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The Hidden Scars: How Exposure to Animal Abuse Can Harm Children

Updated: Nov 9, 2023


Animal abuse is a horrifying act that leaves both visible and emotional scars on the innocent animals who are subjected to it. What can often go unnoticed, however, is the psychological harm done to children who are exposed to animal cruelty.

Breaking News: A Positive Advancement in Child and Animal Welfare Rights

In a positive development, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has released General Comment 26, an in-depth explanation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.


This new commentary places special emphasis on the need to protect children from all forms of violence, extending this protection to include harm done to animals. The Committee states, "Children should be safeguarded from all forms of physical and emotional maltreatment, as well as from witnessing any kind of violence, whether it happens in the home or involves animal abuse."


By highlighting the importance of preventing animal cruelty in the context of children’s rights, this updated interpretation promotes a culture committed to empathy, respect, and the well-being of both children and animals.


Our ongoing psychosocial research, referred to as 'The Link,' further substantiates this viewpoint. It focuses on the interconnectedness between children's exposure to animal abuse and indirect harm caused to them, demonstrating how these issues often coexist or are interrelated in multiple ways.


The pain and suffering inflicted on animals through abuse can extend its impact to children who witness such acts. Children exposed to animal abuse may take steps to protect the animal, either by begging the abuser to stop or by physically intervening. In a study on abused mothers in a U.S. shelter, over half of their children reported attempting to safeguard their pets in a similar manner. However, when a child tries but fails to protect the animal, the feeling of helplessness can intensify the trauma, and the child may experience feelings of guilt or shame for being unable to prevent the abuse.


Other potential repercussions are discussed as follows.


Becoming Silent Witnesses

Children who witness animal abuse may often become silent. It is not because they're unbothered, but because they might be confused, scared or even threatened into silence. Children may fear that speaking up could lead the abuser to target them or escalate the abuse against the animal or other family members.


For younger children, the dynamics of abuse can also be confusing. They may not fully understand what they've witnessed or may have complicated feelings toward the abuser, particularly if it's a family member.


In some instances, the emotional burden of what they've witnessed can be so overwhelming for the child that they may retreat into silence as a coping mechanism. Some may internalise the trauma, leading to feelings of helplessness and resignation, which can manifest as silence.


The silence of a child who has witnessed animal abuse should be a significant concern, as it's often indicative of broader issues of trauma, abuse, or dysfunction. Professional intervention may be necessary, both to provide immediate protection to the child and animal.


Desensitisation to Violence

Witnessing abuse can also desensitise children. This desensitisation can result in a lack of empathy, making it easier for the child to either ignore future incidents of abuse or, in the worst-case scenario, become an abuser themselves. To this point, previous research has highlighted that children who abuse animals are more likely to be directly abused themselves.


Children exposed to animal abuse are also more likely to display signs of aggression and get involved in bullying. This behaviour can lead to a vicious cycle of abuse, where the child becomes both a victim and perpetrator.


Eroding Trust

The adults or caregivers committing the abuse are often people that the child trusts. This betrayal can lead to a deep erosion of trust, affecting the child's future relationships with spillover effects being other social and behavioural concerns. In this regard, a child’s exposure to animal abuse is not just a family problem but a social issue that demands community involvement.



Mental Health Support for Young Witnesses of Animal Abuse

Providing mental health support to children who have witnessed animal abuse can aid in emotional healing and help prevent the development of aggressive behaviours. Addressing the psychological needs of children who have witnessed animal abuse is a sensitive and complex task. Below are some techniques and strategies that may be employed, always tailored to the individual child's needs:


  • Narrative Healing in Trauma-focused CBT: This approach invites the child to share their traumatic experiences in a secure setting, aiding them in organising their thoughts and emotions. Alongside, trauma processing helps the child scrutinise their thought patterns and adopt more beneficial coping mechanisms.

  • Emotional Outlet through Play Therapy: This technique enables younger children to communicate their emotions and narrate their experiences by engaging in play. Utilising toys and activities as symbolic tools helps the child convey thoughts and emotions they might struggle to verbalise.

  • Artistic Emotional Release through Art Therapy: This avenue offers children a silent mode of expressing their innermost thoughts and emotions. The analysis of the artwork further aids in helping the children comprehend and vocalise their feelings and experiences.

  • Rebuilding Trust via Animal-assisted Therapy: This method assists the child in reestablishing emotional bonds and empathy with animals. The therapy animal's presence can also serve as a calming influence, reducing stress and anxiety during the sessions.

  • Family Support Integration in Family Therapy: Including the family in the therapeutic journey ensures a nurturing home setting for the child. Family members acquire valuable skills for discussing sensitive matters, such as trauma and abuse.

  • Trauma Insight through Psychoeducation: This component educates both the child and their family on the repercussions of trauma and the significance of mental health treatment. Families are also informed about supplementary aid and networks, including social services and animal welfare organisations.


Other Resources

  • Reporting and Intervention: It’s essential for schools, community centers, and medical professionals to be trained in identifying signs of exposure to abuse. Early intervention is crucial to mitigate long-term psychological harm.

  • Legal Support: Policy changes need to be implemented that allow for more straightforward reporting of animal abuse and immediate action, especially in households with children.


a woman with mid-length blonde hair hugging a dog with a happy expression on its face

Conclusion

The impact of exposure to animal abuse on children is a haunting issue that, if left unaddressed, can lead to lifelong psychological scars and perpetuate a cycle of violence. By acknowledging and addressing this problem, we are not only saving animals from harm but also protecting our children from the invisible wounds that can mar their future. Therefore, it is the collective responsibility of society to be vigilant, to report, and to intervene, for the sake of both our children and our animals.


Sentient Professional Wellbeing is strongly dedicated to the well-being of vets and other workers in the animal care sector. If you would like to speak with a mental health specialist, please don't hesitate to reach out for a confidential chat or for support: https://www.sentientpsych.com/contact.



Click the button below to learn more about expert support for animal abuse trauma survivors with mental health coach, Tani Khara:


Click the button below to learn more about animal grief and loss with counsellor, Holly Shires:



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