Learn how the mental health field is helping child abuse victims
Witnessing abusive acts toward a parent, or suffering abuse at the hands of a parent or caretaker leaves devastating effects on children, effects that last well into adulthood, perpetuating repeated cycles of abuse and neglect. (see Childhood Developmental Psychology).
Kathie Mathis, Psy.D, and CEO of Mathis and Associates, said there's little difference between witnessing abuse, and being a child abuse victim - in both cases the child is an abused child.
As a domestic violence counselor (see Domentic Violence Counselor) who works with adult victims, perpetrators, and children, Mathis said that adults, often mothers, will tell her that the child didn't actually see a violent act or other harmful behavior. Perhaps the child was outside playing, or not home at the time.
Mathis tells the mother that the child's physical presence makes no difference.
"Rooms have memory, and when they [children] walk into the room or house, they know exactly what's going on," she said.
According to the Futures Without Violence, 15.5 million U.S. children live in families in which partner violence occurred at least once in the past year, and seven million children live in families in which severe partner violence occurred.
Define Child Abuse...
How to report Child Abuse
For those who are witnessing or experiencing child abuse, the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is available 24 hours/day at 1.800.4.A.CHILD (1.800.422.4453).
Additional contact information and resources for child abuse victims, parents and professionals working with child abuse victims can be found on the Child Welfare Information Gateway website.
Abuse is either psychological, emotional, sexual, or physical - or a combination of any or all of these. A lot of research focuses on physical acts of abuse because these cases are more measurable, but victims of psychological abuse and degradation often state that this type of abuse can be even more intolerable than physical violence - and the effects more pernicious.
Mathis calls all abuse emotional. Whatever the abuse, it's going to end up there, she said. Any type of abuse damages a person's soul, she added.
The effects of Child Abuse
A growing body of research demonstrates the harmful effects on children. They develop defiance disorders, alcohol and substance abuse issues, do poorly in school, become drop outs, runaways and prostitutes, and show signs of depression (see Depression) and anxiety (see Anxiety), and sometimes attempt suicide.
Long-term effects on their physical health are also becoming more evident. Scientific literature states a strong correlation between the effects of abuse and physical health. Fibromyalgia, chronic pain syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, eating disorders, and overall reduced physical functioning have all been linked to abuse, and can start later in life long after the abuse occurred.
Mathis said that children also struggle with a number of psychological factors stemming from perpetrators making their children an extension of themselves. "The children have learned not to find their own identity because they've had to be what that person has wanted them to be." Perpetrators control their children's lives, interrupting normal developmental growth and not allowing the child to become an individual.
When children watch domestic violence taking place, they take on the traits of either the perpetrator or the victim, Mathis said. Many times abused children become bullies, and if these bullies don't receive any interventions, they grow up to be adult bullies.
That's why bully prevention programs are so important in schools, Mathis said. She works schools and PTAs on educating staff on bullying (see Bullying) issues in addition to working with the school's students directly.
And studies show that girls from abused environments are more likely to enter abusive relationships as adults. So more intervention and education programs are needed at earlier ages to prevent this vicious cycle from continuing.
Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline reports that about 30% of abused and neglected children will later abuse their own children, and 31% of women in prison in the United States were abused as children. Additionally, over 60% of people in drug rehabilitation centers report being abused or neglected as a child.
Much harder to acknowledge is that almost five children die every day as a result of child abuse; more than three out of four are under the age of 4, according to Childhelp.
Mathis, who has over 20 years of working in the domestic violence field, said that as an abuse counselor and advocate, she hears some shocking stories. Such as a woman who told her that she knew her husband slept with her 16-year-old daughter. When Mathis asked why that was okay with her, the woman said that it gave her, the mother, a break from being raped.
"You have to be patient and nonjudgmental," Mathis said. "Individuals come up with different coping mechanisms to survive."
But there isn't a more rewarding job, Mathis said. "You're giving children a brighter future. The rewards come from those on whom you made a difference, no matter how small."
She described a patient who was 16-years-old when she first sought help, and Mathis was able to remove the girl from a situation that involved an abusive father. Now 19, the young woman calls or e-mails Mathis every year on a special anniversary date, marking the point where the girl was taken from the abusive environment. She tells Mathis how she's alive today because of her, and how she's going to be an awesome woman because of her, and how thankful she feels toward Mathis.
"Who wouldn't want a job where you're making this kind of difference?"Mathis asked.
Because child abuse counseling is complex, and effective counseling for abused kids is not covered extensively in traditional counseling or therapy programs, Mathis recommends getting state certified in domestic violence and abuse. Each state has its own certification requirements for becoming a specialist in this field.
Although certification doesn't require a specific degree, a background in psychology is highly desirable. If you are interested in working with abused children, impacting and changing lives, request degree information from schools offering counseling degrees.