Caring for Abused Children with Mental Disorders

For many of us, child abuse is an unpleasant subject that we would rather not discuss because of how uncomfortable it makes us. Sticking our heads in the sand won’t stop it from happening though. According to some estimates, roughly 1.2 to 3 million children suffer from some form of child abuse, whether it’s neglect or physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. As a care giver, you play a critical role in helping these kids reclaim their childhood. Your support doesn’t just break the cycle of trauma and violence, but can also give them a safe space to play, learn, and thrive. Of course, this is easier said than done and it’s often complicated because of the high risk of mental illness in victims of child abuse.

Child abuse and neglect and the development of mental illness disorders

When dealing with children who have been victims of abuse, we tend to assume that they are most likely to suffer from some form of PTSD. While many kids do suffer from the condition, it is by no means the only mental illness that afflicts them. A large scale study that looked at the records of more than 400,000 patients found that children who have suffered from abuse are at a much higher risk of serious mental disorders. They are twice as likely to develop an anxiety disorder or depression, as well as serious mental illnesses such as psychoses, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder

Caring for Abused Children with Mental Disorders

The most important thing you can do when caring for an abused child with mental illness, is to find the appropriate mental health professional. You’ll want someone with both expertise and experience in dealing with children with similar problems. Ideally, this would be a therapist or counselor who has specialized in child abuse counseling. These mental health professionals can help children work through their trauma to live healthy and happy lives. Most importantly, therapists who have experience dealing with child abuse victims understand the high risk of mental health issues. In addition to helping kids overcome their trauma, they also work on relieving and managing mental health conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, depression, or somatization disorder. These therapists will also be able to diagnose more serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and may also prescribe appropriate treatment or would recommend you to psychiatrists who are qualified to do so.

Treatment options can vary, depending on the type of mental illness, but in most cases play therapy is the primary approach. This is an effective strategy as it allows the therapist to interact with and address traumatic experiences in a manner that is non-threatening. Instead of engaging in direct conversations over past experiences, the focus is on communication through play or toys. Play therapy is regarded as one of the best treatment options for victims of child abuse who suffer from mental illness because these sessions offer a relaxed atmosphere, as well as therapeutic benefits. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another form of treatment therapy that is highly valued, especially when dealing with childhood PTSD. CBT can be empowering for children with behavioral problems as it allows them to identify and replace maladaptive thoughts and behaviors with problem-solving skills to tackle those thoughts. Therapy will often also involve drug and alcohol prevention or intervention strategies, as many children go on to develop substance abuse problems later in life.

Kids and adolescents spend a considerable amount of their time in school, giving educators greater access to them than most other professionals. This means that teachers and school counselors can play a major role in helping children overcome abuse, ensuring that the school or classroom is a safe space. As a care giver, it makes sense for you to work closely with your child’s school to develop a better understanding of your child’s needs, so that they can better serve your child. Laws that were originally enacted to protect children with disabilities from discrimination can also benefit your child, especially when mental health disorders affect school performance. When communicating with educators, it would be a good idea to also include the mental health professionals who are treating your child. Depending on the needs of your child, schools can come up with individualized education programs or a 504 plan.

Care for Yourself

The complexity of caring responsibilities can be overwhelming for most parents, guardians, and care givers. The onset of mental illness in a child is hard to deal with under normal circumstances and it is even harder when the illness is a result of child abuse. Not surprisingly, caregivers of abused children with mental disorders are themselves subject to immense psychological, emotional, and social challenges. As a caregiver, it’s important that you don’t neglect self-care, because it’s simply not possible to be effective when you are in a state of physical and emotional fatigue. If you feel overwhelmed, reach out to social organizations, support groups, and NGOs for help.


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