Boys and girls in the grade‐school years are not immune to the stressors of their worlds. Homework, difficulties making friends, changing neighborhoods and schools, working parents—these stressors and more are normal and expected during the course of growing up. Unfortunately, some children are exposed to more severe stressors, including divorce, physical abuse, and sexual abuse.
Currently half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce; most of these marriages end within the first 10 years. Over 1 million children under age 18 are involved in divorces each year in the United States. As may be expected, the breaking up of the family unit is very stressful on the involved children, who may in turn feel depressed, guilty, angry, irritable, defiant, or anxious.
Children of divorce suffer. These children are confronted with many possible stressors: changes in their relationships with their parents, the daily absence of one parent, the possibility of remarriage, the presence of a stepparent, or the presence of stepsiblings. Children who are dissatisfied with one or both of their parents and/or their living situation before a divorce tend to have a hard time adjusting after a divorce.
Child physical abuse
Child physical abuse is the intentional infliction of pain, injury, and harm onto a child. Child abuse also includes emotional and psychological abuse, including humiliation, embarrassment, rejection, coldness, lack of attention, neglect, isolation, and terrorization.
Most modern experts believe child physical abuse is harmful to the emotional development of children. Adults who were physically and emotionally abused as children frequently suffer from deep feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, and betrayal. If the experience was especially traumatic and emotionally painful (as abuse often is), victims may repress memories of the abuse and suffer deep, unexplainable depression as adults. Child abuse almost always interferes with later relationships.
Researchers have also noted a wide range of emotional dysfunction during, soon after, and long after physical abuse. Emotional problems may be exhibited as anxiety attacks, suicidal tendencies, angry outbursts, withdrawal, fear, and depression, among others. A decidedly negative effect of child abuse—a strong intergenerational pattern— is also worth noting. In other words, many abusers were victims themselves of abuse as children. In spite of the range and intensity of the aftereffects of child abuse, many victims are able to accept the abuse as a regrettable event, but an event that they may also leave behind.
Child sexual abuse
One emotionally damaging form of child abuse is child sexual abuse. Also known as child molestation, child sexual abuse occurs when a teenager or adult entices or forces a child to participate in sexual activity. Sexual abuse is perhaps the worst means of exploiting children imaginable. Ranging from simple touching to penetration, child sexual abuse is culturally forbidden in most parts of the world and is illegal everywhere in the United States. Experts estimate that as many as 25 percent of children in the United States are sexually abused each year.
Every state in the United States has laws against a specific type of child abuse known as incest, which is sexual activity between closely related persons of any age. Child sexual abuse is incest when the abuser is a relative. Incest occurs whether or not the relative is blood‐related, which explains why stepparents can be arrested for molesting their stepchildren. Not all states have laws forbidding sexual activity among first cousins.
Contrary to a popular misconception, incest is less common than sexual abuse from a person outside the family, such as a family friend, teacher, minister, youth director, or scoutmaster. The perpetrators of incest are typically men; their victims are typically girls in their middle‐childhood years. Oddly enough, the personality profiles of sexually molesting fathers suggest that few of these fathers have serious psychological problems. Instead, abusive behavior by the father seems to be a symptom of a dysfunctional‐family system. However, abusers outside the family, called pedophiles, may be violent. Pedophiles are more likely than sexual abusers inside the family to be psychologically disturbed.
Education is the best preventive measure for child molestation. Parents should explain to their children how to avoid being touched inappropriately and what to do when touched in an inappropriate manner.