(For Immediate Release December 28, 2022)
It is certain that many people will have mixed feelings about the life of Pope Benedict XVI. The expected passing of Benedict is a painful reminder that we’re still dealing with the aftereffects of his tenure in Germany as Archbishop. We also can’t forget the twenty years he spent as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II before becoming Pope. Sadly, many clergy abuse victims are not out of the woods in terms of healing from their wounds and getting the justice they deserve.
Survivors of child sexual abuse in Germany were among the most hurt, having been deceived first by Benedict’s cover-up of sex crimes and then monumentally betrayed following his election to the papacy. There are no words to adequately express the anguish these survivors and their dear ones faced. We wish to honor the abuse survivors in Germany and everywhere for continuing to speak truth to power against such great odds and in the face of such powerful denial. Despite Benedict’s lack of candor, their truths cannot be denied.
In our view, Pope Benedict XVI, much like John Paul II, was more concerned about the church’s deteriorating image and financial flow to the hierarchy versus grasping the concept of genuine apologies followed by true amends to victims of abuse. The rot of clergy sexual abuse of children and adults, including their own nuns and seminarians, runs throughout the Catholic church, to every country, and we now have incontrovertible evidence, all the way to the top.
Any celebration that marks the life of abuse enablers like Pope Benedict must end. It is time for the Vatican to refocus on change: tell the truth about known abusive clergy, protect children and adults, and allow justice to those who have been hurt.
CONTACT: Mike McDonnell, SNAP Communications (firstname.lastname@example.org, 267-261-0578) Zach Hiner, Executive Director (email@example.com, 517-974-9009) Shaun Dougherty, SNAP Board President (firstname.lastname@example.org, 814-341-8386)
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)
On this page
- How grooming occurs
- Signs of grooming
- How to prevent grooming
- What to do about suspected grooming
- Helpful resources
Content warning: This page contains information that readers may find confronting or distressing.
Help is available if you or someone you know has experienced or is at risk of child sexual abuse. Our Get support page has a list of dedicated services if you need help or support. For information on reporting child safety concerns, visit our Make a report page.
If you or a child are in immediate danger, call Triple Zero (000).
In order to keep children and young people safe, it is important to understand what grooming is and how to prevent it. The term ‘grooming’ refers to behaviours that manipulate and control a child, as well as their family, kin and carers, other support networks, or organisations in order to perpetrate child sexual abuse.
The intent of grooming is to:
- gain access to the child or young person to perpetrate child sexual abuse
- obtain sexual material of the child or young person
- obtain the child or young person’s trust and/or compliance
- maintain the child or young person’s silence, and/or
- avoid discovery of sexual abuse.1
Grooming can occur online or in-person. Online child grooming is the process of establishing and building a relationship with a child or young person while online, to facilitate sexual abuse that is either physical (in person) or online.2This is achieved through the internet or other technologies such as phones, social media, gaming, chat and messaging apps.
Online grooming may involve perpetrators encouraging children and young people to engage in sexual activity or to send the perpetrator sexually explicit material. It may lead to perpetrators meeting the child or young person in person or blackmailing them to self-produce explicit materials. To evade detection while grooming children and young people, perpetrators may also convince them to use different online platforms, including those using encrypted technologies.3 Encrypted technologies are used to protect data from being stolen, changed, or compromised by scrambling data into a secret code that hides the information’s true meaning. Only a unique digital key can unlock the secret code.
Socialising online is a great way for children and young people to build friendships and have fun, but it is important to ensure online technologies are being used in a way that keeps children and young people safe. You can find resources about how to stay safe online on the eSafety website- external site.
Child sexual abuse and grooming can occur within families, by other people the child or young person knows or does not know, in organisations, and online. Behaviours related to grooming are not necessarily explicitly sexual, directly abusive or criminal, and may be consistent with behaviours or activities in non-abusive relationships. They can often be difficult to identify and may only be recognised in hindsight. In these cases, the main difference between acceptable behaviours and grooming behaviours is the motivation behind them.4
Grooming of a child or young person, online or in-person, may include:
- building their trust, sometimes through special attention or gifts
- treating them like an adult to make them feel different and special
- gaining the trust of their parents, family or carers
- isolating them from supportive and protective family and friends
- coercing them, including through threats, stalking and asking them to keep secrets
- manipulating them to blame themselves for the situation
- encouraging them to produce child sexual abuse imagery or enticing them to participate in sexualised virtual chats
- non-sexual touching of the child or young person that develops into sexual behaviour over time.
Being aware of the signs of grooming can help protect children and young people from child sexual abuse. A child or young person may show signs of being a victim of grooming in different ways. They may show all or some of the following signs:
- developing an unusually close connection with an older person
- having gifts or money from new friends that they cannot account for
- being very secretive about their phone, internet or social media use
- going missing for long periods of time
- appearing extremely tired, including at school
- being dishonest about who they have been with and where they have been
- substance misuse
- assuming a new name, having false identification, a stolen passport or driver licence, or a new phone
- being collected from school by an older or new friend.5
Teaching children and young people what is appropriate and inappropriate contact (both online and offline), and encouraging open and honest communication, without shame or stigma, will help to better protect them. This includes supporting children and young people to:
- understand safe and unsafe behaviours and situations, including being able to identify early warning signs and their body’s natural reactions when they feel unsafe, worried, or scared. These may include feeling butterflies, and having sweaty palms and a racing pulse
- practice safe online behaviour, including deleting and blocking requests and messages from people they don’t know, and reviewing and updating privacy settings
- know what to do and who to talk to if something feels uncomfortable, as well as what support services are available if they are unsure or if something has happened
- say no to requests to engage in unsafe behaviours or sexual advances
- block unsafe users, make a complaint to social media companies and report online grooming
- understand body boundaries, respectful relationships and consent
- feel safe and protected when disclosing what is happening to them.
