Child abuse often occurs in the presence of alcohol or drugs, but by no means exclusively. Studies suggest around a third of abuse incidents occur when the abuser is drunk or high.
Abusive parents are very likely to have been abused by their own parents, or have witnessed abuse (such as their father’s abuse of their mother). This abuse could be physical or emotional — some abusers who were not physically abused nevertheless have low self-esteem related to their negative experiences with a parent. This doesn’t mean, if you are the child of someone who abuses you, you should believe you have to be understanding and forgiving! It is not your responsibility, as a victim, to forgive them. Nor is what they do your responsibility.
However, one of the most difficult things for abused children to bear is if it is a parent who abuses them, because a parent is supposed to love you unconditionally. They are supposed to be your protector in the world. It is terrible when your protector is the one you need to be protected from. And it can be terrible that you can’t help still wanting them to love you. So, perhaps it helps to think of them as sick or damaged. There’s another lesson, of course, in these statistics. If you’ve been abused, you may be scared you too will grow up to behave like your parent. And even if you don’t suffer the abuse yourself, the effect of repeatedly witnessing abuse shouldn’t be under-estimated.
Children who have been physically abused have been found to be more sensitive to anger, and more likely to interpret faces as showing anger. While this sensitivity might help protect them at home, it also makes them more prone to interpreting normal social actions (such as getting bumped, or having a ball unexpectedly tossed toward them) as hostile.
But many of those who come through childhood abuse, even sexual abuse, grow up to be mentally and emotionally healthy. That shouldn’t be taken as an indictment for those who are less resilient! But it does offer hope that victims can overcome their legacy. Unfortunately, apart from the certainty that one factor will be genetic, we have no great understanding of what we can do to help victims become more resilient. But surely having someone in your life who truly cares about you, who understands your problems and tries to help you deal with them, must be a great help.
One type of strategy, hopefully restricted to adult survivors of abuse, has been to encourage them to forgive their abusers. Whether or not this is a good idea probably has a lot to do with the level of abuse. A ten-year study found encouraging victims of child sexual abuse to reconcile with their abusers is not the best thing for the victims, and in a sense ‘re-victimizes’ them. A victim should not be forced to feel empathy for their abuser.
Children who suffer from sexual abuse often come from homes where gender roles are rigid and the mother has little power. There are usually other forms of violence in the family, and no communication — children learn from an early age that there are things that simply can’t be mentioned.
Child abuse is a global phenomenon. A World Health Organization report concluded that some 57,000 children (younger than 15) are killed each year, with rates highest in the first four years of life. Levels of non-fatal abuse are of course much higher. For example, over 900,000 children were found to have been maltreated in 2003 in the U.S.