The first priority of any parent is to protect their child from harm. Yet despite this, many parents do not have a well-rounded or accurate view of precisely what harms children or what creates adverse outcomes. We have feelings based upon what others tell us about things, but few people understand the driving forces behind psychological harm. Most everything you will hear from mainstream media outlets is either incomplete or at least partially wrong, and while certain forms of adversity are dramatized and exaggerated (molestation), other forms of adversity that are equally as damaging or even more harmful are entirely ignored (divorce, family dysfunction, etc.). Furthermore, our labels don’t accurately tell us what is or isn’t harmful from one instance to another. Divorce, for example, can vary widely from case to case, and the degree of harm done depends not on the label we give it but the degree of injurious things present in the situation.
How Children Are Harmed
Harm to children doesn’t just magically happen, nor does it flow out of wild psychoanalytic theories. It occurs because a certain experience or situation contains documentable harmful elements, all of which operate along well-established principles of psychology. Having at least a rudimentary understanding of these mechanisms of injury is a fundamental part of both understanding and minimizing the harm a child may endure when it comes to adverse life events.
Without such an understanding, many parents and caretakers spend an awful lot of time worrying about all the wrong things; or worse yet, they respond in ways that actually create further injury and aggravate any hurt that is already there. They may respond in a way that introduces these elements of injury rather than treating any that might have taken place. Whether you’re talking about divorce or physical abuse, trauma from a car accident or trauma from abduction, there are several primary paths to injury that are responsible for any harm that occurs. This chapter summarizes those various mechanisms of injury. You will not find any harm that comes to a child which does not trace back to one of these causes. We hope that this guide will shed light on how harmful outcomes come about, so that parents and educators can better keep these injuries from occurring.
Ultimately, no matter what the specifics of the situation, we’re all worried about one thing: injury to a child. Yet surprisingly few parents have an adequate or accurate understanding of exactly how that injury takes place. What makes divorce so potentially destructive? Is the trauma of sexual abuse all it’s hyped up to be? Why should slapping a child cause them more injury than a scraped knee, even though the pain experienced may be similar? What are the factors that drive all the negative consequences behind these common means of injury? After all, damage doesn’t “just happen.” There must be a mechanism behind the injury. Just as it takes a significant degree of force to break a child’s arm, even traumatic or unpleasant events don’t necessarily amount to a shred of lasting injury unless there is a mechanism driving the hurt. Understanding the driving forces behind the action is key to understanding the injury…and working to help a child recover from it.
*Note: Many of these subjects are discussed in much greater detail in section 1& 2 of our book: ‘Child Maltreatment: A Cross-Comparison.’
How Conflict Hurts Children
Conflict is the source of almost all psychological harm. Either we endure conflict in the outside world (fighting, arguing, etc.) that leads to social stress and psychological harm, or we endure internal conflict (conflict between our own interests/desires and the constraints placed upon them by the outside world) that leads to harm. Internal conflict can arise when parents burden their child with the wrong messages or beliefs in regard to an event.
Conflict is one of the most toxic things to children. It spikes stress levels, it disturbs them emotionally, and it creates a whole host of adverse symptoms. (GCF 2013) Children have a reasonably high tolerance level for many things, but not conflict. Conflict, especially that which occurs amongst their caretakers or with other prominent people in their lives, can eat a child alive. (Seligman, 1993) Furthermore, recent research has shown that merely witnessing conflict among adults is as damaging to children as someone abusing them directly. (Scheeringa & Zeanah, 1995; Hygge & Ohman, 1978) So it’s important that parents minimize the amount of conflict they are exposed to.
How a Loss of Control Harms Children
Humans have a strong inbuilt desire for control that is present from birth. (Bandura, 1977b; Bandura, 1982) Even infants seek to control their environment by mastering the ability to summon a caretaker’s attention through their cries. As they grow into toddlers, children often find glee in throwing things or pushing down blocks or other items. Such behavior is less about destruction than it is an exercise in control. They are learning to manipulate their environment. Research shows that when humans lose control at any point in their life, they become miserable and depressed, and desperately try to reassert their influence. (Brehm, 1966) This has led psychologists to conclude that the feeling of control, even if it’s only an illusion, is a staple of mental health. (Taylor & Brown, 1988) Even simply being able to anticipate an unpleasant event can minimize its impact. (Arntz et al., 1992)
An example of the control factor in action can be seen when examining rape. It’s usually not the sex-act that makes rape so potentially harmful, though people often assume as much. It’s the complete loss of control and feelings of absolute helplessness that result from it. After all, some couples even enjoy role-playing rape scenarios during their sex, as a way to add excitement. What’s the only difference between this and an actual rape? Feelings of control! During an actual rape, someone is forcing us to do something, taking our control away, holding our life in their hands, making us feel helpless. It is the factor of control that contributes a good deal of the damage inflicted by rape.
Though a child’s dependence and desire for control is much less pronounced than it is for adults, (they’re used to having limited control), it’s still an important element for both security and happiness. When children lose control or predictability in their environment, anxiety and depression levels rise. Panic sets in. Frustration skyrockets. Feelings of helplessness and despair kick in. Feeling like we have an ability to control our environment allows us to function.