Abusers and bullies often products of their environment

14 May 2021 - 11:33 By shonisani tshikalange
Abusive behaviour is common in children whose parents are deceased or unable to care for them and who are shunted from one place of care to the next, says a clinical psychologist. Stock photo.
Abusive behaviour is common in children whose parents are deceased or unable to care for them and who are shunted from one place of care to the next, says a clinical psychologist. Stock photo.
Image: 123RF/ANDRIY POPOV

Abusers often come from a background where they did not feel validated as children, where they were not made to feel accepted for who they were as people.

This is according to Phillip van Rensburg, a clinical psychologist practising at Akeso George in the Western Cape, who noted that in many cases abusers have experienced abuse in their own lives, either first-hand as a victim or by witnessing abuse in the family environment.

Van Rensburg said there were a few common situations in which this could occur.

“A ‘poor fit’ at home – feeling like an outsider in the family. A chaotic home lack of structure and routines; a confusing, disruptive and disorganised environment; and high levels of unpredictability. An abusive home witnessing or being a victim of abuse in the home, be it emotional, physical or sexual. Other abusive environments and witnessing or being a victim of abuse outside the home, in other regularly frequented environments such as school or the home of extended family or friends,” he explained.

Van Rensburg said a child in one or more of these types of dysfunctional situations can develop the belief that they are not recognised as a person, and the only way for them to take control of a situation and gain that recognition is to abuse someone else.

“The feeling of power this brings about then reinforces their belief about the self, resulting in a vicious cycle of abuse, which can already begin to show in childhood with abuse towards other children, often referred to as bullying,” Van Rensburg said.

He said abusive behaviours were also common in children whose parents were deceased or unable to care for them, and who are shunted from one household or place of care to the next.

“These children can identify themselves as being the problem. They become anxious and angry and can act this out in abusive behaviour towards others,” he said.

Quoting the Optimus Study on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in SA which states that more than 40% of young people in the country have experienced neglect or abuse of a sexual, physical or emotional nature at some point in their lives Van Rensburg explained that many abusers use insidious tactics to gain control over a person or situation.

Children who grow up witnessing abuse could consider that behaviour as normal or acceptable, and may then copy it and go on to abuse others.
Phillip van Rensburg

“Adults abusing children may, for example, gain the trust of their victims with material gifts or emotional manipulation, or they may instil fear with the use of threats to prevent the child from telling anyone.

“Abused children may act out abuse against their peers in the form of emotional intimidation, humiliation and physical violence. However, that is not to say that all children who are abused will become abusers, or that all abusers have themselves been abused, but there is often a link,” he said.

According to Van Rensburg, learnt behaviour is very much a part of the cycle of abuse.

“Children who grow up witnessing abuse could consider that behaviour as normal or acceptable, and may then copy it and go on to abuse others. This may not only relate to physical abuse but is commonly linked to emotional abuse too,” he said.

“This could be as outright, as in a parent telling their child that they are stupid and useless, for example, or could be something more calculated, such as using a child as a strategic pawn in a divorce. Any type of act on this spectrum of emotional abuse can invalidate the child, leading them to perpetuate emotional abuse towards others.”

Van Rensburg said when it comes to officially reporting a case of abuse there are steps that need to be taken, starting with the police and social services.

“Concrete evidence is required for the police to become involved. However, if an adult is aware of a case of abuse against a child, they should report it regardless of proof. It is also important to report the abuse to someone else within the family who can be trusted, to start building a team around the young person who needs help.”

Van Rensburg said therapy can be useful in cases where a psychiatric disorder exists, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Adherence to the correct medication is important.

“If the abuser is a child, it is important for them to receive help in working through the underlying issues that drive them to abuse others.

“Finally, at a societal level, we need to step away from stigmatisation and work towards conversation and healing if we are to break the cycle.”

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