We are very conscious of violent physical abuse of children because of the publicity around resulting deaths. However, neglect and psychological stress can be at least as important, or even more important, a problem as physical and sexual abuse. We also seem to be unaware of the long-term psychological results of child abuse.
Our ignorance of non-physical child abuse and its long-term psychological effects means we often don’t acknowledge the harm done to many children.
Child abuse survivors suffer from long-term post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms such as flashbacks, nightmares, intrusive negative thoughts, low self-esteem, compulsive behaviour, anger, disturbed sleep, hyper-vigilance, shame, guilt, etc. are common.
Persistent psychological abuse of children can result from continual disparaging comments or continual exposure to physical and verbal violence between adult care-givers and parents. Psychological stress can also result from the controlling behaviour of care-givers.
Religious abuse of children
Religion is beginning to be recognised as a possible source of psychological stress on children. This is particularly so for children raised in exclusive religious cults and sects.
Jill Mytton, a former member of a religious group called the Exclusive Brethren, is a counseling psychologist who works with child abuse survivors and has many escapees from such sects among her patients. She was interviewed about this by Richard Dawkins for the TV series “The Root of all Evil?”
The uncut video of this, and the other interviews made for this series, is now available on DVD. I found this hour-long interview one of the most interesting and recommend it to anyone interested in the problem of religious abuse of children and its long-term effects.
Suppression of a personal moral sense
Mytton stresses that although religious child abuse is not restricted to cults like the Exclusive Brethren a religious upbringing can be healthy – provided it occurs in an open and flexible atmosphere. If this is absent the child can suffer from the stultification of a personal moral and intellectual sense.
This happens when the naturally inquisitive mind of the child is suppressed and a religious “truth” and morality are imposed. The child is not brought up to develop their own belief system, or even to be aware that there are other belief systems. They are dependent on a system imposed by their religion or parents.
Some religions produce a childhood dominated by fear – a real fear of hell, of disapproval in the present and of eternal damnation. This is a trauma which has effects lasting well into adulthood.
The judgemental atmosphere of some religions produces a stunted appreciation of love in the child. All she gets is conditional love and continually seeks to avoid judgment and to search for limited rewards.
As well as preventing critical assessment of information closed religious sects also restrict the availability of information through control of education, access to TV, films and compiuters. Social activity ios also restricted.
Limiting the natural inquiring mind
Mytton describes how she now has difficulty understanding the concept of ‘friend’ because of social restrictions in her childhood. She is also aware that she feels the need to ask for permission to investigate controversial issues – her natural sense of inquiry has been restricted. Escapers from such cults usually have great difficulty dealing with normal social activity. Personal decisions are difficult because this experience was denied them within the cult.
Unhealthy religions don’t allow children to ask questions – consequences can be harsh for an inquiring child. The natural inquiring mind of the child is suppressed.
As with physical and sexual forms of child abuse the motivation of the abusers, the relgious leaders, is usually their desire to control – to have a sense of power.
Bishop Richard Harries (On line video of uncut interview for The Root of all Evil?)
Alister McGrath (On line video of uncut interview for The Root of all Evil?)
‘Root of All Evil? The Original Program’ available now on DVD
‘Root of All Evil? The Uncut Interviews’ Released on DVD