Child development can be defined as the psychological and biological changes in children between birth and the end of adolescence (Minett 2001). Every child goes through a developmental process. Every child is unique and develops differently from all others. Except for identical twins, we all inherit our own particular genetic structure from our parents (Empson et al., 2004); this forms the basis for biological roots for behaviour and development. Three main factors affect how a child grows and develops; their inherited genes, environment, and health (Minett 2001). The nature-nurture debate concerns the influences of a person’s environment and those of genetics (Hard, Heyes 1987). Most writers now agree that a combination of both factors makes a person who they are.
A child’s environment at home can effect their development. For example, where the child lives, who the child lives with, if the child is loved and wanted, the child’s friends, and whether a child is encouraged to learn (Minett 2001). In addition, how their family raises a child can influence how a child develops. Family beliefs and morals will create certain opportunities for a child but may remove or restrict others. However, which of these factors can shape the development of children in their first ten years, and how severe or long-lasting may they be. With this in mind, two factors that can be considered are bereavement and sexual abuse.
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Child sexual abuse has no universal definition. However, a fundamental characteristic of child sexual abuse is the central position of an adult that allows them to force or coerce a child into sexual activity. If a child is below the age of consent, they may be deemed to have been sexually abused when a sexually mature person has become sexually gratified after engaging the child in any activity. Child abuse is not only limited to physical contact; another kind of sexual abuse is non-contact abuse. Non-contact abuse includes indecent exposure, voyeurism, and child pornography (Glaser, Frosh 1993).
Some writers have suggested that children and young people show sexually harmful behaviour directly to their own sexual abuse (Finkelhor et al., 1986). This idea would clearly show that a child’s development is affected by sexual abuse, turning the abused into the abuser. Research has indicated that 50% of children and young people who have committed sexual abuse have themselves been the victims of abuse. However, this does not mean that all children who are sexually abused become abusers, children who have not been the victims of abuse can also develop this behaviour (Lovell, 2002).
It has been suggested by clinical literature that sexual abuse during childhood can effect development to such a degree that serious problems in later life may occur, ranging from eating disorders to prostitution. In addition, clinical observations that show children suffering negative emotional effects from childhood sexual abuse have been supported by several studies (Finkelhor et al.,1986). This would indicate that although the abuse suffered is physical; it may have psychological effects on emotional development.
There may be physical and emotional changes in a child if they are sexually abused. Physical signs of sexual abuse can be; sexually transmitted infections, genital discharge or urine infections, and bruising or bleeding in the anal or genital areas. Emotional signs of abuse may include a profound change in a child’s behaviour; they may turn unusually aggressive or become quiet and withdrawn. Their schoolwork may be affected, and they may refuse to school (NSPCC, 2008 [online]. If children do not attend school, their language development may be affected. For language to develop, a child must interact with parents and other people outside the school, although education is also an important factor. At school, a child learns more complicated rules of language structure and increases their vocabularies (Santrock, 2005). They may also show a surprising fear or mistrust of a certain adult. Sexually explicit language or behaviour may be seen, and the child may talk of a special secret they may have with an adult or young person (NSPCC, 2008 [online]).
Consequently, such signs show that although the abuse may be physical, it can affect different areas of child development. There can be long-term effects on a child’s health if a sexually transmitted disease infects them. Their social life may also be affected; strong friendships may break down if a child becomes aggressive towards others. A child’s learning development may also be effected if a child refuses to attend school. Clinical reports have shown that child sexual abuse is linked to depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of guilt, phobias, nightmares, bedwetting, adolescent pregnancies, and attempted suicides (Glaser, Frosh 1993). These can be short and long-term effects. The most commonly reported clinical symptom in adults that were abused as children is depression. The roots of depression are in people’s past experiences, how they feel about themselves and their thoughts about the world. Depression can cause physical changes like tiredness and lack of appetite (Finkelhor et al., 1986).
As a result, the child may change physically and emotionally when they reach adulthood. Children often feel confused, frightened or distressed when the sexual abuse occurs and may also feel physical pain. Their experience of sexual behaviour at a young age is inappropriate and traumatic. Sex becomes associated with negative feelings due to the physical and emotional pain involved. These feelings can be carried on into adulthood and may lead to a fear of sex, touching or intimacy (Ainscough, Toon 2002). Therefore, a child’s sexual, emotional and social development can be affected by the abuse they have suffered. To summarise, child sex abuse can affect all areas of children’s development. Some of these effects on a child’s physical and emotional development can be short-term and some longer-lasting. A great deal depends on the support and love a child is given after the abuse.
