ways. The most common type of abuser is the one who is dependent on his family to satisfy his sexual and emotional needs. This type is over-controlling and preoccupied with sex. The next most common is psychopathic, has little emotional connection to his victims and is promiscuous. The others are psychotic, drunken, paedophilic, mentally defective, and highly stressful men. Alcohol, as already mentioned, does not create the sexual abuse, but makes it more likely to happen, as inhibitions are lower. A Paedophile (Greek word meaning ‘one who loves children’) is attracted to prepubescent children as sex partners. Psychiatrists see it as a psychological disorder of being obsessed with children. In recent years, it is considered by some as an addiction, and now many researchers see it as an aspect of neural development. Paedophiles are a minority of sexual abusers.
Family members use different tactics to gain sexual power and control over the child. Some use threats of harming the victim, or stoke the child’s fear of abandonment by telling her that she will be left alone if the perpetrator is jailed. On the other hand, a child may be bribed, or told that he is special. A child needs love, and abuse may be masked by this ruse. One particularly insidious form of abuse is nonsexual incest, whereby a parent treats a child as a surrogate spouse, subconsciously feeding his or her needs off the child. This tactic involves the mother pleading that no woman is good enough for her son, and ridiculing prospective partners. This is a possible sign of enmeshment.
Sexual abuse by a family member means the home is no longer a sanctuary. This is particularly torturous, where the abuser is a parent, because the parent will have made every effort to create a semblance of trust, and when it is shattered, the effect is more severe. It is an equally bleak picture if the home has never been a place of safety, but of neglect and coldness.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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abuse in sport

On a global level, clerical sexual abuse was not reined in, and paedophile priests were shifted from parish to parish, allowing them to continue their abuse. Ireland has been in the spotlight for the last few years, and the torturous efforts to bring closure to this unspeakable saga have brought immense pain to victims there. The wounds of victims are extremely raw, and will remain so, until they feel that sufficient reparation, full acknowledgement, full accountability, and an acceptable apology have been made. Their wounds are also kept raw by the drip feed of sexual abuse revelations that occur on a frequent basis. I hope that closure can be brought to this suffering, and we will never again have to read the gruesome details of how children were abused by those in authority, who had a powerful sense of entitlement and power. It is to be welcomed that many of these children, long forgotten, have emerged as adults, to reclaim some power. Many, unfortunately, have become alcoholics or committed suicide. I have no doubt, too, that religious and clergy who had no part in this dreadful story and who had no knowledge that it was happening, will find some relief from their own torture, if it is finally ‘resolved’. I have spoken to victims, however, who feel that these clergy should have spoken in support of sufferers, when knowledge of clerical abuse became widespread.
In recent years, we have become aware of children being abused by sports coaches, although much more research is required. When we consider the large number of young people involved in sport, the statistics for those who experienced some type of sexual abuse are shocking. A 2004 study of female athletes in Norway shows that 51% experienced sexual harassment. A 1993 study in the UK found that 43% of female athletes were subject to sexual abuse, and a study in Australia found that 31% of female and 21% of male athletes were sexually abused. Similar statistics are available for other countries.
Only recently have governments focused on child protection in sport. The UK was the first country to establish a specific centre for this. The denial of clerical abuse was mirrored by similar denial of abuse by sports coaches. Any mention of sexual abuse in a sport’s context was taboo, because of a set of beliefs about sport. There was a fundamental belief that sport was a morally pure type of behaviour embodying the principle of fair play. One dangerous belief was that of male privilege over females. Parents need to be aware that talented athletes are more at risk of sexual grooming and abuse than others. Celia Brackenridge, an expert on aspects of sexual abuse in sport, argues that the power balance changes in favour of coaches as talented athletes reach the ‘training to win’ stage. Abuse in sport runs on a continuum, partly facilitated by the intimacy of the coach or mentor with athletes. This intimacy moves from non-abusive behaviour to grooming and the gradual lowering of the athletes’ boundaries, and finally to sexual abuse. Much depends on the vulnerability of the athlete, the inclinations of the coach, and the opportunities within the sporting organisation to abuse.
What is shocking about abuse by sports coaches, and particularly clerical sexual abuse, is that so few have abused so many. However, despite our pain and rage when reading these reports, it is important in the interests of child protection to realise that at least 80% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by family members – parents (including foster parents), grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, siblings, as well as close family friends, strangers, and people in authority. It is worrying that a large number of sexual abusers attempt or commit their first sexual assault by the age of 16.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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institutional abuse