Your child may not understand they are being groomed, and may not tell you that they are being groomed directly. It is important to understand the signs of grooming and talk to your child if you notice changes in their behaviour and suspect something isn’t right.
If you suspect a child or young person is being groomed or is at risk of being groomed, contact your relevant state or territory child protection agency. Visit our Make a report page to find out more.
You can also report online grooming or inappropriate contact to the Australian Centre to Counter Child Exploitation- external site.
For information about what to do if something goes wrong online, visit the eSafety website- external site.
Our Get support page provides a list of dedicated support and assistance services.
eSafety- external site is Australia’s national independent regulator and educator for online safety. It provides tools and resources for parents- external site and carers to help keep children safe online, including access to free webinars. Issues covered include:
- child grooming- external site
- sending nudes and sexting- external site
- protecting your child’s privacy online- external site.
For young people (secondary school age), eSafety’s page about unsafe or unwanted contact- external site has specially tailored advice. eSafety also has resources forkids- external site (primary school age).
Educators can also use the unwanted contact and grooming- external site scenarios with students – these are designed to start conversations that help build online safety skills.
You can also find out more about grooming on these websites:
- Bravehearts- external site
- Raising Children – external site
- ThinkUKnow- external site
- Daniel Morcombe Foundation- external site
1 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017, Final Report: Our Inquiry – Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Volume 1, page 323.
2 ECPAT International 2016, Terminology Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse, Interagency Working Group on Sexual Exploitation of Children. Accessed November 2020 from: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Children/SR/TerminologyGuidelines_en.pdf- external site.
3 Five Country Ministerial 2020, Voluntary Principles to Counter Online Child Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, page 4. Accessed November 2020 from: https://www.weprotect.org/wp-content/uploads/11-Voluntary-principles-detailed.pdf- external site.
4 Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse 2017, Final Report: Our Inquiry – Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse Volume 1, page 323.
5 Victorian Department of Education and Training, Child Sexual Exploitation and Grooming. Accessed April 2021 from: https://www.education.vic.gov.au/school/teachers/health/childprotection/Pages/expolitationgrooming.aspx
Published on August 18, 2023
Medically reviewed by
Table of Contents
- How Do I Know If I Was Emotionally Neglected as a Child?
- What Are Some Examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect?
- How Does Emotional Neglect in Childhood Affect Us as Adults?
- How Emotional Neglect Causes Trauma
- Healing From Childhood Emotional Neglect
While everyone may perceive neglect differently, emotional neglect in childhood generally refers to when a child doesn’t experience emotional security or support from their guardian figures. Our emotions may have been completely ignored or invalidated—purposefully or unconsciously—or we might have been explicitly shamed for expressing our feelings.
Emotional neglect is considered a form of trauma, as it can have long-lasting and profound effects on a person’s emotional and psychological well-being.
— DANIEL RINALDI, MHC
This form of neglect can occur when a caregiver is not present, but when they are present they are emotionally unavailable, if the parent is ill-equipped to handle childhood emotions, or if the parent is purposefully dismissive.
“Emotional neglect is considered a form of trauma, as it can have long-lasting and profound effects on a person’s emotional and psychological well-being,” says therapist Daniel Rinaldi, MHC. He adds that chronic emotional neglect can shape our emotional landscape as adults by affecting our self-esteem and impacting our interpersonal relationships.
Ongoing childhood emotional neglect is a form of child abuse and can lead to lasting trauma. This trauma can make it hard to develop a healthy relationship with others and with ourselves. We might even engage in self-sabotaging behaviors.
Therapy can teach us how to properly identify and label our emotions so that we can deal with them in a healthy way and begin to truly heal.
How Do I Know If I Was Emotionally Neglected as a Child?
Raising children is highly nuanced and inherently difficult; there’s no doubt that our parents or caregivers made mistakes along the way. However, chronic emotional neglect is not the norm, and its ripple effects follow us well into adulthood.
“Emotional neglect can be hard to spot because it is not always visible—even to a professional,” says Aurisha Smolarski, LMFT, founder of Cooperative Coparenting. “It is also hard to spot because it tends to be based less on what a parent does and more on what they don’t do.”
Smolarski says that emotional neglect can be either intentional or unintentional, or even unconscious.
Some parents emotionally neglect their children because they’re uncomfortable with emotions in general and are unsure of how to respond to the complex feelings a child experiences.
Other parents are too overwhelmed with the stress in their own life—including struggles with addiction, work-life balance, child-rearing, and mental health issues. Smolarski also notes that parents who experienced abuse or neglect themselves may be more likely to neglect their own children.
What Are Some Examples of Childhood Emotional Neglect?
Here are some signs of childhood emotional neglect. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it provides a general idea of what emotional neglect looks like:
- Punishment for expressing negative emotions like sadness, frustration, or anger (e.g., being told to go to your room or be quiet)
- Lack of shared celebration or joy when experiencing a positive emotion like happiness or excitement (it might even present as zapping the positive emotion with a negative response)
- Being told your feelings or experiences aren’t valid or worth further examination (example phrases might include “You’re too sensitive,” “Stop acting like a baby” or “Don’t worry about it.”)
