The Signs and Significance of Unintentional Abuse

Unintentional Abuse
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Is there such a thing as unintentional abuse? Absolutely. I experienced it myself.

Author, therapist, and columnist Támara Hill, MS, NCC, LPC-BE, MS, specializes in working with children and adolescents suffering from behavioral and mood disorders. She helped educate me about the realities of unintentional abuse and what it looks like.

So, what exactly is it?

Hill notes that unintentional abuse is often perpetrated by someone emotionally unavailable to provide adequate emotional or physical care to a child. The unintentional abuser does not maliciously intend to harm or intimidate a child but does just that through:

  • Lack of knowledge
  • Poor parenting skills
  • Being emotionally unavailable to or ignoring a child
  • Refusing to offer emotional support or love
  • Misplacing anger or blame onto a child
  • Engaging in controlling behaviors
  • Behaving in a self-centered or even narcissistic manner
  • Being judgmental
  • Responding negatively to common, everyday situations

Hill cites an example of a mother who may be extremely depressed, suffering from postpartum depression after the birth of her third child. While trying to care for herself, the newborn, her other two children, and her husband, she may snip at her 4-year-old to eat dinner on time and yell at her 8-year-old to do his homework. This may have only started after the birth of the third child and now occurs on a daily basis.

My personal experience has to do with the mental illness of my mother. A very sweet and loving woman, she has struggled with obsessive compulsive disorder her entire life, and her OCD definitely impacted our family and household via hoarding and other obsessive behaviors. While I never felt unloved or unsafe, there was a direct unintentional effect on us from living with a caregiver who wanted to be available for her kids and tried her best to be so but who lived with an affliction that more often than not assumed the front seat.

The term “unintentional” is a bit controversial: there is no clear definition of how and when to use this term because it covers varying degrees of severity and impact on children. The lack of definition or even acceptance of this type of abuse is problematic, according to Hill, because when children appear to be well taken care of, perform well in school, live in nice homes, and have their immediate needs met, the possibility of unintentional abuse is often overlooked.

While abuse of any type can be insidious and is well hidden in many families, the unintentional nature of some abuse makes it all the more difficult to identify and help the affected children.

Hill suggests, “The best way to protect yourself from becoming the perpetrator of unintentional abuse is to become sensitive to or aware of your emotional reactions, especially during stressful times in your life.” Family members, friends, and others may need to play a more active role in providing a support system for children in the care of people suffering from mental illness.

References National child abuse statistics. Child abuse in America. Retrieved October 24, 2013.



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