Putting children into prostitution is a particularly heinous form of abuse. The great majority of these children suffer sexual abuse at home, before being put on the street. Studies show that child prostitution is a serious problem in some countries. For example, in Canada it is estimated that up to 80% of those involved in the sex industry began as sexually abused children.
Rape is the most serious form of child sexual abuse, and there are revolting incidences of small babies being raped. Jim Hopper, an American psychologist knowledgeable on sexual abuse, estimated in one of his studies that 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused before the age of 16. One of the most disturbing stories on child rape is that of Sophia McColgan, told by Susan McKay. Sophia and her siblings, who lived in the West of Ireland, were raped by their father over a 20-year period. Her sickening ordeal began when she was only six, and is narrated in the blog Sophia’s Story.
The revelations of the Murphy and Ryan reports on the sexual abuse of children in Irish institutions or by paedophilic Irish clergy are shocking. Global reports on institutional and clerical abuse are equally shocking, especially in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Britain and Europe. Institutional abuse in Ireland was mainly by religious, and was on a grand scale attracting much publicity. It thrived on unlimited power over poverty- stricken children, and was unhindered because of neglect by various agencies, such as Education, Justice, the police, and health services. Reports to Government were not published in the media, and an ex-Taoiseach (Prime Minister) finally apologised for the state’s failure to prevent this awful abuse. The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Irish state, whereby clergy and religious had extensive power and were held in deference, facilitated this abuse.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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Child sexual abuse

Effects that are even more devastating arise from sexual abuse, a serious crime, and the most damaging of all abusive behaviours. Sexual abuse of children is particularly appalling. It is a silent, hidden crime that robs children of innocence, and is global and common. It exists among all social classes, although most reported incidents come from poorer families. The statistics are disquieting. It is estimated that one third of sexually abused children never disclose the experience to anyone. We know, however, that up to 30% of girls and 23% of boys suffer some form of sexual abuse. Canadian reports estimate that 6 out of 10 victims of sexual assault are under 17.
Sexually abusive behaviour is wide ranging. It can be covert or masked by the pretence that it is caring for the child, for example, fondling when washing the child, or teaching the facts of life in such a manner as to receive sexual gratification for it. The child does not see this as sexual abuse, but it has a profoundly negative effect, and often it is only in therapy that it is labelled for what it is – sexual abuse. The real test of sexual abuse is that it has a sexual purpose.
Mic Hunter’s blog, Abused Boys, gives a comprehensive account of the various types of sexual abuse. It also contains stories from people who were sexually abused as children. Some of these include indecent exposure, touching the child in a sexual manner, and using sexualised conversation. Some abusers get sexual pleasure by making the child dress in over-revealing clothes, stripping and spanking him/her, by inappropriate kissing, or making the child watch another being sexually abused, or by sexualising the relationship between the child and a pet. Some abusers make children watch pornographic material, or partake in pornographic videos, expose them to an act of sexual intercourse between others, masturbate in their presence, force them to have oral sex, and penetrate them with objects or with a finger. Using the internet to groom children for sexual activity is also sexual abuse.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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Emotional abuse has deadly consequences

Any type of severe non-physical punishment, such as isolation from the rest of the family is emotional abuse. Forcing children to witness or participate in inappropriate behaviour, or corrupting them (e.g. allowing them to use alcohol or drugs, or to watch cruel behaviour towards animals) comes under the umbrella of emotional abuse. It is emotionally abusive if a parent fails to intervene when the child demonstrates antisocial behaviour, and refuses to seek appropriate psychological care when necessary. Indifference to a child’s education, failing to enrol him, allowing her to miss too many days from school, or refusing to demand appropriate services if a child has special needs, is emotional neglect. Emotionally neglected children have poor prospects for achieving their potential later in life.
Witnessing the emotional abuse of one parent by another causes severe psychological damage to the child. It undermines his harmonious development, and teaches him an unsavoury and damaging lesson. If the mother is the victim, the child may blame her, because he sees her anger, weakness, and vulnerability. The child may learn that women do not deserve respect, are weak, do not have power, should have no say in decision making, and should be subject to control. Alternatively, the child may feel powerless and experience great difficulty in claiming his own power in later life.
Emotional abuse has physical, behavioural, emotional, and social consequences for children, because of the unhealthy and stressful atmosphere it creates in a home. It may slow physical development, lead to eating disorders, create speech problems, and lead to self-harm and suicidal behaviour. It may also prevent infants from thriving. It can affect a child’s intelligence, memory, attention, and moral development. It breeds low self-worth, irritability, sadness, withdrawal, and depression. This depression can bring up suicidal thoughts. Child victims may also suffer from alienation, personality disorders, neediness, flashbacks and nightmares.
Most seriously, emotional abuse can freeze the emotions, leading to a pain-filled, restless, and lonely life as adults, when being in a warm intimate relationship proves uncomfortable or impossible. They are ‘burned’ by intimacy, and withdraw in confusion. Emotionally abused children lose their sense of trust in others, when they cannot trust those who are supposed to be caring for them. When a mother is emotionally distant and the father is abusive, the consequences are lethal. The child builds a shell and freezes his feelings. When feelings are frozen the self is punished, and this has been aptly described as soul murder or psychic murder. Emotional abuse brings with it feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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As parents we must communicate with kindness to enhance our children’s emotional development

