Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: July 2013.
Recognizing abusive behavior in yourself
If you need professional help…
Do you feel angry and frustrated and don’t know where to turn? In other countries, visit Chiworld.org for helplines.
Do you see yourself in some of these descriptions, painful as it may be? Do you feel angry and frustrated and don’t know where to turn? Raising children is one of life’s greatest challenges and can trigger anger and frustration in the most even–tempered. If you grew up in a household where screaming and shouting or violence was the norm, you may not know any other way to raise your kids.
Recognizing that you have a problem is the biggest step to getting help. If you yourself were raised in an abusive situation, that can be extremely difficult. Children experience their world as normal. It may have been normal in your family to be slapped or pushed for little to no reason, or that mother was too drunk to cook dinner. It may have been normal for your parents to call you stupid, clumsy, or worthless. Or it may have been normal to watch your mother get beaten up by your father.
It is only as adults that we have the perspective to step back and take a hard look at what is normal and what is abusive. Read the above sections on the types of abuse and warning signs. Do any of those ring a bell for you now? Or from when you were a child? The following is a list of warning signs that you may be crossing the line into abuse:
How do you know when you’ve crossed the line?
You can’t stop the anger. What starts as a swat on the backside may turn into multiple hits getting harder and harder. You may shake your child harder and harder and finally throw him or her down. You find yourself screaming louder and louder and can’t stop yourself.
You feel emotionally disconnected from your child. You may feel so overwhelmed that you don’t want anything to do with your child. Day after day, you just want to be left alone and for your child to be quiet.
Meeting the daily needs of your child seems impossible. While everyone struggles with balancing dressing, feeding, and getting kids to school or other activities, if you continually can’t manage to do it, it’s a sign that something might be wrong.
Other people have expressed concern. It may be easy to bristle at other people expressing concern. However, consider carefully what they have to say. Are the words coming from someone you normally respect and trust? Denial is not an uncommon reaction.
Breaking the Cycle of Child Abuse
If you have a history of child abuse, having your own children can trigger strong memories and feelings that you may have repressed. This may happen when a child is born, or at later ages when you remember specific abuse to you. You may be shocked and overwhelmed by your anger, and feel like you can’t control it. But you can learn new ways to manage your emotions and break your old patterns.
Remember, you are the most important person in your child’s world. It’s worth the effort to make a change, and you don’t have to go it alone. Help and support are available.
Tips for changing your reactions
Learn what is age appropriate and what is not. Having realistic expectations of what children can handle at certain ages will help you avoid frustration and anger at normal child behavior. For example, newborns are not going to sleep through the night without a peep, and toddlers are not going to be able to sit quietly for extended periods of time.
Develop new parenting skills. While learning to control your emotions is critical, you also need a game plan of what you are going to do instead. Start by learning appropriate discipline techniques and how to set clear boundaries for your children. Parenting classes, books, and seminars are a way to get this information. You can also turn to other parents for tips and advice.
Take care of yourself. If you are not getting enough rest and support or you’re feeling overwhelmed, you are much more likely to succumb to anger. Sleep deprivation, common in parents of young children, adds to moodiness and irritability—exactly what you are trying to avoid.
Get professional help. Breaking the cycle of abuse can be very difficult if the patterns are strongly entrenched. If you can’t seem to stop yourself no matter how hard you try, it’s time to get help, be it therapy, parenting classes, or other interventions. Your children will thank you for it.
Learn how you can get your emotions under control. The first step to getting your emotions under control is realizing that they are there. If you were abused as a child, you may have an especially difficult time getting in touch with your range of emotions. You may have had to deny or repress them as a child, and now they spill out without your control.
What should you do if you suspect that a child has been abused? How do you approach him or her? Or what if a child comes to you? It’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed and confused in this situation. Child abuse is a difficult subject that can be hard to accept and even harder to talk about.
Just remember, you can make a tremendous difference in the life of an abused child, especially if you take steps to stop the abuse early. When talking with an abused child, the best thing you can provide is calm reassurance and unconditional support. Let your actions speak for you if you’re having trouble finding the words. Remember that talking about the abuse may be very difficult for the child. It’s your job to reassure the child and provide whatever help you can.
Tips for talking to an abused child
Avoid denial and remain calm. A common reaction to news as unpleasant and shocking as child abuse is denial. However, if you display denial to a child, or show shock or disgust at what they are saying, the child may be afraid to continue and will shut down. As hard as it may be, remain as calm and reassuring as you can.
Don’t interrogate. Let the child explain to you in his or her own words what happened, but don’t interrogate the child or ask leading questions. This may confuse and fluster the child and make it harder for them to continue their story.
Reassure the child that they did nothing wrong. It takes a lot for a child to come forward about abuse. Reassure him or her that you take what is said seriously, and that it is not the child’s fault.
Safety comes first. If you feel that your safety or the safety of the child would be threatened if you try to intervene, leave it to the professionals. You may be able to provide more support later after the initial professional intervention.
