Most folks with even cursory access to the news are familiar with more obvious variations of child abuse. These include breathtaking accounts of physical abuse, horrific tales of sexual abuse and trafficking, kidnapping and torture, and unlawful restraint in confined spaces by parents and caretakers. Even glaring cases of extreme neglect, such as declined medical care and abandonment in vehicles, often resulting in death, make it to the news and the consciousness of readers. It is a good thing that the worst of these stories are given appropriate attention.
In recognition of April’s Child Abuse Prevention Month, let’s turn our attention to less obvious forms of abuse and neglect, as these also take an enormous and in some ways even more pernicious, toll on humanity. In over 20 years of work as a psychologist I have known a great many who have suffered all manner of abuse and neglect. Some succumbed to the trauma. Some survived and later thrived. All were heroic in one way or another. Their voices and expressions resound in my memory; they tell me that physical wounds heal, that sexual victimization can be overcome, and that the neglected can find nurturance and love. Of all these, the ones that stand out in their pain are those who have been rejected and abandoned by their families and caretakers.
This type of wound, more than any other in my experience, leads more consistently to lasting damage, to serious alterations in psychic architecture which can take a lifetime to modify. To be told, in word or deed, “I don’t love you” or “I don’t want you” or “Go away” is tantamount to murder of the soul, as others have described it before me. And this form of abuse has a thousand manifestations at every stage of development all the way through late adolescence and early adulthood. Obvious abandonments are, well, obvious, as in the literal abandonment of a child to the streets or to the state. But there are many, many variants which occur even while the child is still technically in the home and care of family.
Space prevents me from detailing every manifestation. Suffice it to say that refusal or avoidance of the provision of support to the reasonable physical and emotional needs of children can be heard by them as “I don’t want you.” This is especially true when the caretaker fails to come to the aid of a child, teen or young adult in a moment of crisis. I have witnessed this many times over, and the psychic pain it causes is legion. Some learn to abandon hope as a result, which of course is a literal dead end. The more fortunate learn to find support elsewhere, because somehow they know they are worth it.
In our endeavors then, let’s work to prevent and react to abandonments, large and small, when we see them. In so doing let us also demonstrate in word and deed the inherent value of all humans.