- Dismissed or ignored feelings because the parent is focused on themselves or another situation
- Withholding or not showing affection, whether it is explicitly requested or not
- Failure to intervene or find a solution in situations when a child is under emotional stress
- Not acknowledging difficult emotions like grief after losing a pet or embarrassment after being bullied (often because the parent struggles to recognize or process these emotions themselves)
How Does Emotional Neglect in Childhood Affect Us as Adults?
Those of us who were emotionally neglected as children often develop behavior patterns or coping mechanisms. Any of the following might be indicative of emotional neglect in childhood.
Emotional neglect can be either intentional or unintentional, or even unconscious.
Difficulty Expressing and Processing Emotions
Childhood emotional neglect can cause us to avoid emotions all together in adulthood. We may struggle to identify our feelings or find it difficult to process big feelings.
There might also be a general sense of “numbness,” which is ultimately a form of self-protection. Smolarski adds, “They may choose to leave a relationship or situation instead of asking for something they need because that feels safer than the risk of rejection.”
They may withdraw or isolate from social or peer groups because they feel different and because they fear being asked to talk about how they feel.
— AURISHA SMOLARSKI, LMFT
On the other side of the coin, Smolarski says that if we’ve been emotionally neglected as kids, we might end up becoming the “caretaker” or “burden holder” of our friends and family.
Essentially, addressing other people’s emotions and needs allows us to feel worthy, loved, needed, and good enough. This can backfire if we end up focusing so much on others that we fail to prioritize ourselves.
We May Have a Super Hard Time Trusting Other People
Sometimes it feels safer to put up walls so that no one else can get in and potentially hurt us. We’re simply trying to protect ourselves.
So, if we’ve experienced pain in the past we might end relationships the moment we feel threatened or avoid relationships completely.
Vulnerability and opening up to other people may feel scary too which limits the ability to connect with others. “They may withdraw or isolate from social or peer groups because they feel different and because they fear being asked to talk about how they feel,” Smolarski notes.
She adds that some might even self-sabotage their relationships to avoid feeling abandoned, rejected, or neglected. And those who find themselves in close relationships may struggle to access or voice their own emotions, which can negatively impact the relationship.
Our Self-Esteem May Take a Hit
Rinaldi says that chronic childhood neglect can often cause people to have low self-worth. If our self-esteem is low, we might write off our own emotions or even let people walk all over us.
Low self-esteem may also cause struggles with self-compassion and self-love.
We May Try to Cope in Some Not-So-Healthy Ways
In some cases, childhood emotional neglect can present with poor coping techniques as an adult. Bonnie Scott, LPC-S, founder of Mindful Kindness Counseling, says this is often because people who’ve been neglected have trouble trusting their own experience of emotions and needs.
“They may meet those needs in maladaptive ways, like becoming codependent on people who aren’t good for them or showing people-pleasing behaviors to keep people around,” Scott says. They might also rely on drugs or alcohol to get them through a difficult emotion or become addicted to shopping, porn, online usage, risky sex, or food.
How Emotional Neglect Causes Trauma
Rinaldi says that emotional neglect can impact someone’s life—even if it occurs only once or twice—though it is even more profound and complex when there’s a chronic pattern extended over a period of time.
Ongoing Neglect Is Child Abuse
Ongoing emotional neglect is considered a form of child abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, it’s a traumatic experience that, if severe or continued over a long period of time, can affect a child’s development.1
“Trauma can cause changes in the brain and nervous system that in turn lead to difficulty expressing emotions, lower self-esteem, shame, or guilt,” Smolarski says. “Children suffering from the trauma of neglect can have behavioral issues at home and in school and may struggle to form and maintain relationships in childhood and as adults.”
More severe neglect can lead to substance abuse, the tendency to engage in risky behavior, and long-term mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).2
Healing From Childhood Emotional Neglect
If you experienced childhood emotional neglect, know that you’re not alone. So many of us have survived this kind of abuse.
Making the effort to heal this wound is a sign of bravery, and can be done at any age.
— AURISHA SMOLARSKI, LMFT
Fortunately, healing is possible. There’s so much room for personal growth and a pathway to improved self-worth. Trust and emotional intimacy can be learned over time with patience and a strong support system. We can have and deserve fulfilling relationships.
“Remember that there is nothing wrong or bad about you or your emotions,” Smolarski says. “We all have emotions. It’s just that you didn’t have someone to reflect them back to you, to teach you that your emotions are welcome and valid, and to help you regulate them. Making the effort to heal this wound is a sign of bravery, and can be done at any age.”
Therapy Can Help
She adds that this process often requires professional support, such as therapy. Therapy allows us to explore past experiences, process unresolved emotions, and develop healthier coping strategies and communication skills.
In therapy, we can learn how to identify and label emotions accurately, develop self-compassion and self-acceptance, and figure out how to set and maintain healthy boundaries.
“Outside of professional settings, individuals can prioritize their emotional well-being through various self-care activities, such as engaging in activities that bring joy and fulfillment, practicing mindfulness and meditation to cultivate self-awareness, and journaling to express and process emotions,” Smolarski adds.
By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decad
Some People May Find It Harder Than Others to Manage Their Emotions
Updated on May 03, 2023
Medically reviewed by
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
What Is Dysregulation?
Dysregulation, or emotional dysregulation, is an inability to control or regulate one’s emotional responses, which can lead to significant mood swings, significant changes in mood, or emotional lability. It can involve many emotions, including sadness, anger, irritability, and frustration.
