Survivors of child abuse come in all shapes and sizes. From the rebellious teen with multiple piercings to the tiny, happy toddler who looks like he doesn’t have a care in the world. However invisible the outside scars are, the inner scarring is not as easy to overlook. Abuse takes many forms as wall. There is emotional, physical, and verbal abuse to watch out for along with many more. Any form of abuse can cause issues in childhood that can affect the way a child responds to others and functions in the world even as an adult. However once the child has escaped from his or her abuser that does not mean the problem is solved and they are miraculously healed. Healing from abuse takes time and a lot of support. What can you do to help an abused child to heal and become whole once more? Here are some ideas:
- Stay Calm – One thing that you can do unintentionally to hurt an abused child is to get angry or upset. If you think about it, this is not hard to understand. In the past children of abuse have seen that anger and any strong emotion can cause pain for them. Even something as simple as an exclamation of pain when you hit your toe on the table or a cry of delight at a new gift can cause them to flinch, pull away or worse. With that in mind, you need to gain control over your responses. Modulate your voice to stay calm and quiet no matter what is going on. It can be hard for those of us with more boisterous personalities to quell the urge to be as vigorous in our expression as we are used to, but if you think about how your action can scare the child it will help you to learn to stay calm and quiet.
- Be Stable – Likewise, you should be stable not only in your voice and noise level but in your emotional and facial responses as well. Instability is often a sign of danger for children of abuse. If you can maintain the same look and feel of loving understanding not matter what happens that can go a long way towards gaining their trust and helping them to heal. It can be hard to not get upset if the child makes a mistake, like spilling a drink or breaking a dish, but if you keep in mind that they are more important to you than the object that is broken then you will have the ability to keep your cool. Staying stable and loving with the kids not matter how they react to you is another big deal. Many abused children act out because they are trying to protect themselves. After all, if they hurt you before you get a chance to hurt them then they win, right? Keeping your cool can be hard when a child is screaming at you or saying nasty things to you, but if you can have a grown up attitude about it and understand the root of the problem then it is much easier to take.
- No Blame – Speaking of breaking or spilling things, mistakes do happen. The important part that you need to keep in mind is that the child knows when they have made a mistake. In fact, they may see mistakes in almost everything they do. This can lead to poor self-esteem, anger and resentment towards you even if you have never blamed them for anything. This is because they are expecting to be blamed. Abusers frequently blame the children for causing them to abuse them. It is the children’s ‘mistakes’ that make the abuser angry enough to hit or scream or whatever. Although as an adult you now that is not reasonable. Children often take the blame on themselves for their abuse. The last thing you want to do is add to this flawed thinking. That is why it is important that you not blame a child for making a mistake nor correct them too harshly. You can correct them, don’t get me wrong, but do it in a loving way that shows them you are trying to help them and you are not mad at them or blame them for it.
- Respect Their Space – Respect is a big thing to an abused child. They are used to having their personal space invaded in a very violent manner. In order to gain their trust you need to respect their space. Do not touch them, even in a loving way, without their permission. Give them a safe space of their own. This can be their bedroom, a reading nook, a tree house, or wherever they feel comfortable. Respect their space by not entering it without permission, even to clean or pick up. By showing that you are not aggressively taking over you can help them to eventually invite you in on their own.
- Be Gentle – As another form of respect, you should be gentle when talking to them. This means no pushing into their mental space. Different children deal with issues in different ways. While one child loves to talk another one prefers to think silently. This does not make one child better or healthier than the other. In order to help a child of abuse you may think you need to get them to talk about it. But forcing them to talk when they are not comfortable is just another form of abuse. Think about it, sometimes talking about a bad experience is just as, or even more, hurtful than the experience itself. Is it any wonder they would rather keep it inside? While you should let them know you are open to talking with them whenever they would like, try not to push them to talk until they are ready.
- Take No for an Answer – Many children of abuse have never learned how to say no. Whenever they have objected to a situation they have been overrun or even abused for their refusal. Change that pattern by accepting no as an answer, even when you do not understand it. If you ask the child to do something fun and they say no do not get upset or demand an explanation. Just acknowledged their right to refuse and move on. You may find that they will change their minds when they see that you respect their answer without complaint or criticism. Saying no about personal touch or entering a safe space should be respected so the child can learn to trust you and themselves.
- Be Observant – Keep in mind that the ‘no’ can be implied or nonverbal. Like I mentioned, many abused children have a hard time saying no to things they are not comfortable with. This means you need to be observant about their behaviors, body language, and expression as well as their words. If a child flinches or shies away from your touch that means no. If a child’s expression grows blank or looks scared that also means no. Being able to read positive and negative reactions in a non-verbal way is an important part of dealing with abused children. They might not even know they are uncomfortable with something because they have had their choices taken away for so long. Do not assume a child of abuse will ‘be honest’ or tell you what they are feeling. Honestly and verbal expression is a learned behavior in a safe environment and that is something the abused children have not had. They will have to learn to not only say no but to recognize within themselves when they want to say no. In the meantime you should be observant and take the on-verbal cues to help them on their path to confidence and trust.
- Help Them Find Professional Help – There is no level of abuse that requires professional help. The child did not have to suffer through X number of days or be hit X number of times to have issues that require professional help. In fact, even what we as adults would consider minor can be a huge and horrific trauma to a child. That is why it is so vital that the children get professional help in dealing with their trauma. No matter how much we love them if we are not trained to help them then we need to get them to someone who is. A professional can work with them to express their pain in safe and healthy ways, cope with their memories and move on the better futures. You can help them find the help they need by doing research, taking them to meet with therapists and asking them how comfortable they feel with each person. Once you find a good fit you will both benefit.
- Be Open – Last but not least, be open with the child. This can mean that you share your own struggles in life or just that you do not panic when they share theirs. It can be hard to hear about the abuse of someone you love but if you want them to share with you then you need to be open. Be careful not to ask questions that could imply the abuse was avoidable or their fault. If they could have done things differently than they would have, I am sure. What is done is done. Now what you need to do is listen without judgment or reproach. Listening is love is one of the biggest things you can do for an abused child to help them heal and trust once again.
Keep in mind that the abused child will have good days and bad days, just like we all do. Do not panic during the bad days or think that the good days will last forever. Healing is a gradual process that takes a great deal of time. You can help them on the road to becoming a healthy, stable adult by gaining their trust, allowing them their space, and respecting their wishes.
Rachel is an ex-babysitting pro as well as a professional writer and blogger. She is a graduate from Iowa State University and currently writes for www.babysitting.net. She welcomes questions/comments which can be sent to rachelthomas.author @ gmail.com.
Thank you Rachel for your informative thoughts and expertise. We appreciate your knowledge and contributions and look forward to your next guest post on our blog!