During the course of this pandemic year we have all experienced a range of emotions and feelings due to its effects on our lives, and the lives of loved ones.
As I reflect on these many common emotions and experiences, I have come to realize how they are similar to those who experience child abuse. By relating the child abuse experience to our common experience of the pandemic, we may shed some light on what these children must endure. However, it is important to note that the intensity, severity and duration of these emotions and experiences are not equal.
Powerlessness and loss of control
In many ways the pandemic has taken away our control over our daily lives, and with that our sense of power. Many of us lost our ability to work, and with it our sense of financial stability.
We also lost our sense of freedom to do the things we would normally enjoy. Daily routines and schedules can be often and quickly disrupted because of a COVID concern at your child’s school or your work; maybe you now have to take care of loved one with COVID or perhaps you contracted it yourself. All normalcy of routines and expectations can no longer be counted on; factors outside of ourselves now seem to have more control over our lives than we do.
This can also be said for a child who is being abused. The abuser has taken control of their life. Children do not know and often cannot predict when the abuse will happen. Children can live from day-to-day and sometimes moment-to-moment wondering when and if the abuser will next harm them.
Another potential way the abuser takes the child’s power from them is by instilling fear in the child. This fear may come from threats of harm to the child themselves or to someone the child loves and cares about.
Another area the child may feel a loss of control is over their emotional state. The abuse often produces strong emotions that a child does not understand or know how to handle. They may feel completely out of control, or that these emotions are taking over their life. With this they may stop enjoying or participating in activities they used to look forward to, and feel a sense of hopelessness that their abuse will never end.
Isolation and loneliness
Another profound effect of the pandemic has been isolation and feelings of loneliness. We have not been able to gather, visit with or hug loved ones like we used to. This has meant we have had to watch weddings via Zoom, we could not be there for someone who felt ill, we could not hold a brand new family member born into this world, and we could not mourn together when someone dies. Our ability to reach out and feel connected has been lost in many ways.
Victims of child abuse also feel as though they do not have the ability to reach out, and they can feel an overwhelming sense of isolation. Often children feel that if they speak out they will not be believed, or will get in trouble and/or that they may get someone else in trouble.
Many children experiencing abuse can be made to feel that the abuse is their fault; unfortunately, self-blame and shame are common feelings for these children. This sense of shame, self-blame and fear makes them want to keep the abuse to themselves.
Sadly, these children are walking around carrying this heavy burden of these horrific events, and feeling as though there is no way they can talk about it — that it is something they have to deal with alone and be subjected to without any power to stop it, and it being a secret they must keep.
We all want this pandemic to be behind us, and there are signs of hope that things may get back to “normal” soon. We are all holding onto this hope that our lives will be void of the fear and sense of lack of control over our own lives we yearn for every day.
We need to give victims of child abuse this same hope, that things can and will get better. For those of you with children in your life, talk to them about child abuse early and often. In a child-friendly way you can talk about the different types of abuse, and let them know that it is never a child’s fault when abuse happens to them. Let them know that you will always believe them if they were to tell you about someone harming them.
If you know of or suspect that a child is being abused, please report what you know to the Maine Office of Child and Family Services at 1-800-452-1999 so that the child may get the help they need and deserve.
Jen Duffy is a forensic interviewer with the Children’s Advocacy Center of Androscoggin, Franklin, Oxford Counties — a program of Auburn-based Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Services.
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