Sexual Abuse

There are many forms of sexual violations, all of which are abusive and often result in sexual trauma.  Two major delineations exist:  childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual violence.  All acts under these two categories are considered sexual violence, especially if these are non-consensual or have been committed under duress.

Both childhood sexual abuse and adult sexual violence is further categorised as:

  1. Contact abuse — range of which includes sexual touching to outright rape.  Contact sexual violence may encompass completed or attempted penetration involving any of these parts: penis, vagina, anus, and mouth.  It can also involve sexual touching of the breasts, genitals, groin, inner thighs, buttocks, or anus.
  1. Non-contact abuse — may involve forced participation in pornography, exhibitionism, and inappropriate modelling of sexually provocative clothes or behaviour. Non-contact abuse or violence is usually voyeuristic and can include verbal and behavioural harassment.

Sexual abuse or violence is considered a childhood tragedy if the victim is under 18 years of age at the time the crime was committed.  Adult sexual violence refer to victims who are 18 years or older.

Psychological Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse

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Mental disorders often follow sexual abuse, particularly when the individuals in question are children.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a common result among sexually molested children who because of a traumatic event or a series of them, experience terrifying feelings of extreme fear, helplessness, shame, and worthlessness.  These victims often exhibit negative coping symptoms such as numbness, lack of responsiveness, paranoia on perceived threats, and recurring nightmares.  As such a number of such patients additionally suffer from depression, anxiety disorder, substance abuse, and eating disorders.  Many may have suicidal thoughts and intentions as well.  These symptoms may impair an individual’s quality of life, making him unable to hold a job, get work, maintain relationships with friends and family, or do everyday tasks requiring some form of social contact.

Sexually abused children may grow up to be either sexually inhibited adults or highly promiscuous ones.  Because of repeated early exposure to sexual abuse, promiscuity may be patterned after the behaviour of the sexual abuser or perpetrator.  Those however who develop frigidity or low sexual drive may have difficulty entering into and maintaining close relationships.

Individuals who have been particularly severely sexually abused in their early years may develop Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).  BPD is a difficult mental condition to treat and is characterised by maladjusted and immutable personality traits.  People afflicted with BPD often exhibit suicidal symptoms and have the propensity for self-harm, substance abuse, unsafe sex, and the like.

Unfortunately, survivors of childhood sexual abuse may develop both BPD and PTSD which some classify as complex PTSD.  People with complex PTSD may be plagued by extreme mood swings, unexplained physical pain, symptoms that defy medical explanation, and altered states of consciousness.  They may also exhibit other personality disorders characterised by extreme paranoia (Paranoid Personality Disorder); extreme shyness and a huge inferiority complex (Avoidant Personality Disorder); or the extreme need for admiration and lack of empathy (Narcissistic Personality Disorder).

Psychological Effects of Adult Sexual Violence

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Adult victims may develop short-term and long-term psychiatric symptoms.  PTSD symptoms such as sleeping problems, emotional numbness, and panic attacks can show a short time after the traumatic event but may taper off in severity after a few months.  There are, however, survivors that live with PTSD symptoms for years.

Research however has focused mostly on PTSD as the psychological repercussion of adult sexual violence.  Other disorders may be overlooked such as clinical depression; Body Dysmorphic Disorder characterised extreme attention to physical faults; or compulsory body mutilations such as excessive body piercing and tattooing.

How well adult survivors of sexual violence can cope after traumatic events had to do with their belief system used to interpret life experiences.  The more stringent this personal belief system is, the more psychologically distressed the survivor may be.  For instance, a woman who believes that her rape was a result of an outfit that showed more skin than usual, may possess higher degree of self blame and embarrassment.  If the victim also feels she has no control over her recovery or does not realise that she can empower herself against future sexual violence, she may be more mentally distressed than those who believe that the power of recovery lies in their willingness to change their perceptions or outlook for the better.

Sexual Abuse: A Public Health Concern

The psychological consequences of sexually abused people make for a public health problem.  More sexually abused victims increases the population of psychologically impaired citizens.  This has serious ramifications on a country’s social, economic, and physical well-being.  It is imperative to empower sexually abused victims with the psychological tools geared toward allowing them to take control of their emotional healing and recovery of self-worth.

There is no cut-and-dried response treatment to sexual abuse.  People react to abuse in many different ways and degrees, from mild to life-threatening.  Resultant emotions or behaviour may manifest immediately or be significantly delayed and their duration may vary from short-term to one lasting several years.

Psychiatrists however are now more aware of the strong link between abuse and ill mental health so that survivors of sexual abuse or violence may be better identified and referred to the right specialists for treatment.

Parenting With a Mental Health Problem

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Being a parent is no easy task and definitely not for the fainthearted.  Parenting becomes even more difficult if the parent himself or herself is disadvantaged with the added liability of having a mental health problem.

How does Mental Illness Affect Parenting?