Bereavement can also affect the development of a child. The word bereavement is used to describe the loss that someone feels when someone close to them dies. Grief is the emotion that people go through due to the loss of someone they cared for (Childline, 2008 [online]). Emotional bereavement in childhood can effect a child just as much as an adult; the effects can be devastating and may last for years (Wells, 1988). Children are likely to feel a range of emotions when someone dies. Factors that affect how a child responds to death include their age, their understanding of death, how the person died, the child’s relationship to the person who has died, and how others around them deal with the death. Research has indicated that if a bereaved child is not supported sufficiently, they are likely to encounter a loss of self-esteem (Job, Frances 2004). This would be a sign that a bereaved child’s emotional development can be effected.
There have been studies that have linked adult psychiatric disorders with the death of a parent in childhood. The details of these studies vary; although all believe age is a significant factor, a child is at high risk for future problems if they are under ten when a parent dies. Also, girls who lose their mothers when they are under 12 can be prone to depressive illnesses (Wells, 1988). This would show that childhood bereavement may affect a child’s psychological development. “Research suggests that children and young people who have been bereaved are more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and use drugs. Children and young people who are bereaved suddenly and violently have been identified as being particularly at risk, with those who witness the manner of death being more disadvantaged.” (Harrison, 2001 cited in Job, Frances 2004). This would indicate that childhood bereavement can affect physical health and social aspects of development.
Some writers strongly believe that the grief that lingers into adulthood is also due to the death of a parent, despite how that loss is handled. The first love a child knows is a parent’s love; although a lot will depend on how the parent reacted to and nurtured that love, it will be a huge loss for the average child with overwhelming impact. Whether the initial feeling that a child suffers – anger, withdrawal, negative behaviour – later on, turn into pathological problems depends on the support a child receives, the relationship the child had with the person that died and the situation in which the death took place (Wells, 1998). Anthropologists who have written a vast amount about the morning customs of other cultures have been more concerned with the rituals rather than the emotions of the bereaved. However, there is enough evidence to show that the emotional responses are similar in broad outline and frequently in great detail to those well-known to people in the western world. There is a big difference in social customs worldwide, but the way a person responds to death stays the same (Bowlby, 1998).
A young child’s ability to maintain sad emotions increases with age. A noticeable lack of sadness can lead a parent to think a child is not affected by the loss, whereas for other children, the effects will be apparent. Some children may start wetting the bed or have a loss of appetite. They may also find it hard to get to sleep and may complain of nightmares. These are all normal signs and are only a cause for concern if they last for a long period of time. Children may show attention-seeking behaviour, become clingy, and find it difficult to concentrate (Childline, 2008 [online]). Attention-seeking behaviour may be seen at school in the form of negative behaviour. This could therefore have an impact on a child’s learning and social development.
An anticipated death and a sudden death are very different. If a parent dies in an accident or through suicide or murder, the instant reaction is one of disbelief and shock. In these circumstances, it is likely for persistent grief to occur. There is no time to prepare for what happens when someone dies suddenly, and you cannot say goodbye. There may also be a feeling of unfinished business. A child may feel angry with the person who has died; frustrated that they cannot do activities they planned together. When the death of a parent is expected, children must be prepared. A child needs to be communicated with because they will know something is wrong due to the behaviour of the adults around them. Some adults may not tell a child the truth and may make up a story about the person who has died, but a child will find out eventually and may resent the people who lied to them (Child Bereavement Charity, 2008 [online]).
To summarise, as with child sex abuse, childhood bereavement can affect many areas of childhood development. The effects on these areas greatly depend on how close a child was to the person who died, the death’s circumstances, and how adults support them. In conclusion, both factors that I have considered about child development are similar in some ways but very different in others. They are similar in that both factors can affect areas of child development, and how a child reacts to these factors depends a lot on the support they are given. But they are very different because bereavement is something that everyone in life has to deal with at some stage, and child sex abuse is something that most people never have to contend with.
- Ainscough, C. Toon, K, (2002) Breaking Free, London, Sheldon Press, second impression.
- Bowlby, J (1998) Loss Sadness And Depression, London, Primlico, Second edition.
- Child Bereavement Charity [Online]. Available from: http://www.childbereavement.org.uk/ [accessed 25 November 2008].
- Finkelhor et al (1986) A Sourcebook On Child Sexual Abuse, USA, Sage Publications.
- Glaser, D. Frosh, S (1993), Child Sexual abuse, London, The Macmillan Press LTD, second edition.
- Job, N. Frances, G (2004) Childhood Bereavement, London, National children’s bureau, 2004
- NSPCC [Online]. Available from: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/default.html [accessed 5 December 2008].
- Santrock, J (2005) Psychology, New York, The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc, Seventh edition.
- Wells, R (1998), Helping children cope with grief, London, Sheldon Press.