Sometimes, uncomfortable is necessary—
Imagine for a moment that you are online today and come upon a sad story about a child who has been abused or neglected. Everyone has experienced this media exposure because, unfortunately, child abuse and neglect are prevalent. Perhaps you are raising or working with a child who battles trauma as a result of abusive and neglectful adults. Most people react to child abuse and neglect thinking, “How could a person do such things to a child?”
In honor of Child Abuse Prevention Month, we’ll identify the problems that often lead to child abuse and neglect. While the content is sad, we cannot turn a blind eye as healthy adults who can make a difference. Children suffer the repercussions when no one pays close attention to what leads to abuse and neglect—we’ll explain that too.
What leads to abuse and neglect?
According to Dr. John F. Alston, psychiatrist, parents who abuse and neglect their children often do so as a result of untreated mental illnesses, personality disorders, substance addictions, or combinations of such issues. It’s important to note—certainly not all people who battle these issues abuse and neglect children. However, Dr. Alston has found correlations based on his work with children and their families over the course of 40 years.
Abusive and neglectful parents often battle one or more of the following untreated problems (written by Dr. John F. Alston – see link):
- Antisocial (sociopathic) personality disorder
According to the Mayo Clinic:
“Antisocial personality disorder, sometimes called sociopathy, is a mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others. People with antisocial personality disorder tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior.”
- Disorders of cognitive perception, mostly borderline personality disorder and paranoid schizophrenia
The etiology of borderline personality disorder is not well understood, but there is evidence of both genetic and psychological influences, to some degree attributable to poor parenting (neglect or over-protection) between birth and three years of age. Borderline personality disorder manifests as long-term patterns of unstable mood, interpersonal relationships and self-image. They commonly over-determine others’ actions or intentions and are capable of inappropriate intense anger, rage and abuse.
Paranoid schizophrenia is a complex disorder, usually strongly genetically influenced, and is characterized by thought disturbances such as delusions and hallucinations. They may be apathetic or have inappropriate affect (feeling tone). They tend to function at low levels of self-care and have frequent hallucinations or delusions related to circumscribed themes of distrust. They relate poorly to others and others have a difficult time getting close to them. As such, they do not frequently cohabit, form lasting relationships, or have children. In a delusional or hallucinatory state they are capable of abuse or neglect, though uncommonly.
- Alcohol and other substance abuse
In my experience working with abused kids, this is the single most common characteristic of abusing parents. However, in my experience, it is also most commonly a coexistent factor of abuse. In other words, while alcohol and substance abusing parents may abuse their children, it is usually of less severity and is usually not in an ongoing manner. Purely alcohol or substance abusing parents who over-indulge and neglect or abuse their children are ordinarily regretful and remorseful of their actions.
On the other hand, if alcohol or substance abusing parents also have a coexisting antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, paranoid schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, the intensity of the abuse is more severe and the extent of the abuse is far more lasting. Also, given the above coexistence factors, little remorse or regret is felt, leading to a cycle of continuing abusive situations.
- Bipolar disorder
This is a common psychiatric mood disorder representing 2 to 3 percent of the general population. It is a genetic, inherited, familial disorder that ultimately results in biochemical imbalances within one’s central nervous system. It manifests in manic (or hypomania, a lesser form of manic) and/or depressive mood disturbances. In my professional experience, this is by far the disorder that has the greatest coincidence with abuse or neglect of children and, as such, is the genetic disorder that these children with coexistent reactive attachment disorder also inherit. The degree of self-centeredness, irritability, and intensity of rage reactions while in a manic state are frequently sufficient to create severe abusive conditions. Correspondingly, the degree of profound depression is likewise severe and prolonged enough to create long-standing neglectful circumstances.
Abusive parents and our broken foster care system
Most people have no idea what is truly going on with the vulnerable children in our nation.
Here’s the current situation with our legal system—
When child protective services employees remove children from abusive and neglectful homes, they are also legally required to do their best to later reunite the family. The notion sounds nice. Yet, the laws set in which to do so lack sufficiency in the best interest of children.
While parents must meet certain requirements to get their children back, those requirements lack the most important element—mental stability. For parents to get their children back, social services usually require that they have steady employment and adequate housing. They also require that the parents haven’t gotten in trouble with the law, have cooperated with social services, and have received outpatient therapy. Yet, most parents do not receive treatment from clinicians qualified to help with their severe mental illnesses. Thus, the abuse continues. Our legal system shifts children back and forth between their abusive biological homes and foster homes, again and again.
Our children are everyone’s responsibility
There is never an excuse for child abuse and neglect. Adults who face mental illnesses, personality disorders, and addictions do so through no fault of their own. Yet, they must still be held absolutely responsible for their actions.
There is also no excuse for healthy adults who don’t pay close attention to the topic of child abuse and neglect. Our nation must decide to efficiently treat parents before returning their children to them. Such a plan requires adequate funding and clinical expertise to treat adults. Birth parents need help to stop the cycle and legacy of abuse and neglect. When we don’t help them, abuse and neglect continues within families and generations.
When we understand the origin of child abuse and neglect, we are better equipped to make wise choices on behalf of vulnerable children. As a nation, we must educate ourselves, speak up, and protect our children. When everyone remains silent, children fight alone—or not at all.
Stay tuned next week for, “What happens to children who are abused and neglected?”