Many children live with a parent who may have had a short-term mental illness or is currently suffering an ongoing one in which alcoholism, drug dependency, or depression is a fact of life.  U.K. statistics show that about 50% to 66% of parents with severe, long-term illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar, and personality disorder live with one or more kids under the age of 18.  These estimates intimate that about 17,000 children and adolescents are subject to living conditions under a mentally ill parent.

With a mental illness to deal with, many parents are under tremendous pressure to carry out their daily roles as nurturers, not to mention other roles such as workers, partners, friends, and the like that they struggle to fulfill.  Their troubling mental health, if not treated and supported, will often disrupt the stability of their children’s lives and their relationship with them.  Since parents with a mental problem can be unpredictable, their children may not know how to deal with sudden emotional crisis or how to come to terms with the emotional issues that come along with it.

A parent with mental disorder may feel that they have to put the needs of their children first which is exactly what any parent is compelled to do, whether they have or do not have any mental disabilities.  For mentally disadvantaged parents, doing so however may entail curtailed hospital stays and putting the brakes on medication expenses and intake.  As this may seem like a good thing to do in the short run, skipping or avoiding treatments may backfire on your capability as a parent, upending the balance of your relationship with your children.  Untreated depression, for instance, may make it very difficult or almost impossible for a parent to be emotionally engaged in their children’s lives  so much so that parent-child communication can become impaired.

How Does a Parent’s Mental Health Problems Affect Their Children?

Because the effects of mental illnesses are varied and sometimes unpredictable in individuals, so are the effects these have on the children under an afflicted parent.  Although genetics and home life pose high risks for mental illness on children with mentally unhealthy parents, not all children grow up to inherit the problem or be so negatively affected.  Just because a child’s parent has mental illness, it is not enough to conclude that the child will become mentally affected as well.

A child’s mental health under a mentally unwell parent will hinge on the following factors:

  • severity and length of time of the parent’s mental illness
  • age of the child during the onset of the parent’s illness
  • how the parent’s mental condition affects his behaviour and how this behaviour affects the child
  • degree of stress arising from the parent’s behaviour
  • degree to which the parent’s symptoms interfere with positive parenting such as parental interest and participation in the child’s daily life

With the above factors in mind, it is correct to surmise that a parent’s negative behaviour as a result of mental illness, however, can have many troublesome effects on a child.  Some kids withdraw emotionally, become anxious, and find focusing on schoolwork next to impossible.  Most of them are ashamed of their parent’s illness, consequently finding it distressing to talk about their problems and get the help they need.  Children also may become excessively worried about “getting infected” by the illness and may start to develop emotional problems.  The risk of these children acquiring mental illness is further escalated when poverty, bad living conditions, and chronic instability form the framework of their lives.

What Can a Mentally Ill Parent Do?

When a parent is mentally unwell, it is tough to make children, particularly very young children, understand and make sense of their parent’s behaviour.  Why does Mommy seem so happy for a whole week and then so despondent the next?

parenting with mental illnessOne of the best things a mentally ill parent can do is provide clear facts and information of their condition.  Children need to know what to expect from their ill parent’s conduct.  This will help mitigate the anxiety and confusion children often feel when faced with an adult’s bewildering behaviour.

The sick parent may also educate their kids on what they may find helpful and unhelpful in times when their illness strikes.  Kids can feel like they are contributing to their parent’s attempts to get well.  Bringing in another adult to take on the major part of the caregiving burden is a necessity to avoid placing a huge burden of caregiving on the children.

Parents may draw up a plan for childcare before a situation arises where they need to be hospitalized or are unable to do their responsibilities.  This plan should detail the child’s daily routine, likes, and dislikes and entrusted to a responsible child caregiver.  This way, the child can have a sense of continuity, security, and stability when the care giving is simply continued as is.

Above all, a mentally unwell parent must seek the proper professional treatment.  This way, the right decisions and support may be received, important factors that will greatly help both parent and child cope well with living problems from mental health issues.

Helping Children Deal with Anger: A Parental Obligation

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Anger is a healthy emotion borne out of frustration, fright, pain, or grief.  It is part of our survival instinct and a component of our “fight and flight” response to perceived threats.  We lash out because we do not want to feel pain or be threatened physically or emotionally. Because we are human, all of us feel anger at several points in our lives, some more than others.

As parents, we need to be particularly constructive when dealing with our anger.  Children who grow up in a home where difficult emotions like anger and envy are well managed, tend to develop into emotionally well-balanced adults.  It is therefore vital for a child’s lifelong happiness and well-being to know how to deal with his angry impulses.

Children may often feel anger as part and parcel of growing up.  Developing into an emotionally mature adult is a difficult and often painful process for which parents must have the patience and adequate information to take on the role of emotional guides.  It is vital for children to learn to control or live with natural but powerful feelings if they are to be socially well-integrated and accepted by their society.

Why Is My Child Always Angry?

A great many things can cause the overwhelming feeling of anger in a child.  Children want to act on their impulses or urges as soon as these manifest because they have little or no concept of consequences.  A young child’s frontal cortex is still too immature or underdeveloped to help them self-regulate their emotions.  Boundaries set to control their actions, no matter the necessity, are often points of a frustration.  No one wants to be controlled; but, at their young stage in life, boundaries are necessary for safety, social acceptance, and even self respect.

