Characteristics of the Abused Child
When we think about children who come from abusive families we generally think about those kids with severe behaviours. These kids are easy to recognize, their behaviour is ‘out of control’, they don’t seem to be able to take charge of their behaviour and are difficult to manage in class.
Teachers who have worked with these kids understand that behind the overt image of being just bad or rebellious is a child who feels extremely vulnerable and dependent on others to ‘look after’ him/her. It’s just that they don’t know how to protect themselves. Although they are difficult they are the easiest to identify and attract or more accurately demand the bulk of resources.
There are two more groups of children who are the victims of abuse but do not present as the ‘classic’ abuse victim. The first of these are a set of kids whose perpetrator has been consistent in the way they abuse their victims. These children will often present as very much in control and not reliant on anyone else. They can be seen as a bit arrogant, that they feel better than others and present as being ‘perfect’.
The difference in the groups is that in the first instance the child has lived in an unpredictable environment, usually associated with parents who either suffer from a major addiction or debilitating mental illness. This means the consequences for their behaviour is never predictable. If, for instance they get into a fight with a neighborhood friend they may receive a thrashing from the parent. Another time they will be congratulated for ‘standing up for themselves’. Another time they will be sent to their room. The point is they never know what they will get from an action they choose. Hence, their belief systems dictates their behaviour, not good enough, no control, bad and useless.
The second group suffer but in the totally opposite way. They always know what will happen and so they do learn a set of behaviours that protect them. They know if dad comes home drunk and they make a noise they will be punished, not sometimes but always. It doesn’t take long for these kids to know what to do to survive. This level of self-control carries over into the classroom and like at home they do not draw attention to themselves.
This is not to say the abuse they suffer is not as damaging, all abuse is damaging and will have the same devastating impact on their sense of self. Because they have to be ‘good or perfect’ they have to be independent they can never take the risk to step out of their cocoon of safety. They know how to please others but have no idea how to please themselves.
Because of this they can go through school pleasing the teachers, their classmates and these kids never draw attention to themselves. Unlike the ‘classic’ child of abuse whose problems are there for all to see this second group will have their breakdowns much later in life when they realize they have been locked into a pattern of behaviour that has robbed them of their life.
The last group of abused kids who fly under the radar are the girls. I believe that more girls are abused than boys yet in all formal settings for students with severe behaviours the boys far outnumber the girls. Look at suspension rates, look at special placements, look at the detention facilities. The male representation is overwhelming.
So why, if abuse is at the core of poor behaviour do girls not at least equal the boys in representation? The short answer is that males act out; the boy will aggressively either destroy the classroom environment with their ‘out of control’ behaviour or actively seek approval or the opportunity to ‘please’. The girls don’t.
The easy answer is that culturally girls have been conditioned to swallow their pain, to do as they are told. This is true but there is a more evolutionary reason. In ‘primitive times’ after humans had generally got control of the other animals the main threat to the tribe was anther tribe. When conflict broke out between the tribes, the males did the fighting and they killed as many of the men as they could and took the women and children as trophies. So to survive, for men it was to fight or flee while woman and children had the best chance of survival if they complied.
So at school we see the majority of girls who have a history of abuse just sitting in class ‘doing as they’re told’ with no idea they could participate in the lesson let alone life.
When we hear about dealing with kids from abused backgrounds we are only focusing on to the first, ‘acting out group’; those other kids who do not draw attention to themselves also miss out on their chance because they don’t ask for help.
Just because these kids do not make us uncomfortable or demand our attention through their dysfunctional behaviour doesn’t mean their lives have not been destroyed by the actions of their perpetrators, they have. It is up to us to provide assistance for these kids and until we do we are only partially addressing the results of childhood abuse.