While dysregulation is typically thought of as a childhood problem that usually resolves itself as a child learns proper emotional regulation skills and strategies, dysregulation may continue into adulthood.
For these individuals, emotional dysregulation can lead to a lifetime of struggles, including problems with interpersonal relationships, school performance, and the inability to function effectively in a job or at work.
Press Play for Advice On Regulating Your Emotions
Hosted by therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares how to deal with your emotions in any circumstance that may come your way. Click below to listen now.
What Triggers Dysregulation?
Why is it that some people have no trouble remaining calm, cool, and collected while others fall apart at the first instance of something going wrong in their life?
The answer is that there are likely multiple causes; however, there is one that has been consistently shown in the research literature. That cause is early psychological trauma resulting from abuse or neglect on the part of the caregiver.1 This results in something known as a reactive attachment disorder.
In addition, a parent who has emotional dysregulation will also struggle to teach their child how to regulate emotions. Since children are not naturally born with emotional regulation coping skills, having a parent who cannot model effective coping puts a child at risk for emotional dysregulation themselves.
Is Dysregulation a Mental Disorder?
While dysregulation isn’t necessarily a mental disorder (or a sign of one), we know that emotional dysregulation in childhood can be a risk factor for later mental disorders. Some disorders are also more likely to involve emotional dysregulation.
Below is a list of the disorders most commonly associated with emotional dysregulation:2
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (complex PTSD)
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
- Fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS)
When emotional dysregulation appears as part of a diagnosed mental disorder, it typically involves a heightened sensitivity to emotional stimuli and a lessened ability to return to a normal emotional state within a reasonable amount of time.
What Are Signs of Dysregulation?
In general, emotional dysregulation involves having emotions that are overly intense in comparison to the situation that triggered them. This can mean not being able to calm down, avoiding difficult emotions, or focusing your attention on the negative. Most people with emotional dysregulation also behave in an impulsive manner when their emotions (fear, sadness, or anger) are out of control.
Below are some examples of what it looks like when someone is experiencing emotional dysregulation.
- Your romantic partner cancels plans and you decide they must not love you and you end up crying all night and binging on junk food.
- The bank teller says they can’t help you with a particular transaction and you’ll need to come back the next day. You have an angry outburst, yell at the teller, and throw a pen across the counter at them.
- You attend a company dinner and everyone seems to be talking and having fun while you feel like an outsider. After the event, you go home and overeat to numb your emotional pain. This is also an example of poor coping mechanisms and emotional eating.
Emotional dysregulation can also mean that you have trouble recognizing the emotions that you are experiencing when you become upset. It might mean that you feel confused by your emotions, guilty about your emotions, or are overwhelmed by your emotions to the point that you can’t make decisions or manage your behavior.
Note that the behaviors of emotional dysregulation may show up differently in children, involving temper tantrums, outbursts, crying, refusing to make eye contact or speak, etc.
Impact of Emotional Dysregulation
Being unable to manage your emotions and their effects on your behavior can have a range of negative effects on your adult life. For instance:
- You might have trouble sleeping.
- You might struggle to let experiences go or hold grudges longer than you should.
- You might get into minor arguments that you blow out of proportion to the point that you end up ruining relationships.
- You might experience negative effects on your social, work, or school functioning.
- You might develop a mental disorder later in life because of a poor ability to regulate your emotions (e.g., depression)
- You might develop a substance abuse problem or addiction such as smoking, drinking, or drugs.
- You might engage in self-harm or other disordered behavior such as restrictive eating habits or binge eating.
- You might have trouble resolving conflict.
A child with emotional dysregulation may experience the following outcomes:
- A tendency to be defiant
- Problems complying with requests from teachers or parents
- Problems making and keeping friends
- Reduced ability to focus on tasks
How Do You Fix Dysregulation?
The two main options for treating emotion dysregulation are medication and therapy, depending on the individual situation. Let’s take a look at each of these in turn.
Medication may be used to treat emotion dysregulation when it is part of a larger mental disorder. For example, ADHD will be treated with stimulants, depression will be treated with antidepressants, and other issues might be treated with antipsychotics.
In terms of therapy for emotional dysregulation, the main treatment method has been what is known as dialectical behavior therapy(DBT).3 This form of therapy was originally developed by Marsha Linehan in the 1980s to treat individuals experiencing BPD.4
In general, this type of therapy involves improving mindfulness, validating your emotions, and engaging in healthy habits. It also teaches the skills needed to regulate your emotions. Through DBT, you learn to focus on the present moment, how to become aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and how to deal with stressful situations.
DBT argues that there are three “states of mind:”4
- Reasonable mind refers to being logical and rational.
- Emotional mind refers to your moods and sensations.
- Wise mind refers to the combination of your reasonable mind and your emotional mind.
DBT is about showing you that you can see situations as shades of grey rather than all black and white (in other words, combining your emotional mind and logic mind).
If you’ve just experienced a stressful situation or crisis and want to try a little DBT at home, pull out a journal and answer these questions.
- What was the event that caused you distress?
- What did you think about in the situation? (Write down three main thoughts.)
- How did these thoughts make you feel? (Write down any physical symptoms, things you did like crying, or feelings like being upset.)
- What was the consequence of the thoughts you had?
The goal of DBT is to balance your emotions with logic to obtain more positive outcomes from the situations that you find stressful. The goal is also to teach you to become more aware of the connections between your thoughts, feelings, and actions. In this way, it’s expected that you will be able to better manage your emotions in your daily life.
