A safe and happy childhood is what many of us take for granted. But for some children, their own safety is at risk even at home, where they are victims of physical, emotional and/or sexual abuse. The very people whom they should trust are bringing them pain and fear instead.
I have been working with children and youth for the past 10 years. In recent years my focus had been in helping those being abused or neglected. Some of these children need to be placed temporarily out-of-home until their family home is assessed to be safe for them to return to. It is hard for many children to understand why they must leave the comfort of their own home when it is not their fault.
These children often exhibit behavioural challenges that are largely a cry for help. Many of them do not do well in school. Some may be the bullies in school, or have behavioural issues such as theft, habitual lying or just a stubborn refusal to follow instructions. Some may be painfully reserved, cry easily, or have very poor social skills. Of course, there may be other reasons that cause children to behave in such ways, but often they are the impact of violence on children.
Many children who are physically abused have anger management issues. This can be displayed through biting or hitting others, damaging property, and more. Very often, the rage within them is so great and so easily triggered that it takes multiple lengthy therapy-interventions and loads of love and support before they are able to better manage their emotions.
This is one of the things that pains my heart most when working with these children – they blame themselves. “Perhaps it was my fault…”, “Maybe if I wasn’t so naughty, my daddy would not have done this” - these are some of the commonly held beliefs expressed by the children. I once worked with a child who had been physically abused by his parents, and yet he always showed love and affection towards them. He even expressed that his parents had hit him only because he had lied to them, and claimed that he needed to behave before he could go home. It took time for him to understand that while misbehaviour is not right, hitting a child till there are marks of injury is not right either. He took time to learn that while he worked on his behavioural issues, his parents too needed to learn to manage their own anger better.
Related to blaming themselves, these children grow up confused – is violence really wrong? They tend to normalize violent behaviour and view it as acceptable. After all, they have also grown up learning that violence seems the way to solve problems. They have much to be healed from, as well as much to unlearn and relearn.
Some children were exposed to violence from a very young age, and they become hypervigilant to possible danger. For example, there was a child that was physically abused by her caregiver. When she was around others, even a slight raising of someone’s hand caused her to move away and “hide”, thinking that the person wanted to hit her. Another youth was often screamed at and scolded by her caregiver. Her reflective reactions would be to squat down and cover her ears in fear whenever she heard someone raising his/her voice. Such protective coping mechanisms might be easily misunderstood or viewed by their peers as oversensitive. The actions definitely affect their self-esteem and self-confidence.
For many of these children, the pain of violence inflicted on them is too great for them to face up to. Eventually, they lie their way through, in order to escape the emotional pain. I once worked with a child who told others that his parents were dead. He not only lied about that, but about many other things which was obviously not true, yet he seemed to fully believe in his own assertions, even when exposed. It was sad to see him living in lies. Many children and youth also turn to self-harm, in which they inflict pain on themselves to escape the emotional pain deeply felt within them. Some simply retreat into silence out of fear.
Working with these children requires time to build a strong rapport and relationship, allowing them to build trust. Exposing their lies may not be the best option, especially when they are aware that you actually know the truth. Affirming them in times when they are telling the truth helps build honesty and trust.
How Can We Help?
Be the eyes and ears for these vulnerable children. Abused children may be found anywhere – they may be your neighbours, your students or even a passer-by. If you suspect a child may be abused, the first step would be to call the Child Protection Hotline 1800-777-0000. The officer will advise from there on the next step, depending on the situation.
Be a friend to these children. The extra support, love and care that volunteers bring to these children’s lives are immeasurable. To you it may be a small action, but to the child it can mean so much. Many of these children look forward to visits or outings by their befrienders, and enjoy the simple pleasures of eating ice cream or activities like cycling together. If you have the capacity, you could also apply to be a foster parent, to provide a temporary shelter for these children in need of care and protection (Find out more at https://sg.salvationarmy.org/singapore/gracehaven_fostering). Fostering provides these children with a safe place to reside while issues are being worked out with their natural family, to ensure that they can subsequently return to a home that is safe for them.
Carolyn Tan works as a Manager in Gracehaven Fostering, The Salvation Army. She loves to eat, exercise, and then eat more after exercising. She strongly believes in volunteerism and finds enjoyment in seeing needs met.