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Developmental Psychology Child abuse

“Child abuse is an abuse of power over a child by an adult or another child which disadvantages the child and to which the child cannot give informed consent. It can occur in the form of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, neglect, significant harm or grave concern”. (Berk, L.E, 2007) Day in and day out, children all over the world face situations like the ones described above. Whether such experiences crush or strengthen an individual child depends, in part, on his or her resilience. Resilience is important because it is the human capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by or even transformed by the adversities of life. Everyone faces adversities; no one is exempt. With resilience, children can triumph over trauma; without it, trauma triumphs. The crises children face both within their families and in their communities can overwhelm them. While outside help is essential in times of trouble, it is insufficient. Along with food and shelter, children need love and trust, hope and autonomy. Along with safe havens, they need safe relationships that can foster friendships and commitment. They need the loving support and self-confidence, the faith in themselves and their world, all of which builds resilience. How parents and other caregivers respond to situations, and how they help a child to respond, separates those adults who promote resilience in their children from those who destroy resilience or send confusing messages that both promote and inhibit resilience. Children facing such situations often feel lonely, fearful, and vulnerable. These feelings are less overwhelming for children who have the skills, attitudes, beliefs, and resources of resilience. In this essay I hope to discuss in more detail factors such as individual characteristics of the child, relationships and cultural factors which help a child survive experiences, especially child abuse.

From a very early age, children’s personalities and individual characteristics can be identified. As well as this, we can see children’s social cognition developing, as they begin to understand themselves, other people and how the relationships with people can change over time. As the child’s social cognition develops, the child also develops their self-esteem, from early childhood, right through to adolescence. It is a child’s self-esteem that can protect a child and help them survive experiences of child abuse. For most young people, becoming an adolescent brings feelings of pride and self-confidence. These feelings are often associated with positive adjustments in their lives i.e. school and peer groups. Their strong characteristics and ways of thinking during these years are crucial in terms of the effects child abuse can have on them. Many factors from the outside world can help build a child’s personality characteristics and ways of thinking. One factor would be the child’s home life; studies have shown that children, who come from a loving, warm and acceptable background, where parent’s expectations of them are reasonable, show high levels of self esteem and confidence. In school, teacher’s expectations of children can also affect how they deal with certain problems and situations along with their self-esteem and achievement motivation. During middle school, children begin to distinguish ability, effort and external factors in attributions for success and failure. Children with learned helplessness attribute their success to external factors such as luck, and failures to low ability. It is these attributes that distinguishes how a child can deal with abuse, bullying and other problems. Children who experience constant negative feedback are pressurised to perform and reach certain unattainable goals and lack support from parents, teachers etc, are likely to develop learned helplessness. Therefore, if this child becomes the victim of child abuse or bullying, often they blame themselves and fail to seek help. Attribution retraining which helps learned helpless children overcome failure is vital to help children triumph after negative experiences in their lives e.g. child abuse.

According to the I.S.P.C.C, we must always listen to the child and adapt a child centred approach. “It is every child’s right to have a safe passage through childhood and it is every child’s right to grow in health and safety free from intimidation, violence or degradation” (I.S.P.C.C mission statement) It is a parents’ responsibility to the child that the above statement is implemented. In Ireland today there are many types of families, from large to small, one-child families, blended families, single parent, gay and lesbian families, however it is the relationship within these families that count. All of these have various types of families have varying parenting styles; however studies have shown that authoritative style of parenting is optimum for child development and helping them deal with experiences I.e. child abuse. It is within the family structure that children first experience social conflicts. Children also learn the language, skills and social and moral values to help them in life. A good family unit and capable parenting practices are essential for a child’s stability. If a child is being abused, it is essential for them to know that they can talk to their families without being judged, and will receive the help and support they need while fostering in each child a sense of commitment and purpose which may be diminished through abuse. The authorative style of parenting is seen as optimum for child development and developing child resilience. Parents who use this style of parenting are warm, caring, responsive, attentive, patient, and sensitive to the child’s needs. They make reasonable demands for maturity, and consistently enforce and explain them. They permit the child to make decisions in accordance with readiness, encourage the child to express thoughts, feelings and desires and when disagreements occur between the child and parent, they engage in joint decision making. (……..) The child is well cared for and protected and therefore is better equipped to overcome negative experiences in their lives. I.e. child abuse. Symptoms or sign of child abuse are more likely to be identified by the parents who employ the authoritative child rearing style, symptoms such as secrecy, fear, guilt, powerless and mistrust. The number of adults in a household can also affect how a child will deal with certain situations. These two parent families are often more financially stable giving the child a better quality of life than one parent families and reducing the risk factors a child has to face. Along with parenting styles and family systems, lower social class, disadvantage and poverty are associated with risk factors for children. Children from such backgrounds have less support, guidance and are often vulnerable and exposed to abuse of some form. The counterbalance to risk is the concept of resilience. All of what I have mentioned so far helps strengthen or weaken a child’s resilience to overcome experiences. I.e. child abuse. “The more levels of risk a child is exposed to the greater their overall risk” (Greenberg et al, 2001) Therefore we should keep in mind the child centeredness approach to reduce these risks and help strengthen a child’s resilience. Along with individual characteristics, family and parental structures, school is an important factor in promoting resilience. A warm caring relationship with peers and teachers in school, the existence of high expectations and the opportunity to participate and take responsibility in the school environment will benefit a child overcome negative experiences. Cultural factors can also support children. The FSCEP project demonstrates ways in which schools, families and communities can work together to support children. The building of trust within these communities and for the child is essential. If a child is being abused, they will always have someone with whom they trust and can confide in. Werner’s and Smiths (1989) study found that among the most frequently encountered positive role models in the lives of resilient children, outside the family circle, was a favourite teacher. (……) These teachers acted as a positive model for personal identification and gave youth the motivation for wanting to succeed. High expectations by teachers and schools show high rates of academic success in students, lower rates of behavioural problems and students begin to believe in themselves, therefore strengthening resilience. “Research shows that when schools are places where the basic human needs for support, respect and belonging are met, motivation for learning is fostered. Reciprocal caring, respectful and participatory relationships are the critical determining factors in whether student learns, whether parents become and stay involved in the school, whether a program or strategy is effective, whether an education is sustained, and ultimately, whether a youth feels he or she has a place in society”. (Bernard. B, 1995) These schools can act as a “protective shield” for students and a beacon of light for youth from troubled homes, impoverished communities and those suffering the effects of chid abuse.

Overall, as preventionists to any form of child abuse, we must foster a child’s development and help reduce the risk factors a child is exposed to, to help them survive experiences such as abuse. As once quoted “There is no better antidote for resilience in children than their belief that the world is a positive place, and that they can accomplish what they want, and gain satisfaction from life” (Bernard. B, 1995)

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