“The worst part wasn’t being hit. It was the wishing and hoping that things would change and especially that my mother would become another person – a mother who loved her children and cared for them and protected them. I longed so desperately for the parents that I never has.”
– Carol (in Wallenstein, Lewis & Blakeslee, 2000, p. 100)
Popular opinion tends to assume sexual abuse is the type of abuse which causes the most psychological damage, but the reality is that physical abuse is far more destructive to a child’s emotional health. It runs a close second behind verbal abuse; both. physical and verbal abuse tend to be more destructive psychologically than sexual abuse by a factor of 7. Ney et al., 1994) For those who have bought into popular mythology this may seem hard to believe. Yet the explanation is fairly straightforward.
We tend to think of physical abuse in physical terms. But those physical actions bring about a psychological response. Most cases of sexual abuse, even when uncomfortable, hold no implicit social harm. The person isn’t trying to hurt the child. The action isn’t hostile. Of course, sometimes a perpetrator looses all control and uses physical force or overpowers the child without regard to their protests, in which case implicit social harm definitely enters the equation. The action has become hostile. But otherwise, there is generally little aggression, which means less of a social injury, unless we add it in afterwards with destructive beliefs about sexual behavior. Physical abuse, on the other hand, like verbal abuse, is 100% straight-up caregiver hostility. It packs an implicit social punch without anyone having to say or do anything else. When people the child relies on for their very survival do something to intentionally hurt or injure them, it can be a profoundly disturbing experience.
When you sit down and think about it, what is psychological harm other than a result of conflict? Negative psychological states are a result of negative social interactions. People aren’t harmed over experiences. They’re harmed if that experience brings with it pain, conflict or hostility. For instance, it’s not being gay that causes depression. It’s that such a lifestyle creates both internal and external conflict, and that conflict is what causes depression. It’s that social abrasiveness, not any particular action or event, which is the true source of psychological harm. In physical abuse, you have a lot more pain and conflict than you do in other types of maltreatment, which is why you also have a lot more psychological harm.
So don’t let the “physical” part fool you. Physical abuse contains hostility, conflict, aggression, pain, rejection, and lost attachment; all those very things that cause psychological injury. Physical abuse is one of the most direct social injuries a child can receive. It sets off a neural alarm system in the brain, flooding it with Cortisol. As with anything else that results in chronic stress, physical abuse in childhood over time increases the number or cortisone receptors formed in the brain, wiring a child’s neurology for a lifetime of increased stress. (Perry, 1997: McEwen, & Schmeck, 1999) Nor does anything stoke a child’s fears quite like being attacked by a caretaker. So as you might imagine, ongoing or severe physical abuse often results in a variety of stress or anxiety disorders.
Rose and Abramson (1992) suggested that when a negative event occurs, individuals are motivated to understand in causes, meaning, and consequences and to take action to deal with it. When the event is highly threatening or reoccurs, children are especially prone to engage in this epistemic thinking. Thus through repetition of thoughts about the negative event, a more negative cognitive style is formed.
This applies to physical abuse and family conflict more so than it does other types of abuse. Because it is very threatening to a child, and because the nature of such incidents will cause a youngster to dwell on how they provoked the parents’ ire, physical abuse is likely to provoke this destructive style of thinking / dwelling on the event that often destroys self esteem.
How physical abuse damages a child’s self esteem
To a child, being treated bad can be equal to being bad. (Stipeck, 1983) As such, physical abuse is generally accompanied by a whole host of self-esteem problems. Children begin to think of themselves as defective, naughty, bad, undesirable, less adequate, less deserving – overall just someone in a class below everyone else – the kind of someone who would be deserving of such treatment. This nuance has been explained away in a dozen different ways, with outlandish theories and wild ideas about why a child would fault themselves for another’s abusive actions. After all, they’re the victim, how could they not know this? Most assumptions try to blame this on egocentricity in childhood, a flimsy assertion that assumes children believe they are all powerful and can influence every event.
A more plausible explanation is to look to a natural human thought flaw instilled into all of us: It’s human tendency to search for cause & correlation, even when non-existent. (Gilovich, 1991) It’s what has built social dogma the world around. Last year we didn’t sacrifice the chicken and a drought occurred, therefore we must sacrifice a chicken to get rain. I blew on the dice and rolled some lucky numbers, therefore blowing on dice means lucky roles. When someone dies, we don’t assume it was because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when a tornado decided to roll through town, it was “their time to go” or “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” We strive for explanation, we attempt to control our world through prediction, and so we hate the idea that something could be subject to chance or forces beyond our control. Our brains are built to associate cause with effect. It’s a skill that serves us well . . . most of the time.
When a child is physically abused, this default cause and effect reasoning comes into play. Moms and dads don’t just up and hit kids for no reason, (or so the child assumes), therefore I must have deserved it. Even when the child feels completely wronged at the time by the actions and knows they didn’t deserve it, this is the logic that plays out subconsciously over the long-term. It’s the brain’s default reasoning. Everywhere around them, love and desirability is associated with niceness and affection. People don’t hit things that are desirable. People aren’t mean to things they love. They don’t hurt someone who is good and wanted. Unfortunately, real-life can be counterintuitive to this reasoning at times. Although no child deserves to be beaten no matter what they do, adults do lose their temper at times and react in an inappropriate way. Adults do, at times, injure those they love. But without another caring adult around to help the child come to grips with the real reasons for the abuse (mom has a temper problem and has a lot of other things stressing her out right now, and so when you do things that aren’t all that bad and that all kids do she ends up getting way too upset and doing things she shouldn’t do that you don’t deserve) children inevitably end up faulting themselves to one degree or another.