Parenting a Child with Emotion Dysregulation
If you are a parent of a child who struggles with emotion dysregulation, you might be wondering what you can do to support your child. It is true that children learn emotion regulation skills from their parents. You have the ability to teach your child how to manage emotions rather than become overwhelmed by them. Here are some ways you can support them:
Your child also needs to know that they can reach out to you for help and comfort when needed. Having a supportive and reliable parent figure in their life will help to protect them against problems with emotional dysregulation.
- Recognize your own limitations. Do you have a mental disorder or have you struggled with your own emotion regulation skills? If so, you and your child might benefit from you receiving treatment or therapy to build up your own resilience. When you are better able to manage your own distress, then you will be able to offer the most support to your child.
- Lead by example. In addition, the best way to teach your child how to manage their emotions is not to demand that they behave in a certain way or punish them for acting out. Rather, the best option is to model the desired behavior yourself that you want them to adopt.
- Adjust accordingly. It can be helpful to start to recognize triggers for your child’s behavior and have a back-up plan of effective ways to deal with acting out. For example, if your child always has a tantrum when you take them to buy shoes, try picking out a pair in their size and bringing them home for them to try on.
- Maintain consistent routines. Children who struggle with emotion dysregulation benefit from predictability and consistency.5 Your child needs to know that you will be there for them when they need you and that they can rely on you to be the calming presence. When your own emotions are out of control, then it is much more likely that your child will be unable to manage their own emotions.
- Seek accommodations or additional support. If your child is in school, it is also important that you talk to their teacher about their problems with emotion regulation. Talk about the strategies that you use at home and how your child might need extra help in the classroom or reminders on how to calm down. If your child has a diagnosed disorder, they may be on a special education plan that allows accommodations or gives them extra help. Be sure to take advantage of that.
- Reward positive behavior. If you see your child acting in ways that are positive for emotion management, comment on those positive behaviors. Find ways to reward emotion management successes so that they will become more frequent.
Whether it’s you, your child, or someone you know who struggles with emotion dysregulation, it is important to know that this is something that can improve over time. In fact, 88% of those diagnosed with BPD are not predicted to meet criteria 10 years down the road.6 This goes to show that emotion regulation strategies can be learned and are very helpful for improving your situation and living the best life possible.
Regardless of your current circumstances, you can make changes that will result in improved social, school, and work functioning. You can learn to manage the stressful situations that cause you pain and work through past hurts or mistreatment that led you to where you are today.
By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of “Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder” and “7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety.” She has a Master’s degree in psychology.
By Grace Jennings-Edquist and Sana Qadar
For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, reading the details of the crimes can provoke a wide range of difficult emotions.
Some will feel vindicated and relieved that action is being taken, but anxious as the matter makes its way through the legal process, says Hetty Johnston, executive director of child protection advocacy organisation Bravehearts.
“For many survivors, they may have witnessed other people actually not make it to today as a result of what’s happened to them,” adds Tarja Malone, who manages the helpline at the Blue Knot Foundation, which supports adults impacted by childhood trauma.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of grief and loss for those who haven’t made it to today as a result of the abuse they’ve endured.”
If you’re feeling emotional after reading coverage of sexual abuse — or you’re supporting a loved one in that situation — there are several things these experts recommend.
Whether it’s social media or the news, “it’s good advice for people to limit how much media they digest around this if they’re feeling triggered,” says Ms Malone.
If you’re feeling panicky or anxious, don’t feel “compelled to keep digesting information about it over and over again”.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- beyondblue on 1300 224 636
- Blue Knot Foundationon 1300 657 380
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- QLife on 1800 184 527
When you see details of child sexual abuse in the news, actively deciding not to read the details of the crime might prevent you from feeling overwhelmed, explains psychotherapist Rita Barnett, who has worked with survivors of sexual violence.
“If you do read the details, try not to picture it or use your imagination when you’re reading the words; just try to separate them as much as you can,” Ms Barnett says.
“When you have a vivid picture in your mind, it’s very hard to remove that.”
Lean on support systems
Don’t bottle up how you’re feeling.
Reach out to friends or your counsellor, even your GP — anyone who understands your background and why this might be difficult for you.
“Speak to your friends, speak to your therapist — keep talking,” says Ms Johnston.
“If you don’t have those kinds of supports at the moment, then calling some of the helplines available would be a really good idea,” Ms Malone says.
If talking is really difficult, Carolyn Worth from the CASA (Centres Against Sexual Assault) Forum and manager at South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault suggests writing down how you’re feeling.
“Some people write a letter to someone — they’re not going to send it, but they write it out and they get some structure to their thoughts in some way.”
Other people find it useful to write a journal, she adds.
Spend time on self-care
There’s plenty you can do to help yourself feel better.
It may sound simple, but keeping to a routine, getting plenty of rest and exercise, and eating regular meals can help you feel more settled.
“Don’t suddenly decide to eat a whole packet of Tim Tams, because it won’t make you feel better in the long run,” Ms Worth says.
“And don’t have eight cups of coffee, which will hype you up.”
If you’re drawn to booze or illegal drugs, try to avoid them.
“It just makes things worse in the end; at some point, you will have to face those negative feelings.”
Instead, Ms Worth recommends making time for relaxation.
“What is it you really like doing? Is it watching first-class trash on TV? Then allow yourself to do that. Or take a bath, listen to music,” she says.