If you suspect a child is being abused, it’s critical to get them the help he or she needs. Reporting child abuse seems so official. Many people are reluctant to get involved in other families’ lives.
Understanding some of the myths behind reporting may help put your mind at ease if you need to report child abuse.
I don’t want to interfere in someone else’s family. The effects of child abuse are lifelong, affecting future relationships, self-esteem, and sadly putting even more children at risk of abuse as the cycle continues. Help break the cycle of child abuse.
What if I break up someone’s home? The priority in child protective services is keeping children in the home. A child abuse report does not mean a child is automatically removed from the home—unless the child is clearly in danger. Support such as parenting classes, anger management or other resources may be offered first to parents if safe for the child.
They will know it was me who called. Reporting is anonymous. In most places, you do not have to give your name when you report child abuse. The child abuser cannot find out who made the report of child abuse.
It won’t make a difference what I have to say. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it is better to be safe than sorry. Even if you don’t see the whole picture, others may have noticed as well, and a pattern can help identify child abuse that might have otherwise slipped through the cracks.
Making Your Voice Heard When Reporting Child Abuse
Reporting child abuse can bring up a lot of difficult emotions and uncertainty. You may ask yourself if you’re doing the right thing, or question if your voice will even be heard. Here are some tips for communicating effectively in difficult situations:
Try to be as specific as you can. For example, instead of saying, “The parents are not dressing their children right,” say something like, “I saw the child running outside three times last week in subzero weather without a jacket or hat. I saw him shivering and uncomfortable. He seemed to want to come inside.” However, remember that it is not your job to “prove” abuse or neglect. If suspicions are all you have, you should report those as well.
Understand that you may not learn of the outcome. Due to confidentiality laws in the U.S., unless you are a mandated reporter in an official capacity, you probably won’t be updated by Child Protective Services (CPS) about the results of their investigation. The family may not broadcast that they have been mandated services, either—but that doesn’t mean they are not receiving them.
If you see future incidences, continue to call and report them. Each child abuse report is a snapshot of what is going on in the family. The more information that you can provide, the better the chance of getting the best care for the child.
Reporting Abuse in the Home or in Child Custody Situations
Witnessing abuse in your own home or suspecting abuse in a custody situation brings its own set of challenges and concerns. You may be afraid of what your abuser will do to you and your children if you speak up. You may also be concerned that the abuser will be able to cover his or her tracks or even turn the abuse around onto you. Culturally, it may not be acceptable for you to separate, adding additional feelings of shame and isolation. You may also be afraid of having your children taken away from you.
Don’t go it alone
Domestic violence isn’t just about black eyes. Manipulation and emotional threats to you and your children are also a form of abuse, power, and control. Fear of losing custody of the children can be extremely stressful for both women and men in abusive relationships. Child abuse allegations in divorce or child custody issues are viewed very carefully to ensure they are not motivated by vindictiveness. However, if your abuser appears professional, well-groomed, and well-spoken to the outside world, you may feel like your concerns aren’t being taken seriously. Worse, if your allegations remain unproven, they may even result in the abuser being given custody.
Therefore, if you are planning to separate, or have already separated and are in a custody battle, it is essential to get support and legal advice. Domestic violence organizations can help you connect with legal resources in your community, and may be able to provide an advocate to assist your case and attend court hearings. Domestic violence organizations can help you work out a safety plan for both you and your children, and in the U.S. can also help you make calls to CPS if needed.
Useful tips in the on how to proceed in reporting child abuse in your home or in a custody situation:
Stay CALM. Do not let your emotions dictate your actions, and do not vent your emotions onto the people who are assigned to investigate your case (CPS, law enforcement officers, etc.).
IF THIS IS AN EMERGENCY: Call 10111 or your local police.
DOCUMENT EVERYTHING from this point forward, including times, dates, and places. COLLECT and KEEP all documents from all professionals who have an opinion about the child abuse. This includes therapists, doctors, policemen, and teachers. If a professional informs you that they have an opinion or a suspicion of child abuse, have them document that suspicion, preferably in the form of an affidavit. Be sure to get a copy of any opinions from professionals regarding your child’s case.
HAVE YOUR CHILD EVALUATED. Talk to medical and psychology professionals. If possible, have your child evaluated at a Child Assessment Center.
BEGIN INVESTIGATION. Talk to law enforcement officers to initiate an investigation into the allegation of child abuse. Any reasonable belief of abuse or neglect should be reported to the police. If you have been too afraid or intimidated to voice allegations in the past, let them know. If you have previously reported abuse, communicate the fact that you are trying to protect the child from further harm
TALK TO CPS. If the abuse is not criminal, talk to CPS to initiate an investigation into the allegation of child abuse.
GET AN ATTORNEY. Get an attorney and start proceedings to gain full custody of your child and terminate the abuser’s parental rights.