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Something Missing in Their Smile

By , Newport Beach, CA

Most people look back on their childhood and smile.  It was a time when laughter was infinite and tears only developed from an injury. But have you ever looked at a child and seen something missing in their smile?  I am going to take you on a personal journey through my childhood.  Sadly, it was my smile where there was something missing.  I had a childhood filled with fear and anxiety because of an abusive father. A time I would like to erase from my memory but since it is not possible, I have decided to use my experience to speak out and help prevent this type of event from happening to someone else.

Child abuse comes in many forms such as verbal, physical, emotional, neglect and maltreatment.  Some injuries are more visible while others leave deep internal scars that last a lifetime.  Over six million children per year are suffering from this hidden epidemic. The statistics are astonishing with approximately sixteen hundred children dying every year. What is more disturbing is eighty percent of those deaths as caused by a parent.  I feel lucky I was able to get out of my abusive situation, at a young age, so I did not become a statistic. My father was like a monster hiding under the bed. I remember some episodes of abuse and thinking to myself, “I never want to hurt my children.” According to Valarie Juntunen, Child Abuse Sourcebook, many myths surround child abuse and neglect. For instance, Juntunen states, “Myth #5: Abused children always grow up to be abusers. Fact: It is true that abused children are more likely to repeat the cycle as adults, unconsciously repeating what they experienced as children” (5).  I would have to disagree with her because many survivors are protective of their children and become well-balanced and loving parents.  During therapeutic group sessions and volunteering at domestic abuse shelters, I have found victims who have survived domestic abuse and have gained an intimate understanding on prevention.  Their knowledge and willingness to open up will help prevent abuse to continue in future generations.

Overcoming the cycles of abuse takes time. The first step is gaining enough courage to leave the abusive situation.  This sounds like an easy transition but for a victim leaving is more fearful than staying in the abusive environment.  For instance, maybe the abusers threats created doubt in the victim’s minds to make them want to stay. Every victim has his or her own specific way of dealing with the pain. Some decide to go to therapy, a support group or lean on family and friends.  Regardless how a person decides to find comfort, it is important to recognize what caused the abuse in the first place. I had to understand my father had psychological issues and his behavior was not my fault.  I always thought I had done something to provoke his anger. It was crazy because there were instances I was just sitting watching television.  Since I was only eight, I must have been watching something that made me happy but my happiness quickly turned into fear.  I recall his behavior changing instantly and his anger turning into rage.  His anger was like a locomotive roaring down the tracks. It could not be stopped or slowed down. All the abuse happened when my mother was not home or away on business.  My father would say, “Do not tell your mom this happened or I will kill her.”  My mother means the world to me so I kept my mouth shut but overtime the abuse got worst and the fear became unbearable. On the way to school one day, this is how the conversation between my father and I went.  Remember I was only eight years old at the time of this conversation.

My father said, “Your mother will not be picking you up from school today.”

“Why?” I said.

With his voice full of anger, he said,  “Well, she will be getting a new outfit today and it will be a pretty yellow.”

In my innocent voice I said, “Oh, mommy is going shopping?”

He said, with an evil laugh, “She will be getting a new yellow outfit which will be a body bag.”

The fear overwhelmed me.  I got out of the car and headed straight to my teacher. At that point, I had no choice but to tell the school.  They needed to protect my mother.  Standing in the office, I though to myself, “Was he on his way to hurt her right now?” The school called her immediately and had her come to the office.  The principle said, “You need to get out of the house immediately. Leave now.”  She walked in the office, I gave her a big hug and we both started to cry.  My mother said, “What is happening?” They told her what my father had said and explained how they were planning to protect us. !”  Later in the afternoon my mother told me her drive to school was the worst ten minutes of her life. She had no idea if something had happened to me.   It was a cold January morning but it was freeing as a bird flying in the wind.  If I had not informed the school about my father’s behavior, I think he would have harmed my mother.

Many studies have shown if schools provided education on domestic abuse then young people would be able to detect the warning signs. This would allow young children to use their voices so abuse can be stopped or prevented.  In the publication, Preventing domestic abuse for children and young people: A review of school-based interventions by Nicky Stanley, she believes that schools have the ability to educate young people with intervention and protection programs. She says,  “Moreover, since much of children's social learning takes place in school, educational settings appear to offer an appropriate environment for delivering learning about domestic abuse. Such thinking has resulted in the development of a range of preventive domestic abuse programs designed to be delivered in schools in North America” (120). These types of programs would have provided me the tools I needed to understand the abuse. Personally, if I had learned about the warning signs, I could have told my mother and we could have left the environment earlier. I feel educating young adults, giving them informative but age appropriate advice would be beneficial for a variety of reasons such as stopping the cycle of abuse before it affects future generations. 

Throughout the years, I have gained knowledge on why people are abusive.   Many repeat the behavior of their childhood while others have a wide range of mental illnesses, drug additions, and divorce as well as financial/poverty issues.  All factors lead to abuse.  The bigger question I ask and know the answer is “Why does a person allow the abuse?”  Child Abuse written by Lucinda Almond provides insight on why a person stays in abusive relationship and how they can overcome the mental aguish by getting help from a mental health professional.  Society can reduce and prevent abuse by diagnosing mental illnesses, childhood trauma and drug additions before the abuse happens. Almond clearly speaks about how child abuse of any type creates long-term emotional trauma for children such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression and suicide. The evidence is overwhelming that abuse, in any form, needs to be prevented immediately.

It took me years to talk about my abusive childhood until one day I was asked to speak at a domestic abuse fundraiser.  I was so scared because I had never spoken about it outside the walls of my house or my therapist office.  “Am I really going to tell my story?” I said.  Well, I did it and so many people came up to me and told me my story was encouraging.  Some of the people who came up to me were abused and were too scared to leave.  If my childhood experience and abusive past allowed me to help one person in the room, then my pain was worth it.  I still say in contact with the lady and her three children who attended the fundraiser.  She is now living a well-balanced, safe and free life because of my speech.  I am grateful that I came forward and told my story.  Abuse is not going to be stopped, reduced or prevented by keeping silent.  So next time you see a child on the street, on a playground or at a restaurant missing something in their smile, remember to smile back because you do not know what is going on in their life.

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