People who have been abused often struggle with the “why me?” question. Was there something about me that caused/prepared me/set me up for the abuse? Is this about me? Does that make me responsible? These questions are particularly acute for people who have experienced multiple forms of abuse in multiple life stages.
It is for that reason that it is extremely important to emphasize that the most distinctive characteristic of people who are abused is that there is no common characteristic. Anybody can be abused. Anybody. There are risk factors for abuse but there is nothing in the character, personality or person of the abused that accounts for the abuse or makes the abused person ‘responsible for’ the abuse.
Getting real clear about who is responsible for abuse is an important part of the recovery process.
It is, however, also clear that people who have experienced one kind of abuse are at higher risk for additional experiences of victimization. That does not mean that victims are “responsible” for additional experiences of abuse. It may mean, however, that victims who learn about their increased risk can take appropriate measures to avoid additional abuse. Identifying people who have been abused as ‘at risk’ of additional abuse is not rooted in a “blame the victim” mentality but rather in an “empower the victim” mentality that assumes that victims have the potential for appropriate self care.
Are people abused as children more likely to be abused as adults?
- Jeremy Coid et. al. Relation between childhood sexual and physical abuse and risk of revictimisation in women: a cross-sectional survey.. Lancet, 8/11/2001, Vol. 358 Issue 9280, p450 [Full text available on line at EBSCOhost. Accession Number: 4984037]
Summary: Childhood abuse substantially increases risk of revictimisation in adulthood. Women who have experienced multiple childhood abuse are at most risk of adult revictimisation. Identification of women who have undergone childhood abuse is a prerequisite for prevention of further abuse.
- Barbara Krahé,Childhood Sexual Abuse And Revictimization In Adolescence And Adulthood. Journal of Personal & Interpersonal Loss, Apr-Sep2000, Vol. 5 Issue 2/3, p149, 17p [Full text available on line at EBSCOhost. Accession Number: 3244689]
Summary: the evidence reviewed in this chapter clearly highlights the need to recognize the risk of revictimization as a significant adverse consequence of sexual abuse and to address this risk factor in counseling and intervention. This is particularly important in view of the finding (e.g., by Arata, 1999) that coping with the trauma of rape and sexual assault is even more difficult for revictimized women than for victims not burdened with a childhood history of sexual abuse
- Charlene L. Muehlenhard et. al. The sexual revictimization of women and men sexually abused as children: A review of the literature. Annual Review of Sex Research, 1998, Vol. 9, p177 [Full text available on line at EBSCOhost. Accession Number: 1824291]
Risk Factors for Abuse
The WHO report entitled Preventing child maltreatment: a guide to taking action and generating evidence includes the following list of risk factors for child abuse:
Risk factors in parents and caregivers
Increased risk of child maltreatment is associated with the presence of certain factors in
the parent or other family member. These include the parent or caregiver who:
- has difficulty bonding with a newborn child – as a result, for example, of a difficult
pregnancy, birth complications or disappointment with the baby;
- does not show nurturing characteristics towards the child;
- was maltreated as a child;
- displays a lack of awareness of child development or has unrealistic expectations
that prevent understanding the child’s needs and behaviours – for instance, interpreting
the child’s perceived misbehaviour as intentional, rather than as a stage in
- responds to perceived misbehaviour with inappropriate, excessive or violent punishment
- approves of physical punishment as a means of disciplining children, or believes in
- uses physical punishment to discipline children;
- suffers from physical or mental health problems or cognitive impairment that
interfere with the ability to parent;
- shows a lack of self-control when upset or angry;
- misuses alcohol or drugs, including during pregnancy, so that the ability to care
for the child is affected;
- is involved in criminal activity that adversely affects the relationship between parent
- is socially isolated;
- is depressed or exhibits feelings of low self-esteem or inadequacy – feelings that
may be reinforced by being unable to fully meet the needs of the child or family;
- exhibits poor parenting skills as a result of young age or lack of education;
- experiences financial difficulties.
Risk factors in the child
Saying that certain risk factors are related to the child does not mean that the child is responsible for the maltreatment it suffers, but rather that it may be more difficult to parent because it:
- was an unwanted baby or failed to fulfil the parent’s expectations or wishes – in
terms, for instance, of its sex, appearance, temperament or congenital anomalies;
- is an infant with high needs – one, for instance, who was born prematurely, cries
constantly, is mentally or physically disabled, or has a chronic illness;
- cries persistently and cannot be easily soothed or comforted;
- has physical features, such as facial abnormalities, that the parent has an aversion
to and reacts to by withdrawing from the child;
- shows symptoms of mental ill-health;
- demonstrates personality or temperament traits that are perceived by the parent as
problematic – such as hyperactivity or impulsivity;
- is one child out of a multiple birth which has taxed the parent’s ability to support
- has a sibling or siblings – possibly close in age – who are demanding of parental
- is a child that either exhibits or is exposed to dangerous behaviour problems – such
as intimate partner violence, criminal behaviour, self-abusive behaviour, abuse
towards animals, or persistent aggression with peers.
The composition of families may vary greatly according to their own unique circumstances and to the norms of the local society. In many communities, the “traditional” nuclear family of a married mother and father with children may not be the norm. Families may be led by single mothers, single fathers, same-gender couples, siblings or elders. Risk factors for child maltreatment that may apply to relationships with family, friends, intimate partners and peers include:
- lack of parent–child attachment and failure to bond;
- physical, developmental or mental health problems of a family member;
- family breakdown – such as problems with a marriage or intimate relationship
– that results in child or adult mental ill health, unhappiness, loneliness, tension
or disputes over custody;
- violence in the family, between parenting partners, between children or between
parenting partners and children;
- gender roles and roles in intimate relationships, including marriage, that are disrespectful
of one or more persons in the household;
- being isolated in the community;
- lack of a support network to assist with stressful or difficult situations in a relationship;
- breakdown of support in child rearing from the extended family;
- discrimination against the family because of ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender,
age, sexual orientation, disability or lifestyle;
- involvement in criminal or violent activities in the community.
Characteristics of community environments that are associated with an increased risk
of child maltreatment include:
- tolerance of violence;
- gender and social inequality in the community;
- lack of or inadequate housing;
- lack of services to support families and institutions and to meet specialized
- high levels of unemployment;
- harmful levels of lead or other toxins in the environment;
- transient neighbourhoods;
- the easy availability of alcohol;
- a local drug trade;
- inadequate policies and programmes within institutions that make the occurrence of child maltreatment more likely.
Factors in a society that can contribute to the incidence of child maltreatment include:
- social, economic, health and education policies that lead to poor living standards,
or to socioeconomic inequality or instability;
- social and cultural norms that promote or glorify violence towards others, including
physical punishment – as depicted in the media, in popular music and in video
- social and cultural norms that demand rigid gender roles for males and females;
- social and cultural norms that diminish the status of the child in parent–child
- the existence of child pornography, child prostitution and child labour.