“If you’re into meditation, just sit and go and do that for a while … because we tend to do that when we’re feeling good, but not always when we really need it most.”
And if you’re stuck at work feeling emotional, take some time out for lunch or a walk. Perhaps you could ring a friend and chat.
If you’re really having trouble coping, Ms Malone suggests speaking to someone you trust at work: “Let them know you’ve received some news that’s been difficult,” and consider taking some time off.
Seek professional help if you need it
Feeling angry, sad or distressed after reading or hearing about abuse is understandable. But it’s wise to keep in mind that, if these negative feelings continue, a therapist or counsellor may help.
“If you’re still bouncing around about the same thing and you don’t feel any better at the end of a week, then ring up and make an appointment to see someone,” Ms Worth says.
“It’s bad for anyone to be that heightened for that long.”
Deal with deniers
As difficult as it is to deal with, there’s a chance you’ll encounter individuals who deny specific cases of abuse took place or blame the victims.
Unless arguing is cathartic for you, it’s probably best to walk away when you hear these comments, Ms Worth suggests.
“It’s like dealing with trolls — you’re wasting your time, you’re just giving them oxygen,” she says.
If a loved one is struggling
The most important thing you can do for someone who’s struggling is to simply be there.
“Be there to listen and to hear their experiences, distress or anger,” Ms Malone says.
“Normalise the responses the person might be having.”
You can also “gently talk to them about reaching out to professional support”, she adds. Consider going with them to a counsellor or being there while they ring a helpline.
It might be worth directly asking your loved one whether they’d like to discuss their feelings with you, Ms Worth suggests. Or they may prefer to simply be with you, doing something pleasant.
“It might be taking the dog to the beach, so you could do that and share with them,” Ms Worth says.
“If they want to watch something, sit with them so you’re there.”
Then, if they want to talk, you’ve made space so they can easily open up.
One more tip: “Leave the shame and the blame and all of that to the people who perpetrate the crime,” Ms Johnston says.
“Give that responsibility back to the perpetrator.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated for legal reasons.
Posted 26 Feb 201926 Feb 2019, updated 22 Aug 201922 Aug 2019
AUGUST 18, 2023
A child can never give consent. The sexual abuse of a child is just that – abuse. This abhorrent crime must be called what it is and we need to begin with the foundations, by ensuring that the correct terminology is entrenched in our legislation.
We may not realise it, but the words we use when we speak about child sexual abuse have immense power. They can change our perception as a society about this issue, and they can either shame or empower a victim-survivor of this crime.
Our general discomfort with the topic of child sexual abuse has historically led to the use of language which deprioritises the safety of children in Australia’s legislation. The State and Territory laws are inconsistent in their definitions, with many states having referred to the ‘persistent sexual abuse of a child’ as a ‘relationship’.
Recognising the harm and stigma that this causes victim-survivors, The Grace Tame Foundation launched their ‘Harmony Campaign’ in February 2022, which is aimed at making child sexual abuse laws consistent across all jurisdictions in Australia. The disparities around the age of consent, the definition of sexual intercourse, what consent is and grooming, as well as the language used to describe the crime, trivialise the experiences of victims and are often exploited by perpetrators.
The former Australian of the Year has been relentless in her pursuit of these changes, seeing success across the country in how State and Territory legislation refers to the crime. As at August 2023, the word ‘relationship’ has been removed nationwide from the heading of the criminal offence of the ‘persistent sexual abuse of a child’. This is a significant achievement, and the first step towards their aim of removing the word ‘relationship’ from all parts of the offence of child sexual abuse in every jurisdiction.
“Softened wording doesn’t reflect the gravity of the crime, it feeds into victim-blaming attitudes, eases the conscience of perpetrators and gives license to characterise abuse as romance.”The Grace Tame Foundation, Harmony Campaign
Grace Tame has been a powerful advocate for the voice of victim-survivors of child sexual abuse, reminding us through her tireless work that children deserve our commitment to protecting them from harm. Despite how confronting this crime is, we need to engage in public conversations in a mindful and trauma-informed way to remove the stigma surrounding the issue. With the Australian Child Maltreatment Study revealing that 28.5% of Australians have experienced child sexual abuse, this epidemic is not something that we can ignore. It may be difficult to speak about, but children need us to lean into the discomfort to both acknowledge the pain and trauma of victim-survivors and prevent more children from being abused.
With recent high profile media cases shing a spotlight on the issue of child sexual abuse we are currently experiencing an increase in the public conversation surrounding the issue, particularly relating to changes we need to make to current systems in order to protect children from abuse and exploitation. An increase in discourse means an increase in the need for a better understanding of how we refer to this abuse, and how that discussion impacts victim-survivors. The new reporting guidelines for media reporting on child sexual abuse, developed for the National Office for Child Safety (NOCS) are designed to keep the victim-survivor voice at the centre of this topic.
The work of The Grace Tame Foundation affirms just how important, and guiding, the victim-survivor voice is in shaping both our response to and perception of child sexual abuse.
Whether you have an active role in child protection, you’re a parent, you work in the child care sector, or simply as a member of society, we can all play an active role in supporting victim-survivors. And the easiest to do this is by engaging in meaningful public discourse using the most appropriate language. In 2016 ‘The Terminology Guidelines for the Protection of Children from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse’ were adopted in Luxembourg, establishing a global standard for terminology in relation to child sexual abuse. This is a helpful and comprehensive guide used by many organisations involved in working against this crime. ICMEC Australia has created a simple summary of these global standards for those who would like to start the process of better understanding the correct terminology.