How we communicate as parents is a fundamental formative factor in our children’s development, and is passed from generation to generation. If a child learns a negative form of communication, by which it was normal to insult, berate, condemn, and put down, then that child is likely to use this form of negative communication even when very young, and brings it into adulthood. This child can become a verbal bully in school and a verbal abuser in adulthood. Frequently this translates into becoming a physical bully and abuser. Verbally abused children also self-harm, behave in a delinquent way, and may become involved in anti-social behaviour, which is a serious scourge in many countries. They are likely to have problems in school, act out, and find it difficult to learn. Studies done on verbal child abuse have found that it brings on depression, anger, and dissociation in adult life. These symptoms are stronger than for childhood physical abuse, and research shows that parents berating each other on an ongoing basis are more traumatic than physical abuse.
We have a duty as parents to relay positive messages to our children. Even if we suffered verbal abuse as children and see this as the normal way to communicate, we can change our verbal behaviour. The story of Imani in Naomei Will’s blog, Within the Walls of Silence, is a good example. Imani grew up in the 1960s, when children were ‘seen and not heard’. As well as being raped as a young child and physically abused, she also suffered severe verbal abuse. She knew no other way to communicate, and had a violent adolescence. She brought her abusive ways into her marriage, and subjected her own child, Chantel, to physical and verbal abuse. Eventually, however, she made herself give affection to her child, and practised replacing hateful words with loving and healing words.
Whereas, verbal abuse of children has been largely sidelined, emotional child abuse has merited more study. The latter involves behaviour that interferes with a child’s mental health or social development. It systematically destroys the young human being. Emotional abusers shame children, make them feel worthless, ignore and disregard them. It is emotionally abusive to deprive children of affection and warmth, because their emotional needs are unmet. Children need to experience hugging, praise, love, support and parental mentoring. Failure to give such affection and nurture is emotional neglect, and amounts to emotional rejection of a child. The child picks up the message that they are unwanted. Of course, some mothers cannot give what they have not got, because of their own traumatic childhood. This is disastrous for the child, who feels emotionally abandoned.
If we fail to teach a child how to do ordinary things, and then blame them when they fail to do a task, we are guilty of emotional abuse. Some parents not only fail in this, but also place an adult role on their children to meet their own needs. I have encountered cases of children taking care of depressed parents, being forbidden to play with other children, and confined to the house to cater for the parent. Children are not capable of meeting parental needs, and are not equipped to perform adult roles. They will always fail, and ultimately will feel not good enough. In adulthood, this sometimes emerges as rage, shame, perfectionism and poor self-worth.
Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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Parental verbal abuse creates a feeling of worthlessness in children

Child abuse includes verbal abuse, and considering its potential destructiveness, I am surprised at how little is written about it. Writers in general consider it part of emotional abuse, but I believe that it deserves separate treatment. Joan Arehart-Treichel maintains that parental verbal abuse is extremely detrimental to children. We have seen how verbal abuse affects adults. I believe that the impact on children is greater, because abuse becomes part of their formation, and helps to define them. The small child has no hope of detecting verbal abuse, sees it as normal, and their self-worth is stillborn in the noxious cradle of negative comments. Our self-view is partly defined by labels, and if the labels are negative, the child will have a negative self –view or self-image. She internalises the negative messages, and the ‘you are good for nothing’ eventually becomes ‘I am good for nothing’. Childhood verbal abuse makes us feel worthless, and many adults verbally abused as children often say to me ‘I am a waste of space’.
When I explore childhood verbal abuse with adult clients, I sometimes do the ‘ear exercise’, whereby they draw a big ear and write in negative comments made to them as children. Comments such as ‘you are useless’, ‘you are like your mother/father’, ‘you only got 90% in your test’, ‘you’ll never be any good’, are common.
I remember my mother saying ‘you’re a crow’, when I tried to sing. She did not mean it, but it helped to define me as a singer, so when I occasionally sing nowadays I see the image of a large crow cawing. I see the funny side of this, but it illustrates how emotionally loaded words, and the images they represent, remain with us all our lives.
In her blog, A Mother’s Tongue, Carolyn Denise calls verbal abuse a silent killer. She describes victims being put down and made to feel unwanted by their mothers. Verbal abuse is a deliberate behaviour that can be tailored and rationed to achieve power and control. Carolyn shows how one young victim was manipulated into losing weight through verbal abuse. When she succeeded, her mother praised her, but when her weight increased again, she was vilified and ridiculed. Another ill-advised mother praised her daughter’s beauty and convinced her that her looks would garner her success in life. This mother discounted education. Her daughter’s looks eventually faded, and she never reached her potential as a person, but spiralled into shame and promiscuity.
Child verbal abuse is sometimes used in more subtle ways to meet the needs of parents. The child is brainwashed, giving rise to disastrous long-term consequences. At one time, the Fourth Commandment ‘honour thy father and thy mother’ was a favourite way to muzzle the child, and prevent them from expressing their feelings. Guilt was often sown by the phrase ‘you don’t love your mother’. Eventually this guilt gives way to rage. Threats of abandonment fill a child with fear and give them a sense of not being wanted. The words ‘I wish you were never born’ remain imprinted in memory forever, and create a sense of being unloved. Adapted from Jim O’Shea’s book Abuse. Domestic Violence, Workplace and School Bullying published by Cork University Press
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