This tendency to blame themselves is made all the worse by the fact that most physical abuse coincides with discipline. It’s usually the result of discipline taken too far or an out-of-control parent administering an overly harsh punishment. Thus the pattern becomes: a child acts up, a parent gets upset and becomes abusive. Because of this, it becomes all but impossible for a child NOT to see physical abuse as a result of their own bad behavior.
The end result of this is usually a catastrophic loss of self-esteem. Children learn to think of themselves as the bad, defective, and undesirable child, the type of child you hit and beat and yell at; the type of child whose mere presence may provoke an attack. This is aided by the fact that children generally don’t have the full capacity to understand that their own parent may simply be flawed or defective themselves, it’s just the opposite. Children have an inbuilt tendency so see their parents as flawless, capable of anything, and they’ll worship everything their parent does.
The affects & consequences of physical abuse
People have two basic responses when attacked: either they withdraw or they lash out. Children are no different. Physical abuse causes many kids to withdraw from their peers and social situations in general, which only piles on the problems. This type of social isolation, if it occurred by itself, would cause enough psychological problems to warrant serious attention. Children who withdraw like this are merely directing all of the anger and hostility inward, burying it within themselves. It’s a situation that is sure to bring about disastrous results.
Because kids are no match against an adult, those whose tendency it is to lash out do so among their peers. Of course, when you lash out at others, it isn’t without consequence. Hostility breeds reciprocal hostility along with resentment, and so there’s a price to pay for both aggressor and aggressee alike. Such kids will become disliked by their peers, which will further their feelings of rejection. They are prone to behavioral problems that get them in trouble with teachers and other adults. As a result, physical abuse is significantly associated with antisocial behavior. (Dodge, Bates & Pettit, 1990)
Among physically abused children, patterns of peer social relatedness becomes characterized by increased aggression and increased withdrawal. (Mueller & Silverman, 1989) Studies have documented aggression toward peers and care givers and abnormal responses to peer distress, including less concern, more physical attacks, and more fear and anger (George & Main, 1979; Main & George, 1985) Erickson, Egeland, and Pianta (1989) documented that mistreated toddlers are significantly angrier, more frustrated, and noncompliant with their caregivers during an experimental interactive paradigm than were non-maltreated toddlers. This can start a reciprocal cycle, in which the child’s increase in detrimental behavior draws more ire, and thus more abuse, from the caregiver.
Hypersensitivity becomes a big problem when children experience repeated physical abuse. Abused children scan for signs of anger more than their non-abused counterparts. They’re more likely to read such anger or hostility in the actions of others even when it isn’t there. They’ll also dwell on such perceived aggression for longer after the provoking event. (Pollak & Tolley-Schell, 2003) As Daniel Goleman (2006) notes, “detecting anger where it does not exist may have crucial benefits for such children. After all, at home they face real danger, so their hypersensitivity makes sense as protective radar. Trouble brews when these children bring that heightened sensitivity with them into the world outside home. Schoolyard bullies (who typically have a history of physical abuse) over interpret maliciousness in others, seeing hostile intent where none exists.” This type of hypersensitivity also affects those children whose inclination is to withdraw. A child who perceives more anger feels more hurt where none was intended. They feel more social pain, more inadequacy. This leads to more withdrawal.
Like all social conflicts, children have a tendency to dwell on such events. Its human nature deeply ingrained as a survival mechanism. When an adult attacks them like this, they’ll tend to spend a lot of time mulling it over in their heads. Imagine getting in a fight with your friend. You don‘t just walk away and easily forget the whole thing ever happened. If you’re like most people, you’ll tend to dwell on such an event for a while to come. It bothers you. When a child is attacked by a caretaker, they’ll tend to dwell on it as well. This means that one attack can bring stress and anxiety for many days. This causes depression.
Chronic physical abuse turns a child’s home into a living hell. The one place that should be their strongest source of attachment and security instead becomes a place they try to avoid at all costs. When you tear out a child’s foundation like this, everything else begins to crumble. Attachment is injured, and a child’s sense of security and belonging becomes non-existent. Play and exploration are inhibited by physical abuse, both of which are crucial to a child’s development and emotional regulations.
Much like hunger, the presence of physical abuse lowers a child’s ability to concentrate and function. It puts children into a constant state of survival mode. This adversely impacts their learning ability and school performance, which is why exposure to violence has been shown to significantly lower IQ. (Delaney-Black, 2002) This cognitive impairment is more than just incidental. Research shows that exposure to violence puts a child’s brain into preservation mode, flooding it with cortisol and inhibiting new neural growth. Connections can even die off. (See our earlier chapter on stress.) In other words, repeated physical abuse damages a child’s brain and can result in severe impediments, even if no specific brain injury occurs during the abuse.
Children suffer a complete loss of control in physical abuse, just as is the case in rape or a forced sexual assault. Children are at the mercy of those big people around them, who are anywhere from 2 to 6 times the size they are. So any type of physical violence or intimidation results in a total loss of control. This is an important element in all forms of abuse. (Refer to our earlier chapter on control.) It’s the element that gives rape virtually all of its destructive energy. Physically abused children feel helpless, scared and frightened. They feel as though they have no control over what someone else does to them. A physical attack is someone harming them without regard for their feelings, and they are powerless to stop it. When repetitive, such situations can breed deep despair and depression.