We are encouraged by the achievements of The Grace Tame Foundation in championing the rights of victim-survivors of child sexual abuse. Every milestone that is documented in the media creates more public awareness of this crime. But their Harmony Campaign is not finished. Laws in most states and territories across Australia (except Victoria and Western Australia) continue to use the term ‘relationship’ in other parts of the offence legislation. Using trauma-informed language is essential in helping children feel safe and supported enough to report abuse and to recognise harmful behaviour. It takes champions like Grace Tame to share the victim-survivor voice. Now let’s work together to help her and other advocates remove the stigma that has surrounded sexual abuse and exploitation for too long.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help, find support services available here.
Psychological, physical, social and economic impacts of childhood sexual abuse.
Posted May 6, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- A quarter of girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse before they are 18 years old, according to CDC estimates.
- People who have experienced child sexual abuse (CSA) are more likely to experience disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD.
- CSA can also have long-term impacts on physical health, with people being more likely to report pain, gastrointestinal symptoms and obesity.
- In addition, CSA is linked to negative social effects, such as sexual or relationship problems, and socioeconomic outcomes, such as lower income.
Child sexual abuse (CSA) is an adverse childhood experience (ACE) that has serious long-term consequences for those who have been victimized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexualabuse before they are 18. Not only are there psychological consequences to CSA, but longitudinal research has also found that CSA results in negative health, psychosocial, and socioeconomic outcomes for those who have been abused.
The Psychological Consequences of CSA
Many studies have examined the long-term psychological impact of CSA. A recent research review of over four million people found that those who experienced CSA are between two and three times more likely to experience the following disorders compared to adults who were not abused:
- Borderline personality disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
It should be noted that many of the psychological consequences of CSA can take years to develop as the abuse is thought to alter brain structure and chemistry during its developmental period. For example, one study found that the average time between the abuse and the onset of depression was 11.5 years, while another studyfound an average of 9.2 years from the time of abuse to the onset of depression and 8 years until the onset of PTSD.
The Physical Consequences of CSA
Numerous studies have also shown that there are long-term impacts to the physical health of those who experienced CSA. Across studies, adults who experienced CSA were 1.35 to 2.12 times more likely to report health problems such as:
- Poorer overall health
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Gynecological symptoms
- Cardiopulmonary symptoms
As a result of these health problems, adults with a history of CSA use health care more frequently than those without a history of CSA, spending on average 16% more per year. Notably, however, a history of CSA is also associated with lower odds of having health insurance and receiving a general check-up (preventative care) in the past year.
The Psychosocial Impacts of CSA
Researchers have also documented many negative social consequences of CSA including:
- Relationship disruption (break-up/divorce)
- Dissatisfaction with their relationships
- Sexual unfaithfulness/promiscuity
- Increased sexual dysfunction
Sadly, there is considerable evidence to suggest that those who have experienced CSA are also likely to be revictimized. A recent study involving 12,252 survivors found that 47.5% were sexually victimized again later in life. Similarly, there is also evidence to suggest that the children of women who have been abused are also more likely to be abused themselves, suggesting that the cycle of abuse may continue into the next generation.
The Socioeconomic Consequences of CSA
From an economic perspective, it is estimated the average lifetime cost of child maltreatment (including CSA) per survivor is $830,928. Compared to adults who had not been abused, survivors of CSA were found to:
- Earn on average $8,000 less per year
- Be less likely to have a bank account, or own stock, a vehicle, or home
- Be three times more likely to be out of work due to sickness and disability
- Be 14% more likely to be unemployed in general
- Be less likely to go to, or graduate from college
- Be less likely to have a skilled job
As is clear from the research, CSA significantly negatively impacts all facets of life — not only for those who experience childhood sexual abuse themselves, but also for their loved ones and society at large. Thus, we must all do what we can to prevent sexual abuse before it happens, and provide support and services to those who have already experienced CSA.
For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What you Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.
Variations on a theme, but always about control and power.
Posted April 16, 2021 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Scapegoating is a common form of parental verbal abuse.
- Research shows that scapegoating allows a parent to think of the family as healthier than it is.
- Scapegoating lets a parent minimize responsibility for and explain negative outcomes, enhancing a sense of control.
- The scapegoat role can be rotating, or it can target one child specifically.
In interviews for my forthcoming book on verbal abuse, the subject of scapegoating comes up with great regularity; among the forms of verbal abuse used by parents, scapegoating appears to have go-to status. In a family with a controlling, combative, or narcissistic parent at the helm, scapegoating is an effective tool to maintain control not just over the interactions and behaviors of family members but also over the family narrative.
As researcher Gary Gemmill has pointed out, scapegoating permits a parent to think of the family as healthier and more functioning than it actually is; if it weren’t for that one individual—yes, the scapegoat—the family would be perfect, and life would be blissful. This is an important point because it helps the parent curate the family narrative in a very specific way.
Another study by Zachary R. Rothschild and others posited and then showed that scapegoating allows a person to minimize guilt or responsibility for a negative outcome and gives him or her a sense of enhanced control because there’s always a reason to point to for a bad outcome. The example I often use is the family car that is vandalized at night while parked in the driveway. If this happened to you, you might be concerned or even call the police, but you’re likely to consider it a random incident.
