Kids and teens learn so much during their developmental years. Not only will your child learn basic steps like how to ride a bike or how to brush their teeth, they also learn how to interact with the world around them. Kids learn how to talk to others through their parents’ actions. They learn their own self-worth. They learn how to identify positive versus toxic people in their lives. These lessons are incredibly hard to unlearn – especially if they are learned incorrectly.
We want to break the cycle of abuse and teach kids and teens how to have healthy relationships, whether they are talking to a teacher or dating for the first time.
How Do You Define Child Abuse?
Before we can dive into a discussion about the long-term effects of child abuse on relationships, it helps to define the terms. We recently discussed this in our last post on male domestic abuse, where we challenged the idea that abuse can only be physical or sexual. The same needs to be said about child abuse.
Each year, more than 6.6 million children referred to state child protective services, and many more cases go unreported (according to ChildHelp). Of this, only 38% of cases involve physical abuse or neglect and 21% involve sexual abuse. Meanwhile, 24% of the calls relate to emotional abuse or neglect. This form of abuse is more subtle and less easy for children to report or teachers and community leaders to identify.
Dr. Douglas LaBier, psychotherapist and Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, D.C. encourages people to think about child abuse from a much wider scope than our typical viewpoint. A child can be traumatized by parent neglect, indifference to the child’s feelings, humiliation, or even deliberate denigration – unfair criticism or belittlement. A narcissistic parent could never lay a hand on their child, but that doesn’t mean the child didn’t grow up in an abusive home.
Dr. LaBier provided multiple examples of what abuse might look like beyond physically touching or punishing a child:
- Constantly criticizing the weight, appearance, or behavior of a child.
- Praising one child and favoring them while ignoring the other.
- Not having time for what your child wants to tell you.
- Placing your life ahead of your child’s on a regular basis.
This doesn’t mean that any parent who takes some time for themselves is committing abuse, but rather parents who view their children as unwanted burdens could be causing a lifetime of damage in just a few short years.
Once you consider the sheer scale of children who grow up in unhealthy home environments, you can see how important it is for schools and community organizations to focus on developing healthy and stable friendships and romantic partnerships within kids and teens.
The Effect of Child Abuse on Teens and Adults
Abuse for a child is traumatic, but many people don’t realize how far this trauma can extend into adulthood. The organization Safe Families for Children shared the science behind brain development in kids who grew up with abuse.
Studies have found that kids who experience abuse have less gray matter in their brains (the material that contains most of their neuronal cell bodies) than those who weren’t abused – particularly in the regions of decision-making, emotions, and impulse control.
Kids from abusive families are more likely to suffer behavioral and mood disorders, mental health issues, and PSD. In practice, this makes teens more likely to struggle with addiction and to make unhealthy life decisions – especially in their friendships and romantic relationships.
This shows how a child who suffered from emotional abuse at a young age faces more challenges as a teen. They are more likely to continue the cycle of abuse by either entering into abusive romantic relationships or by becoming abusers themselves.
There are many reasons why someone who grew up in an abusive home would re-enter an abusive relationship. Some people don’t feel like they are worthy of love. The traumas of their childhood continue to linger and they believe the insults that their parents or guardians said to them. Others are familiar with an abusive relationship and equate that trauma with love because it’s what they know.
Some teens and young adults may turn around and become abusive, continuing the abuse cycle long into adulthood. As Dr. Elizabeth Hartney, psychologist and abuse expert, explains:
“By becoming an abuser, someone who has been abused can play the role of the more powerful person in the relationship in an attempt to overcome the powerlessness they felt when they were being abused. Unfortunately, this is not effective, and they may repeatedly dominate others in a futile attempt to get over the weakness they experienced as a victim.”
Kids and teens need to be removed from an abusive environment and start the healing process with professional therapy and counseling, so they can start to redefine what they consider love and have healthy futures.
Resources to Build Healthy Relationships in Kids and Teens
If you find yourself in an abusive relationship or know a young person who is, there are resources available to you. There are safe places around your community where you can go if you are escaping a violent or emotionally traumatic environment. There are also organizations that work with teens who are trying to recover from past trauma.
- Family Resources Healthy Relationships Courses: we strive to end the cycle of abuse by offering healthy relationship-building opportunities to teens and young adults. Our courses are free and available for people age 15-25. They cover topics related to communication, finances in relationships, negotiation, and self-worth. They are a great place for any teen to learn about themselves and grow with their partners.
- Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month: February kicks off a time for communities to raise awareness for dating violence in young people. Church groups, after-school clubs, and organizations like Family Resources take steps to educate kids and parents on what healthy relationships look like.
- Future Without Violence: this is an organization that strives to end domestic and sexual abuse by giving teens and their parents tools to lead healthy relationships. They have several resources at their fingertips that you can use and learn from.
Keep Reading: check out our list of top relationship resources for helping teens in the community.
The fact is, parents have a huge impact on their kids’ lives. This is why the team at Family Resources is constantly encouraging parents to take steps to build strong, positive bonds with their kids. Setting aside a few minutes each day to read with your kids or play with them after work can have boundless benefits to your relationship, as well as their physical health and school performance.
We can’t control how every child is raised. However, we can take steps to help teens develop healthy relationships and offering counseling and safe space when it is needed. We are here to help you, whether you are a parent trying to do their best or a teen looking for a way out of an abusive environment.