How to Nurture Abused and Neglected Children When the Worst Has Happened
When you dig into the numbers, the prevalence of childhood trauma is staggering.
According to one of the best known studies done on the topic—the National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence—more than 60% of children had been exposed to violence either directly or indirectly in the 12 months prior to the survey being taken. Nearly half (46.3%) had been assaulted at least once in the past year, often by a family member.
Additional research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse.
While we always want to focus on prevention first, the reality is that many children do end up being abused and neglected. Left unaddressed, the lasting consequences of childhood trauma can lead to devastating results, including more drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, sex trafficking, and a host of physical and mental health issues.
So, how can we nurture children who have endured unimaginable trauma? The first thing is to realize that children are surprisingly resilient. Given the right environment, many will recover from their trauma and be well situated for adulthood.
Here are some key ways we can all help children who have experienced abuse or neglect:
A safe, stable environment that rebuilds trust
Children experience much of their world through their parents and caregivers. These relationships are fundamental to their wellbeing and healthy development. For children who have been abused or neglected, it’s critically important to rebuild trust by providing safe, stable and nurturing relationships and environments. Focus on these three words: safe, stable and nurturing. They each speak to a distinct need for the child, but they overlap to create an overall environment that is essential for recovery.
Work on building resiliency
Resiliency allows children to thrive even after they have experienced trauma. Resiliency can be learned over time and nurtured through positive, healthy interactions with parents, caregivers, mentors, teachers and other adults who can teach them coping skills and problem-solving strategies. Build up resiliency by modeling a positive outlook, expressing a lot of love and support, allowing children to express their feelings, encouraging them to create connections with friends and family, emphasizing healthy habits, and talking openly about bad behavior such as drug use.
Teach them to trust themselves
In an abusive home, children are not encouraged to think for themselves or voice their thoughts. Instead, they’re taught to follow adults without question and ignore their own experiences. It’s important to rebuild this critical thinking skill. Teach children how to trust their intuition again by frequently asking about their experiences, and encouraging them to open up about their feelings. Allow them the space to form their own opinions. Talk about the importance of having a sense of right and wrong, and trusting your inner voice.
Consistency is a powerful force for healing
Children absolutely thrive on consistency. But it’s often missing in environments where they are experiencing a lot of family-induced trauma. Consistency is a key part of providing a stable environment for children who have been abused or neglected, one in which adult behavior is predictable and they know that people are there to care for them and not hurt them.
As a caretaker of children who’ve experienced abuse, it’s important to stick to your words and communicate openly about your intentions. Don’t let things go unsaid. Establish routines in the house, such as regular times for family dinners and bedtime. Your consistent actions and words allow the abused or neglected child to build trust in adults again.
Don’t brush aside their past trauma
Nothing good happens when we sweep things under the rug. This is especially true when it comes to the traumatized child. Encourage them to open up about their experiences. Teach them that it’s okay to talk about their pain and hurt and anger. It’s okay to talk about difficult memories. Ask them about “hurting beliefs” that may not be true, such as “It’s my fault that my dad did drugs and hurt me.” Then express that these untrue beliefs are part of their “hurt self” that needs to be healed over time. Teach them that they also have a “strong self” that is capable of overcoming their past.
Lastly, it’s important to be patient. Full recovery can take a long time—years or even decades. It’s likely your child will need help from a licensed therapist. In the meantime, give as much patience, love, empathy and support as you can. Communicate openly and honestly. You should see progress over time and it will be a joyful thing to witness.