Saturday, 26 May 2007

Abuse victims often become abusers

[This article was originally published on page 6 of Pretoria News on May 17, 2007]

NOTE: The title of the article was misleading. Most abuse victims do NOT become abusers. However, the content of the article has useful information on the effects of child abuse.

A United State psychiatrist has compared child abuse to oppression, saying that when people are abused, they can turn into abusers.

Using South Africa as an example, Dr Bessel van der Kolk, said those who are oppressed could become oppressors.

Van der Kolk was speaking about the effects of childhood trauma on the general functioning of children during the eighth annual conference of the South African Professional Society on the Abuse of Children underway in Pretoria.

Most cases of alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide attempts can be prevented if a child is kept safe from abuse.

Van der Kolk said people who were not subjected to abuse as children were less likely to suffer major emotional problems later on in life.

"When we resolve a childhood trauma, we often resolve the depression," Van der Kolk said.

According to him trauma has a lot to do with the victim's sense of being alone.

Traumatised children hate weakness, especially in themselves, he said, and often traumatised youngsters would behave violently towards other children. People hurt other people because they themselves were hurt, Van der Kolk said.

He also emphasised the importance of social support. If a child felt safe, he or she could start talking about, and dealing with, his or her trauma.

In cases where a mother tried to defend the child before he or she was abused - by, for example, going to the police - the victim would usually do "okay".

"But what we are seeing more and more often in townships are a lot of desperate and frightened women depending on an abusive boyfriend to support her and her child. She is too scared to take action against this boyfriend.

"This child is not protected before or after abuse. Such a child does very badly," Van der Kolk said.

A child who received the necessary support after a trauma would not continue reliving the fears associated with their experience.

Their ability to imagine how things can be different and better is very important in the healing process, Van der Kolk said.

"However, one must first acknowledge the child's reactions to the trauma and explain that his experience of fear makes sense," he said.

He added that physically abused children were usually less psychologically "damaged" than sexually abused children.

This was because sexual abuse created confusion, especially about love, pain, pleasure and guilt.

"A traumatised child feels defenceless. We have to make the kid feel good before we can plunge into the darkness of his or her trauma," he said.

- Hanti Otto

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