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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, March 27 2023

Patterns of Abuse and Their Consequences


In our recent Newsletters we are building a picture of how early childhood abuse and trauma influences the behaviour of the victims, in our work focussing on the classroom.  Children who experience abuse can be subjected to a range of different types and patterns of abuse. Two patterns that can have distinct impacts on a child's development, behaviour, and mental health are consistent abuse and unpredictable abuse.  The difference will determine how the child deals with future stressful interactions.

Although it's important to understand that each individual responds to trauma differently, depending on a person's personality, experiences, and support system.  When a child is raised in an environment where the abuse is predictable that is, there is a repetitive pattern, the child can develop a strong protective response that minimises the impact of that abuse.  These children will bring that response into the classroom.

One example that stays with me was during my time coaching junior teams.  I remember a small, immature child who I could see was afraid of the physical contact expected in the sport.  Every time he hesitated to make a tackle or missed his opponent his father would consistently berate him or show his displeasure.  To avoid this rejection the child threw himself into collisions that would physically hurt but the resulting pain was not as worrisome as that rejection.  That child presents to the class as a tough kid a behaviour that hides his true temperament. As an aside, we understand that to build behaviours we need repetition and these children have learned behaviours that are ‘functioning’ in their abusive environment.

On the other hand, unpredictable abuse occurs when a child is subjected to a range of assaults or when it occurs randomly or intermittently.  The uncertainty and unpredictability in the child's life doesn’t allow them to develop protective behaviour.  Each episode is different and so the child does not have the repetition to create the behaviours.

The resulting inability to predict what will happen develops a sense of hopelessness in these children, that they have no control over their life and so their behaviour becomes erratic with no apparent purpose especially in times of stress.

Examining the responses to the predictability, or lack of helps us understand what drives the student’s behaviour in class.  The difference between these two extremes of response to abuse can be illustrated by examining how they relate to the following five particular characteristics.  On the left side we examine those children raised in unpredictive families and the right predictive.        


 The children from unpredictable environments feel:

  • Less Than – These kids, through their sense of worthlessness and shame never feel they are really entitled to have their fair share of life.  When they are rejected, or by-passed, their response is not to stand up for their rights but say what they think ‘it doesn’t matter’ because they think they don’t matter.
  • Vulnerable – They are unprotected from future abuse and they lack the assertive capacity to get their own needs met.
  • Bad/Rebellious – Remember it is their sense of self that shapes their reality and because they have felt their abuse was deserved, they believe they are basically were ‘bad’.  Then, in some act of defiance they confirm this opinion by their actions; it’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy – ‘so you think I’m bad well I’ll just show you how bad I am’!
  • Dependent – Because they have no sense of competency, no belief they can do anything properly, kids with no protective behaviours they depend on others to make decisions for them. 
  • Out of Control – These kids have no concept of being in control of their life. How could they when they have never experienced consistent consequences for their attempts to protect them self.  When they make decisions, they have no prior knowledge about what will happen and so they make their ‘best guess’. 

These ‘out of control’ kids are easy to recognise, in fact they demand our attention.  They will act impulsively and with dysfunctional behaviours that were functional in their childhood homes.

At the other end of the spectrum are the children who have been abused in a more consistent manner.  They display the following characteristics:

  • Better Than – Because they had to be just what their parent wanted they learned that they could have a deal of power over the situation in which they found themselves.   Getting the decision on how to act was important, it had to be ‘just right’ to survive. 
  • Invulnerable – These kids become very self-reliant, they don’t let anyone get close enough to find out how they really feel. This being locked in makes them appear and feel invulnerable but the cost is isolation.  Regrettably, this emphasis on preventing authentic contact with others limits opportunities to get their own needs met. 
  • Good/Perfect – Much the same as ‘Better Than’ this characteristic is also a result of the earlier need to make no ‘mistakes’ when dealing with their abuser.  This reliance on perfection is their defence from being punished and they are well aware of how to avoid this. 
  • Independent – Because they have been raised in an atmosphere of having things done to them and because there was no one to support them when they were being abused these kids don’t really feel they can trust others and so they never risked depending on another person.
  • Total Control – It is no surprise that these kids don’t take risks, it is too dangerous if you make a mistake.  The tragedy is that the behaviours they use to ‘control’ their environment are the ones they learned in a dysfunctional environment; to try new behaviours is too dangerous and so they control what they can and ignore anything else!  

It is obvious from the descriptions above those kids who have been raised in unpredictive, abusive environments are easy to identify and our classic response of structured, predictable and consistent approach helps deal with them.  The kids who are damaged but in a predictable way will be at home in that environment and this is where the relationship component is decisive.  Only through getting to understand all the kids, not just the ones that demand your attention will you be able to help them become integrated members of the classroom. 


Remember none of us are:

  • Less Than or Better Than – we are unique and there is no point in comparing our worth!
  • We all live through times when we are vulnerable and there are times we have to risk being vulnerable.  All we can do is the best we can knowing that life will do things to all of us!
  • Bad/Rebellious or Good/Perfect – Of course, no one is perfect, this is an impossible ambition and there might be some reward in being a bit cheeky and rebellious, it means you are human.
  • We live in communities and so it is really impossible to be totally independent however, it would be a mistake to be totally dependent.  There are times when you will need to behave in ways that are near these extremes to either protect yourself or get your needs met but you need to be informed about the possible consequences before you make those decisions
  • Just like dependence, you are never in control of the environment and so you can never be totally in control.  The purpose of behaviour is to provide you with defence against assaults or the ability to acquire something from the environment that will nourish you.  Education is learning this level of control!

Regardless of the type of abuse experienced, the strategies outlined above are applicable.  


Posted by: AT 06:45 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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