Characteristics of Child Victims (page 3)
It is clear that all of us will at some time be involved with a child who has been a victim of physical or emotional abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, or a witness to family violence. Therefore, it is important that we are familiar with the characteristics and behaviors of these children. Although each child is an individual and will have a different configuration of symptoms or classroom problems, there are some commonalities to their psychological and behavioral status. Sometimes children will give us very simple clues that indicate they are uncomfortable in certain situations or appear to be different than other children in the classroom. At other times, they may be very hostile and angry and may tend to alienate other children as well as alienating teachers or other adults in the school setting. Perhaps one of the most striking symptoms is a dramatic change in a child's demeanor or personality. These changes are often very sudden; for example, a child who has been very outgoing and involved with other children may suddenly become isolated and avoidant. These changes are often reflected in a student's performance, grades, or social situations. A sudden drop in responsiveness or accomplishment in the classroom can be a cue that something significant is going on in the child's life. Listed below are some of the typical distressful emotions that a child victim may experience and explanations of how they might affect children at different developmental points.
One of the child's very early developmental needs is for security and safety. A young child who does not feel safe may have significantly elevated anxiety. This might show up in simple nervous behaviors (habits such as twirling hair or biting nails) or actually be seen in the development of phobias, panic disorders, obsessive/compulsive disorders, and so forth. At times this anxiety may be associated with a particular person or environment, or it may be more generalized with the child constantly feeling on edge or irritable. Young children often use avoidance to cope with this kind of anxiety or develop other symptoms such as nightmares, bed wetting, or physiological symptoms such as headaches or stomach distress.
As the child gets older, the anxiety may take on other behavioral manifestations. In adolescence these young people may cope with their anxieties by becoming aggressive or resorting to the use of alcohol and drugs to numb some of the agitation or irritability they may experience.
Depression can be seen in children through classical symptoms (i.e., change in appetite, change in sleep patterns, overall mood problems). It is important to note that in young people, depression can also look like an agitated state with increased activity and inattention. There have even been children diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) who may very well have been depressed, but their activity levels were significantly increased due to agitation. Although the diagnosis of depression is not often made for very young children, these symptoms could clearly be manifestations of a child who is in an abusive situation.
In the area of adolescent development, depression may take on a more serious note, particularly as it is paired with an increase in adolescent impulsive behavior. This impulsiveness can add to the potential for drug and alcohol abuse and the risk of adolescent suicide.
It is important to note that anger, when expressed by a young child, may simply be increased irritability or uncontrollable behavior; it may be a result of their difficulty understanding and/or expressing feelings of anger. Sometimes this anger can become self-directed and contributes to depression or high-risk behavior. At other times, these children may display behavioral difficulties and become more aggressive, particularly toward other children. This behavior is often difficult to manage in the classroom and if we don't see this behavior as a cry for help, we may take a very destructive or punitive approach with the child. Anger expressed by adolescents tends to be more hostile and can be seen in aggressive behaviors with the increased possibility of sexually aggressive behavior.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a child's sense of self can be negatively impacted by involvement in any abusive situation. Levels of self-esteem (a child's positive view of him- or herself) and appropriate self-concept (a child's realistic view of their capabilities) are crucial to the ongoing psychological development and well-being of children. An assault on this self-esteem can negatively impact the child's developmental progress. When children have an impaired sense of self or a reduced sense of self-esteem, they are often unable to control their own emotions. They may not be able to calm or soothe themselves when they are in a situation in which there is a lot of stress. This can also have an impact when children need to separate or become independent from others; a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder may be associated with these particular times. Later in the child's development, there may be difficulties defining one's own boundaries or appreciating the needs and desires of others in their environment. In addition, there are reports of increased suggestibility or gullibility, inadequate self-protectiveness and a greater likelihood of being victimized or exploited by others.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Highly distressing or threatening environmental situations can cause a reaction that has been called post-traumatic stress and diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This disorder is evidenced by: (a) a numbing of emotions or responsiveness to events; (b) frequent reexperiencing of events sometimes through intrusive thoughts or nightmares; and (c) increased irritability, sleep disturbance, and poor concentration. Children who have been abused tend to exhibit more post-traumatic fear, concentration problems, and anxiety than do children who have not been abused.
Although these symptoms are most common in children who have been exposed to high levels of violent or abusive behavior, there are other symptoms that are sometimes problematic and indicative of this type of exposure. These include the potential for suicide, high-risk sexual behavior, and a higher incidence of suicidal thinking and behavior in children. Some children, particularly adolescents, might engage in in discriminant sexual behavior as an expression of the need for acceptance and self-worth. It is also not uncommon to see eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia. Bulimia is evidenced primarily by binging and purging behaviors and these symptoms have been associated with higher incidents of abuse, particularly sexual abuse.
One of the most obvious characteristics of these children is their difficulty negotiating within their personal relationships. A sudden change in the child's relationship with other children can be a clue that there is a source of additional stress in their life. These children may engage in avoidance behaviors (withdrawal, isolation) which create problems with their interpersonal activities. These children may actually perceive themselves as less worthy of appropriate relationships. In general, abused children have been found to be socially less competent, more aggressive, and more withdrawn than their nonabused counterparts. In later life, it becomes very difficult for these children to develop intimate relationships, and if they do develop, the relationships often center on some type of ambivalence or fear about becoming vulnerable.
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