x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Child abuse lessons can take a lifetime to unlearn

Parents have a crucial role in teaching their children how to love.

The effects of child abuse are profound and enduring. The damage can be worse when the abuser is a parent, psychologists say.

Children develop their ideas about trust, faith and love through their mother and father, said Suzanne McLean, a child psychologist in Dubai.

"Once that is destroyed, and over many years, I think it's incredibly difficult to build that again," Ms McLean said.

It is not unusual for abused children to lie for their parents, as Augustine did, said Naeema Jiwani, a child development psychologist in Dubai.

"Divulging the family secret would really tarnish the reputation of the parents," Ms Jiwani said. "As well as, what choice did she have? These were the only protectors who would provide her with shelter, food and education to a certain extent."

Childhood trauma can have physical effects that last into adulthood, including impaired brain development. About 80 per cent of abused children meet the criteria for at least one psychiatric disorder by age 21, Ms Jiwani said.

People abused as children are also more likely to end up in abusive relationships as adults.

"The way in which you are parented becomes your blueprint which you carry with you for the rest of your life," Ms Jiwani said. "Then they're looking for people, at a very unconscious level, that in some way or another emulate their parents, because that's their sense of security."

Yet some people are able to recover.

"It's what we like to call resilience," Ms Jiwani said. "It's this protective factor of hope in the face of misery."

Finding a support system - someone to listen - is key for many survivors.

"Just opening up to people can build that resilience," Ms Jiwani said. "Another body will contain and process these experiences, make sense of this history and feed it back to them in a way that protects them."

It is not unusual for parents to deny abuse, as Augustine's do.

"It is one of the top things people will do when they're facing something they don't want to face: they deny it," Ms McLean said. "It's not that they really don't recollect the incidents. Of course they do. Denial is a way of protecting themselves."

As well as being unwilling now to admit the abuse, Augustine's parents often told their young daughters they were lucky to live in the UAE.

"They think they did us a huge favour by not leaving us in India," Augustine says. "A lot of families had children back in India."

"One of the biggest aspects to consider is these parents don't know any better," said Ms Jiwani. "To them, that is the way of parenting. That's their definition."

vnereim@thenational.ae