Abuse comes in many forms
In the second of a series of articles on sexual harassment and violence in the Jewish community, the Jewish Independent speaks with Dr. Alan Stamp, clinical director at Vancouver’s Jewish Family Services.
The #MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, is based on the concept that empowerment for scores of survivors is possible through empathy – from survivors knowing they are not alone. The movement aims to achieve radical community healing and disruption of all systems that have allowed sexual violence to flourish.
Dr. Alan Stamp, clinical director at Vancouver’s Jewish Family Services, stressed the particular need to protect children. From a psychological standpoint, around the age of 9, there is nothing worse than what is called a “boundary violation” of a young person inflicted upon him or her by an adult.
“Adults, parents, caregivers … are meant to keep kids safe,” Stamp told the Independent. “And when a child is abused by an adult figure, it breaks the trust that the child has – not only in that person, but it breaks their trust in the world. The world becomes an unsafe place to be.”
Stamp went on to explain that children have simple intellectual lives, in that they expect to be cared for in a way that is warm, nurturing and attentive. “When abuse happens, this is stripped away,” he said. “The impact on the developing psyche is that … I have to be vigilant, watchful, that there could be danger all around me…. And, it could be a teacher, an adult and/or a family member.
“The child puts a lot of focus on being vigilant rather than what they are meant to do, which is to learn through play, through relationships. So this is a very injurious act, probably the most injurious act a child can experience.”
Young people who have had this kind of experience develop all kinds of coping strategies – from withdrawing, to acting out, being aggressive and developing learning problems. These coping mechanisms can last a lifetime.
“I’ve had many clients over my life who, when they are in their 60s, 70s or 80s, they tell me they’ve never told anyone this story before … and they launch into a story about being harmed … and that it has had an effect on all the relationships they’ve gone on to have in their lives,” said Stamp. “This is why it’s so injurious to a child. If you’re an adult and you have the horrible misfortune of being assaulted or abused, you have had more life experience to be able to manage it. If abuse happens to a youth, while not a child any more, they’re still at a tremendous disadvantage. For young people, getting help, intervening as soon as possible for an extended period of time, really increases the potential for people to do better later in life.”
Outside of explicit sexual abuse, other forms of abuse include emotional abuse, which can involve behaviour that is berating, condescending, hostile or threatening.
“This can be telling a young person that, if you don’t get a top mark in your class, you’re going to ‘suffer these consequences’ – like withdrawing food, be sent to the basement as punishment, neglect, or any manner of things,” said Stamp.
Another form of abuse is physical. “I’ve seen kids who’ve been hit by cast-iron frying pans on their head,” said Stamp.
“I can tell you what parents are meant to do,” said Stamp. A parent “is meant to provide their child with guidance, affection, warmth, food, shelter and education. And, when a parent or caregiver is withholding things, punishing without a clear reason, disciplining inappropriately for the offence – all of these things are felt as abuse to a child.
“This is different than simply being a strict parent by sticking to boundaries, having guidelines, curfews and insisting that homework or chores are done,” he clarified. “This may be strict, but it’s not abusive. It’s abuse when an act or reaction is an inappropriate response to behaviour. A child may think she or he is being treated unfairly, but it is not necessarily abuse. Abuse is something that will shake up the developmental life of the child and will cause them to look at the world through a different lens. Being a strict or controlling parent isn’t necessarily abuse, but the line can be crossed.”
Financial abuse is more often seen among adults, when someone is in a relationship – a spouse, significant other or adult child, for example – takes control of the other’s bank account. Stalking is a form of psychological abuse, making a person feel threatened and unsafe in their own home, neighbourhood or community. And there is sexual harassment. Violence can be two-sided, where both parties are abusive toward each other, or one-sided.
“Elder abuse is now happening with tremendous frequency, where adult children are abusing their elderly parents,” said Stamp. “This is something that’s almost a pandemic, I think, in many – even North American – societies.”
For people who are in an abusive relationship, it is often difficult to leave an abuser. Violence against women is a form of very fierce oppression, according to Stamp. “It oppresses their spirit. They often will say that they should have left and that they knew they had to, but that they couldn’t – that they felt paralyzed with fear for themselves or of harm coming to them, their child or to other family members … or that they didn’t have the confidence to leave,” he said.
“The psychological or physical abuse of a spouse or partner is very systemic,” he explained. “It affects them in many ways. Often, women will take up to eight years to leave an abusive relationship – that’s a very telling stat. When they do leave, they can look back on it and say that they should have left earlier. What I advise is, ensure that you are safe, that you have a safety plan … that you can get up and out of the house with your child within minutes.”
Stamp advises people in abusive relationships to always include in their escape plan talking to family and friends about the situation, as well as to identify resources in their community, just in case. “There are many resources in the community for women fleeing domestic violence,” he said. “It’s a very scary proposition, but, to get what you want, you have to give something up. You have to fight for yourself and become your own hero in many ways, your own best friend. There is help, there are resources…. Life is not meant to be lived being oppressed, threatened or being fearful for your safety.”
Stamp said it is important to remember that abuse is often passed down in families. If you were raised in a home where your parents yelled at each other, hurt each other, used foul language or were otherwise disrespectful, you have a much greater chance of being abusive yourself.
“Using one’s anger is a way of trying to gain control and to oppress others,” said Stamp. “Abuse is something that tends to be systemic, so it can be familial…. It can go back in time and come back to haunt us in the present.
“I’ve seen and worked with many men who were abusive and I’d say that 85% of those men came from homes where they were abused. So, unless we’re addressing that kind of family situation and the people who use abuse as a way to control or manage themselves and others, we’re going to continue to see this pattern throughout time.”
Stamp said the only way to create change is by means of awareness and education – through campaigns, schools, reporting, and by having community services that can positively intervene.
For more information about the counseling services offered by JFS, visit jfsvancouver.ca or call Stamp at 604-637-3309.
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.