Making the decision to divorce is one of the toughest decisions people face in life. Even when people are in abusive situations the decision to divorce does not come easy. Divorce requires a lot of planning. The person who leads the divorce march must accurately project future circumstances like financial security for the duration of the divorce, future living arrangements, assess current living risks, understand the impact the divorce news will have on the other party, the best scenario possible for your children and anticipate the emotional roller coaster that will ensue from divorce kick-off to divorce closure. To be real, very few people cover all the bases and at times the emotional roller coaster can get derailed. A derailed emotional roller coaster during a divorce is problematic for the children and puts your children at risk for abuse by you, by your estranged spouse, siblings or even from predators that seek children who are feeling lonely, unwanted, etc.
The first step in preventing this abuse from occurring is knowing and understanding the distinct types of abuse.
1. Emotional/Psychological Abuse
2. Physical Abuse
3. Sexual Abuse
4. Neglectful Abuse
5. Sexually Exploited Abuse
In some relationships, elements of these may already be present on a surface level – abuse is occurring, but not occurring enough to be identified as a problem or occurring only behind closed doors so no one really has any insight about the issues other than the people directly involved. It’s terrible to think that children are exposed to this behavior at all, but the fact of the matter is child protective agencies receive millions of reports a year in the United States, a report of child abuse is made every 10 seconds.
What is Emotional Abuse?
It is the most difficult abuse to detect, especially by the parties engaged in it. According to the book, Understanding Child Abuse & Neglect by Cynthia Crosson-Tower there is a distinct pattern of psychically destructive behavior which includes: rejecting, isolating, ignoring, terrorizing and corrupting. As you read this you may have some shocking realizations that this has happened to you in your life, your family or your marriage. When a parent rejects a child they do so by dismissing the child’s worth or minimizing the child’s needs. For example, never feeling “good enough” to be loved by the parent would be considered rejecting. When a parent limits the child’s social engagements, outside communication and makes the child solely dependent on them this would be considered isolating. When the parent plops their child in front of a television/phone/tablet all day as the babysitter, does not interact with the child, does not teach the child and stunts the intellectual development of a child this would be considered ignoring. Constant berating, verbal assaults, creating a climate of fear and making the child believe the world is out to get them would be terrorizing and finally, an example of corrupting – the adult encourages damaging behavior such as watching violence or witnessing a drug deal.
Children that experience emotional abuse grow up to be adults that have difficulty recognizing or correctly identifying the emotions in others and have trust issues.
Emotional/psychological abuse is probably the most prevalent in families and especially families of divorce. Children that experience emotional abuse grow up to be adults that have difficulty recognizing or correctly identifying the emotions in others and have trust issues. The idea of empathic deficiency comes from this article, “Linkages between Childhood Emotional Abuse & marital satisfaction: The mediating role of empathic accuracy for hostile emotions” from the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. This can also explain why some people more readily divorce than others.
What is Physical Abuse?
This is any type of physical hurt inflicted on another; however, it does not include the form of discipline like spanking. If spanking leads to bruising, the spanking goes beyond discipline and can fall into the physical abuse category. The medical community identifies physical abuse as battered child syndrome (BCS). Physical abuse can be prevalent in a divorce, because the stress can lead to learned coping strategies like indulging in alcohol which increases the likelihood of abuse. Some family and friends may not be able to handle the separation and could disassociate themselves with the divorcing parties, making the divorcing parents feel even more isolated during the most stressful time they have ever experienced in life. If people have less reliable relationships for support, the stress can boil over onto the children. Additionally, if the couple goes through the court process with attorneys there is an additional financial strain on the relationship which also adds fuel to the already smoldering fire. The dynamics of each person should be considered as well. If either spouse has abuse in their background (it could be unknown by both parties – the brain blocks bad memories); this increases the chances of abuse as well. If you were raised in a military family, especially if one parent was deployed or served during wartime; there could be abuse in your history. Take note: having children can be a trigger for you if you have abuse in your history. Anyone can identify the behavior warning signs of abuse. If you see children that exhibit certain behavior it could indicate they have been exposed to an abusive situation. Babies could have a shrill cry or do not cry at all. Young children show no expectation of being consoled. Children end up having a low self-esteem and very little confidence in their own abilities. Some children can start regressing by wetting the bed, using baby talk and sucking on fingers. Other children could have stuttering or speech problems, ADHD/ADD or general acting out.
