By Amanda Adams
Caring for the Suffering—The Effects of Abuse on Children
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18
On my second day of working at the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi, I went to a training session on mandated reporting and what signs of abuse look like. Not just the obvious physical signs, but also the behavioral and emotional signs. One of the trainers gave an illustration of a child wearing an imaginary backpack filled with balloons. Each balloon represented the “things” a child may be carrying with them to school each day—academic concerns, witnessing domestic violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. She spoke about how you never know what emotions or experiences a child is bringing to school in his/her backpack on any given day. It was a poignant reminder that children who have been abused have to juggle heavy emotions without having fully developed coping skills.
After working with children for over 16 years, I know that when a child suddenly acts out of character, there is a reason. It may just be typical reasons like being tired, a change in routine, or being hungry that cause changes; however, for children who are suffering, or have suffered from abuse or neglect, the reasons they are acting differently and the emotions that they are carrying in their backpacks are anything but typical.
Children think and learn concretely. They learn from the experiences they have. When they are nurtured and loved, children feel safe, secure, and develop trust. The way children are treated has a direct effect on how they see and value themselves. Children need encouragement, love, and guidance to develop their self-worth, to build their confidence, and to feed their spirit.
Unfortunately, traumatic experiences also feed their spirits and the damage is detrimental. Trauma changes the brain. It changes how a child thinks, learns, and processes. Abuse and neglect can violate every part of a child—mind, soul and body. It wounds the spirit and leaves its mark for a lifetime.
Because children have different personalities and coping skills, they do not all react to abuse in the same way. The child’s age at the time of abuse, the relationship to the perpetrator, the extent of the abuse, the timeline of how long the abuse lasted, and other factors all play a role in the damage that is done. In some cases, if the child discloses the abuse or if it is exposed, support from a loving adult(s) could minimize the damage. However, many victims suffer emotional scarring. How the church community treats victims of abuse is critical to their spiritual health.
Jesus was no stranger to suffering and humiliation. Trusted friends betrayed him, believers abandoned him, he was mocked and abused, and was crucified. Many abused children experience the same feelings of betrayal, humiliation, and abandonment. There can be many impacts of abuse—anger towards God, guilt, despair, depression, anxiety, and loss of trust are just a few.
You can’t have healing without hope. As Christians, we find our hope in God. Some research suggests that many children cannot begin to heal from abuse unless they first heal their spirit. Many survivors of abuse have to rebuild their faith in God, or start from scratch. There is no “quick fix” when taking the steps to heal from abuse. Trauma of this kind requires specialized treatment. It is not a fast process. It requires time, patience and professionals who are trained to listen to fear, anger and grief. The church may not have all the answers but modeling the love of Christ while listening and guiding survivors is a great start. The church can be a place of great healing.
It is my hope that all churches and religious organizations will become educated on the signs of abuse and begin to understand the impact of trauma on children. By preparing and putting policies in place, they will be sending the message to children, and their families, that they are important and valued.
In May, Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi will host 2 free sessions of Chaplains for Children—Tupelo, May 16 & 17 and Flowood, May 18 & 19. A third session will be held in Gulfport on July 13 & 14. We are asking clergy, chaplains, youth ministers, faith leaders, counselors and other members of faith communities to attend. This course will prepare attendees to recognize and respond to cases of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. We will discuss the prevalence of child abuse, the impact of abuse on spirituality, the interest offenders have in churches, and will offer suggestions for working to assist a child in coping with maltreatment. The training will also discuss ideal child protection policies for a faith-based institution, including handling a situation in which a convicted sex offender seeks to join a congregation. For more information, please visit childadvocacyms.org/events. Please encourage your faith leaders to attend and find out if your church has policies in place to protect children. Join us in being a part of the solution.
Children’s Advocacy Centers of Mississippi is an accredited chapter of the National Children’s Alliance. As a membership organization with 11 Advocacy Centers throughout the state, we bring together multidisciplinary teams to streamline the process of child abuse situations. Our goal is always to put the needs of the child first, and we bring all services under one umbrella. By bringing together many disciplines, including law enforcement, child protection, prosecution, mental and/or medical health, victim advocacy and child advocacy, we work together to conduct interviews and make team decisions about investigation, treatment, management and prosecution of child abuse cases.
Amanda Adams is the Special Projects Director for the Children’s Advocacy Centers of MS. For more info, go to www.childadvocacyms.org.