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Children’s feelings of anger may stem from some of these physical or psychological factors:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Physical factors:

  •  Inadequate sleep or rest
  •  Hunger
  •  Tiredness or exhaustion
  •  Illness, either physical or mental

Psychological Factors:

  • Feeling inadequate but too vulnerable at the same time to admit to his feelings of inferiority (Ex.  He may be a target for bullies in school; he knows his sibling is better than he is at football; etc.)
  • Feeling neglected (Is he given his fair share of praise and attention?)
  • Inability to meet behavioural expectations because of the age limitations  (Ex.  Expecting a toddler to sit still for long periods is beyond the child’s capacity to do so at two years of age.)
  • Inability to cope with overwhelming changes  (Ex. arrival of a new baby, divorce, moving to a new home, moving to a new school, meeting a whole set of new people, and the like)
  • Testing and stretching your boundaries.  Kids will scale up their tantrums when they have learned in the past to get their way through hysterical screaming, crying, and foot stomping.
  • Feeling of unfairness when given a “no go” to what they want
  • Feeling frustrated for not being able do tasks beyond their physical abilities  (Ex. Fitting a round peg into a square hole; running faster than their older brother)
  • Feeling isolated or unaccepted by peers, playmates, or siblings  (A young child may feel ostracized by his older siblings or cousins who would rather play among those of their age group.)

The list above is by no means an exhaustive one; but, it can give you fairly good ideas on what usually ticks off children and even teenagers.

Some Tips on How to Manage Your Child’s Anger

You recognize the social and personal responsibility of helping your child and deal with anger. For this reason, it is fundamentally necessary to walk your talk first.  As a parent, you are your child’s primary role model; so, if he is to know how to curb his angry impulses, he must learn how to do so constructively from observing how you handle your own feelings as well.

How else can a parent help kids deal with anger (different levels), from annoyance to rage?

  1. Teach kids to acknowledge their feelings.  Never dismiss or trivialize their emotions.

Emotions, whether they be elation, grief, surprise, or anger are never bad.  Emotions   are what make us human.  It is in a kid’s negative choice of expression that can turn these emotions into personal and social disadvantages.

In a scenario where a playmate grabs your kid’s toy without his permission, your kid will naturally feel righteous indignation.  Let your child know that his feelings are justified and that it is alright to feel this way.  What is not healthy or correct, however, is walloping the offending playmate with a wooden brick for the disrespect.  Instead, help him express his anger by encouraging him to calmly but firmly vocalize his feelings so his friend may know the error of his ways.

Failing to acknowledge a child’s anger or dismissing his feelings as inconsequential can only create unresolved anger which he may carry into adulthood.  Chronic unresolved anger lugged into adult life can only leave a sad wake of damaged relationships, stagnant careers, and social dysfunction.

  1. Set boundaries that are clear and uncompromising.  Be Consistent.

Your child needs to realize that feeling angry is ok; but, acting out aggressively in the heat of the moment is not.

Let him know in a firm but calm voice that his angry behaviour of brick throwing is wrong and will not be tolerated.  Be very clear with your decision to impose consequences for inappropriate behaviour. Consequences may involve withholding privileges but these should never incorporate physical pain such as spanking (an action contradictory to the non-violent ways of anger management you are trying to instil).  Follow through with the consequence every time your child decides to behave with aggressive behaviour.  He must know the limits are non-negotiable.

  1.   Divert your child’s aggressive impulses toward other ways of expression.

Does your child feel like hitting someone or his pet dog when angry?  Patiently but firmly offer safe and suitable alternatives like a punching bag to vent his frustrations on.  Instead of tolerating his yelling, encourage him to cool off by breathing deeply in and out and counting down to calmness.  Letting him draw what makes him angry may also help a child express his anger in a safe way; at least, ripping his paper to bits afterwards can give him a sense of control over the source of his anger as well.

  1. Instil a sense of awareness of your child’s anger triggers.

When your child starts being aware what pushes his buttons and the way his reactions build around these triggers, it will be easier for him to effectively manage his anger.  Praise him when he gets a grip on his emotions at whatever stage it is at.  Being able to discipline himself from erupting to inappropriate behaviour is a very empowering feeling for a child, a positive reinforcement underlining the value of anger management.

When you think an angry feeling has been triggered, encourage the child to verbalize his feeling.  Acknowledge it and then offer venues or ways for helping him to calm down. For instance, when a child says he is furious with his little brother for knocking down his Lego castle, you can say, “Yes, that would make me mad too.  Let’s figure this out, shall we?”  Talking about angry feelings and compulsions would encourage the child to be aware of how his emotion progresses.

If you feel your techniques are not adequate enough to handle your child’s anger issues, therapeutic intervention is the next imperative option.  Addressing the problem at the childhood level is a much wiser decision than leaving the issue to fester well beyond his teenage years.  Seek the necessary counselling for your child.  The gift of a happier, well-adjusted disposition may very well be a valuable legacy.