What is Sexual Abuse?
Any sexual violence, exposing any sexual act to children (this includes inappropriate touching, seducing, precarious situations, testing the child’s boundaries, showing images, etc.). There are two types of sexual abuse intrafamilial abuse and extrafamilial abuse. Concerning child abuse, intrafamilial (incest between members in the nuclear family) abuse is much more common than extrafamilial (non-family members) abuse. Over 90% of the time the abuser is someone the child knows (Crosson-Tower, 2014, p. 115). When there is incest in a family it does not automatically make the perpetrator a pedophile. There’s also some theories of covert incest where there is no touching involved.
What perpetrators fail to realize is that there are consequences beyond a court of law for their actions.
When there are marital problems and the spouse is no longer fulfilling the needs of the other spouse or one spouse rejects the other, some people turn to their children for comfort as a coping mechanism. What perpetrators fail to realize is that there are consequences beyond a court of law for their actions. Mia Fontaine from the Atlantic put it this way, “Incest is the single biggest commonality between drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, teenage and adult prostitution, criminal activity, and eating disorders. Abused youths don’t go quietly into the night. They grow up—and 18 isn’t a restart button.” Divorce triggers feelings of rejection, loneliness and loss; be sure to teach your children what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, because they will not be under your supervision while they spend time in another household and divorce by nature is a stressor that triggers people to act out of character.
What is Neglectful Abuse?
Neglect is an act of omission. When a child is neglected physically it could be as simple as sleeping instead of giving the child dinner. Another example, if there is more than one child in the household, parents may often lean on the older children to perform their parental duties such as feeding the children, bathing the children and nurturing the younger children (this is called parentification); because the divorce situation becomes too much for them to handle the responsibility. Divorce is notorious for causing depression and if there are young children involved depression can occur very easily in both parents; because the mother is recovering from giving birth. If the mother is not treated for postpartum depression, the depression can last much longer and could be described as continued postpartum distress. This scenario sets the stage for neglect. Medical Neglect can occur as well if the parents fail to get medical help when the child needs it (this does not include missing immunizations or well child care visits). Neglect can happen in mature families as well. Families with older children may take their older children’s independence for granted and forget they need to be extra attentive during a divorce not the latter which falls under Emotional Neglect. If anyone decides to keep the children from school for an extended period of time or fails to notice their children’s absence from school – that’s Educational Neglect. Ask friends and family for help and support if you are in this phase of life.
What is Sexually Exploited Abuse?
People are tricked to believe they are in a mutually loving relationship and the relationship gradually progresses beyond their control and they are coerced to perform sexual acts in exchange for money. Single parent or divorced households struggle financially and under stress some people resort to doing things out of character to cope with their situation. Rebekah’s story is a good example.
Divorce may seem to be an effortless way to cut ties with your spouse, but be very careful you do not put your children in harm’s way during the process. Your children could be at risk for Emotional/Psychological Abuse, Physical Abuse, Sexual Abuse, Neglectful Abuse and Sexually Exploited Abuse. Divorce changes a person to their very inner core. Divorce is a refining fire. For some that means the heat will uncover strengths the person did not know they had, make them a better parent than they were before and allow them to self-reflect on their mistakes so they are not repeated in the future; however for others it will send them on a downward spiral and possibly change them for the worst (there are always those middle ground people too, that continue with life maintaining status quo unchanged). If attorneys are involved in the divorce, the attorney will reflect the person they represent in most cases. Unfortunately, just like anything in this world the tools of law can be used to help or hurt a situation be sure to think before you act with any request for order or paperwork filed, because whatever you do you are indirectly affecting your children for the good or for the bad.
If you suspect a child is being abused please call the National Child Abuse Hotline 1-800-4-A-Child, you can report anonymously and you could save a life.