Picture two boys growing up in the same neighborhood. Both are 10. Both live in middle-class neighborhoods. Both are in-telligent. Both witnessed their fathers beating their mothers. Their fathers beat both of them. Both experienced sexual abuse. The person who sexually abused Rob was his father. The person who sexually abused Marty was an older kid in the neighborhood.
One will grow into responsible adulthood: optimistic, a lov-ing husband and father, and a dependable employee. The other will become a prison inmate.
What creates the difference in these two lives?
Rob: Trust in Others
Rob confided in a friend named Pete when his father beat him and when he had worries about school, friendships, and money. He learned from Pete’s father how to fix electronic equipment. He tried to be like his friend’s father. He liked school and enjoyed playing with other kids at school and in the neighborhood
As Rob grew older, his circle of friends widened. He devel-oped hopes and dreams for the future. He kept a diary where he recorded secret stuff about his troubles in his fami-ly, his feelings for girls, and how his day went. He got drunk at a party when he was 16 and didn’t like the feeling of being out of control. After that he drank only occasionally, and not too much.
As a young adult, Rob sought help with his feelings of anger, sadness, and frustration about the abuse he experienced as a child.
Marty: Broken Trust
Marty, at the age of eight, confided in a teacher that his father beat him. He also wanted to tell the teacher about the older boy in the neighborhood who sexually abused him, but he thought he would wait to see how the teacher handled the news of his physical abuse. The teacher called his father, who said he had never beaten Marty. When Marty got home from school, his father beat him for telling the teacher.
Marty never confided in anyone again. Instead, he tried to be tough, like men he saw in video games and on TV. They didn’t feel hurt or helpless. They took what they wanted. They were in charge.
By the age of 10, Marty was stealing from stores and harass-ing other children, physically and sexually. At 11, he joined a group who stole and sometimes attacked others, vandalized property, and used alcohol and drugs. Marty told himself he was having fun.
At 14, Marty was in a juvenile correctional center. Five years later, he was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison for criminal sexual conduct.
Similar Risks, Different Outcomes
As children, Rob and Marty were both at risk for committing violent acts. One had on-going relationships with people he trusted and in whom he confided about personal, sensitive information. Doing so helped him feel better. Positive expe-riences and relationships were protective factors.
Marty had some protective factors, but a pile-up of risk fac-tors overwhelmed them. His life might have been far different had their been early and effective responses to his report of physical abuse at home.
Many people have risks for outcomes like Marty’s, but most people with these risks turn out like Rob because they have many positive factors in their lives that they use to help them work through the effects of these risks.
Such people are resilient, meaning they have learned to cope with adapt to, or overcome risks, because they use the posi-tive things in their lives. Other people are not resilient. In Marty’s case, he made a decision early in life never to trust anyone else. He was far too young to understand the conse-quences of his decision.
When we look at the numbers of children who are hurt and afraid, what can each of us do to help these children build the trust required to begin to deal with the difficult events in their lives?
We cannot provide hurt children with the professional help they require, but perhaps many of us can become bridges for hurt children, bridges that lead to safe and secure relation-ships with competent professionals who can help children deal with the harsh realities in their lives.
In the best of all worlds, the children’s parents will walk with their children across that bridge to professional help. When parents cannot do this, then their children will have a tough-er time, but they may be lucky as Rob was and find a network of people who will care about them and stick with them over the long term.
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Gilgun, Jane F., & Laura S. Abrams (2005). Gendered adaptations, resilience, and the perpetration of violence. In Michael Ungar (Ed.), Handbook for working with children and youth: Pathways to resilience across cultures and context (pp. 57-70). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Gilgun, Jane F. Christian Klein, & Kay Pranis. (2000). The significance of resources in models of risk, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 14, 627-646.
Gilgun, Jane F., & Alankaar Sharma (2008). Child sexual abuse. In Jeffrey L. Edleson & Claire M. Renzetti (Eds.) Ency-clopedia of Interpersonal Violence (pp. 122-125). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gilgun, Jane F., Susan Keskinen, Danette Jones Marti, & Kay Rice. (1999). Clinical applications of the CASPARS instruments: Boys who act out sexually. Families in Society, 80, 629-641.