Tue | Jan 26, 2021

Michael Abrahams | Break the cycle of abuse

Published:Monday | November 30, 2020 | 12:06 AM

Andrea* was abandoned by her father, physically and emotionally abused by her mother, and sexually abused by her mother’s spouse. As an adult, Andrea now suffers from depression and has attempted suicide. She also has five children for five different men. Her financial situation is not good, and not all the fathers of her children are adequately fulfilling their roles in the lives of their offspring. What we see here is a cycle of dysfunction that shows no signs of abating.

I have heard persons of faith refer to generational curses, which they have attributed to demons or evil spirits. There is no objective evidence that these phenomena have a spiritual basis. However, there are rational psychological explanations for the persistence of dysfunctional behaviour throughout generations in some families.

Andrea’s situation provides us with a good example of how such dysfunction can be perpetuated. When a child is abandoned and abused, the stage is set for dysfunction later in life. The child is at an increased risk for poor performance in school, early onset of sexual activity, promiscuity, toxic relationships, drug abuse and dependency, a variety of mental illnesses and decreased life expectancy. Andrea has already fallen into several of these categories. Her children, being products of unstable relationships, with a dysfunctional mother and fragile family structures, are now at risk for being dysfunctional as adults; and if they have children, they are likely to be affected as well, and the cycle of trauma, dysfunction and pain will likely continue.

We are surrounded by these cycles. Sometimes we see them and do not realise what is taking place. Sometimes we are even in them and fail to realise that we are victims or perpetrators.

IDENTIFY THE FACTORS

But these cycles can be broken. However, for this to be done, we must identify the factors that set them in motion. Abuse and neglect of children, and exposing them to dysfunction, are often starting points. Prevention of this is an important step in addressing the issue. In this regard, responsible sexual behaviour should be advocated. Unplanned and unwanted pregnancies produce children who are at risk of being abused and/or neglected. And in order to promote responsible sexual behaviour, age-appropriate sex education for our children should become the norm. The topic makes many adults uncomfortable, but it is necessary. Today’s children are exposed to sexual content at younger ages than in the past, and without proper guidance, they risk travelling on paths that may be deleterious to their physical, mental, and social well-being. We should have frank conversations about sex with our children. After all, they are here because we had sex with their other parent.

In order to break the cycle, we must also acknowledge the mistakes our parents and guardians made with us and not repeat them. We must understand that just because we were raised a certain way and feel we are okay, does not mean it was the best for us and that we should raise our children in a similar fashion. For example, continuing research has shown that corporal punishment is not the best way to discipline children and that the negative effects outweigh the benefits. We must also understand that having children and sending them to live with other family members, such as grandmothers and aunts, may not be in their best interest. Maybe your parents did not show you affection or tell you that they love you, and you are okay with that. But telling your children that you love them, hugging them, showing them affection, and affirming them helps to produce confident, loving and empathetic human beings.

We need to be on the lookout for sexual predators. The incidence of child abuse is unacceptably high, and the long-term consequences can be devastating. We must be mindful of the people we let into our children’s spaces and have conversations with our kids about inappropriate interactions involving older children and adults. If a child reports abuse, we should not dismiss them. Any report of abuse of a child is to be taken seriously and investigated. And if you know of other children being abused, the incidents should be reported to the relevant authorities.

A wise man once told me, “Your history does not have to be your destiny.” He is correct. Our cycles of dysfunction can be broken. We should all aim to be cycle breakers.

*Not her real name

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator, and human-rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.