But the parent who habitually scapegoats won’t approach it that way; instead, he or she will focus on the fact that Jack drove the car last, and he didn’t lock it, which made it so much easier to vandalize. Moreover, Jack didn’t turn on the lights that illuminate the driveway and entrance, which gave the vandals the cover of darkness.
Voila! In the family’s curated narrative, Jack is actually to blame for the car’s being vandalized. That is how scapegoating works.
Who gets to be the scapegoat?
In some families like Tim’s, the scapegoat role was rotating, one that permitted his father to drive his message across with force:
“Failure was unacceptable. Talking back was treason. You did what he said, you took the abuse he meted out, or you were ignored and scapegoated. The son who didn’t listen up then became the scapegoat until he reformed and ‘got the message,’ and then the next slacker would become the target. This went on from childhood to the first decade or so of adulthood until I finally set sail.”
In many families, the scapegoat is a permanent role, as it was in Alisha’s:
“My middle brother, Tom, was the scapegoat because he talked back and resisted my mother’s manipulations. It was ironic because of the four of us, he was the highest achiever—he was athletic and got good grades—but my mother couldn’t deal with the fact that she couldn’t contain him the way she could me and my two younger siblings. She blamed everything that went wrong on Tom and that, in turn, set my father off who believed every single lie she told about Tom. The rest of us made ourselves scarce and said as little as possible, trying to stay as neutral as we could so she wouldn’t turn on us. Tom left home at 18, put himself through college and then law school, and stopped speaking to our parents 10 years ago. He’s got to be the most successful black sheep in history. I still see him, but my sister and brother are too scared, even as adults, of pissing my mother off. Even though I wasn’t scapegoated, I have tons of issues that I am dealing with in therapy. I spent my whole childhood curled up in a defensive ball.”
Counterintuitively, you don’t need a herd to become a scapegoat; only children can be scapegoated too. This is what Dora recounted:
“In my mother’s telling of the story, everything that has gone wrong in her life can be traced back to me. It was my birth that alienated my father from her and ended up in his seeking a divorce. That isn’t the story my dad tells, of course, and I was 7 when he left. She never remarried because no one wanted a woman with baggage, the baggage being me. This could be funny since Dad married a woman with two kids but she didn’t mean it as a joke. Ditto her job and why she never rose up the ranks; yes, the Dora factor. At 30, I walked into a therapist’s office and ended up confronting my mom who denied ever doing it. As my therapist pointed out, she shifted from scapegoating to gaslighting. I maintain low contact these days but I am moving toward estrangement because her inability to own her actions or words makes me nuts.”
Not taking responsibility is the home-court advantage of scapegoating.
How the scapegoat gets chosen
While science illuminates what motivates the abuser to scapegoat, there’s no research on how the target gets chosen, so I’ve culled from the hundreds of stories shared with me for this project and Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life to come up with some thoroughly unscientific patterns which may, nonetheless, be of interest. Some of them are more obvious than others.
1. The resister or rebel
Since all verbal abuse is about control and an imbalance of power, it’s not surprising that the kid who won’t go with the program—whatever that program may be—will be singled out and marginalized for it. This pattern echoes the story Alisha told about her brother, Tom, and may also be the impetus for the rotating scapegoat role in other families.
2. The sensitive one
Scapegoating and bullying have similar intentions, and each gives the abuser a rush of power; that’s going to be much more satisfying if the kid you pick on really responds and reacts. Additionally, this permits the parent to rationalize the scapegoating as being necessary to “toughen the kid up” or “to stop being too sensitive.”
This happens to both sons and daughters and shows up as a strong pattern in many families, unfortunately. The other children do what they can to repress all their emotional reactions, which gives them cover but causes a different kind of damage.
3. The outlier
I’ve come to see that especially with mothers who scapegoat, thinking a child is an outlier is usually a function of the mother’s own goodness of fit; the child is sufficiently different from both herself and her other children that whatever parenting skills she does have are completely overwhelmed, and she reacts by shifting the blame onto the child. In the family narrative, this child usually bears the burden of responsibility for the household being hard to run or any other problem the mother might be experiencing.
4. The reminder
This comes up most frequently with children of divorce who either look like or supposedly “take after” or act like a parent’s ex-spouse, but it also comes up with those from intact households in which the child supposedly resembles a family relative who is disliked, hated, or is a black sheep or some combination of all. It can be overtly expressed—“You are just like your dad, irresponsible and lazy”—or covert, as was the case for Dina, who happens to be a psychologist:
“As a kid, I couldn’t understand why I was always to blame and my sister was always fabulous. I was a straight-A student, high achiever, and my sister was none of those things. But there was history. My father committed the sin of leaving my mother and remarrying happily. I committed the sin of looking like him—tall, thin, brunette, and intellectual. My sister is my mother’s physical—blonde and petite—and not-too-serious clone. It took the therapy which was part of my training to see the elephant in the living room.”
Scapegoating is verbal abuse, no matter how it is normalized or rationalized. And it really doesn’t matter how parents choose their victims; it only matters that they do.
Copyright © Peg Streep 2021
Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock
Gemmill, Gary. “The Dynamics of Scapegoating in Small Groups, Small Group Research (November, 1989), vol, 20 (4), pp. 406-418
Rothschild, Zachary R., Mark J. Landau, et al. “A Dual Motive Model of Scapegoating: Displacing Blame to Reduce Guilt or Increase Control,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2012), vol. 102(6), 1148-1161.references
About the Author
Peg Streep’s newest book is Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering. She is the author or coauthor of 15 books, including Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.