Child that is abused

Understanding And Intervention Are Key To Breaking The Cycle Of Child Abuse

In a country where violence against women and children is perpetuated and bullying in schools has tragic ramifications, many are asking the question: What can our society do to address the root cause of such behaviour, and how can we free our children and future generations from the cycle of abuse?

Phillip van Rensburg, a clinical psychologist practising at Akeso George, notes that in many cases abusers have experienced abuse in their own lives, either first-hand as a victim or by witnessing abuse in the family environment. 

“Abusers often come from a background where they did not feel validated as a child – where they were not made to feel accepted for who they are as a person. There are a few common situations in which this can occur,” Van Rensburg explains: 

  • A ‘poor fit’ at home – feeling like an outsider in the family.
  • A chaotic home – lack of structure and routines; a confusing, disruptive and disorganised environment; and high levels of unpredictability.
  • An abusive home – witnessing or being a victim of abuse in the home, be it emotional, physical or sexual. 
  • Other abusive environments – witnessing or being a victim of abuse outside the home, in other regularly frequented environments such as at school or the home of extended family or friends.

“A child in one or more of these types of dysfunctional situations can develop the belief that they are not recognised as a person and the only way for them to take control of a situation and gain that recognition is to abuse someone else. The feeling of power this brings about then reinforces their belief about the self, resulting in a vicious cycle of abuse, which can already begin to show in childhood with abuse towards other children, often referred to as bullying,” relates Van Rensburg. 

“Abusive behaviour is also common in children whose parents are deceased or unable to care for them and who are shunted from one household or place of care to the next. These children can identify themselves as being the problem. They become anxious and angry and can act this out in abusive behaviour towards others,” he says.

Understanding and intervention are key to breaking the cycle of child abuse

How abuse creeps in

According to the Optimus Study on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in South Africa*, over 40% of young people in the country have experienced neglect or abuse of a sexual, physical or emotional nature at some point in their lives. With many cases of abuse going unreported, the pervasiveness of the problem may be far greater. 

Phillip van Rensburg – clinical psychologist practising at Akeso George

Van Rensburg explains that many abusers use insidious tactics of gaining control over a person or situation. “Adults abusing children may, for example, gain the trust of their victims with material gifts or emotional manipulation, or they may instil fear with the use of threats to prevent the child from telling anyone. 

“Financial abuse of a female partner is another way that a male abuser may gradually work to gain control of a situation, disempowering her under the guise of taking care of her and the children and closing the doors to other choices and opportunities in their lives. This could then graduate to physical forms of abuse in the household, by which time he has such a high level of control that it immobilises the family and no-one speaks out,” he says.

“Abused children may act out abuse against their peers in the form of emotional intimidation, humiliation and physical violence. However, that is not to say that all children who are abused will become abusers, or that all abusers have themselves been abused, but there is often a link.” 

Setting the example

According to Van Rensburg, whether abuse has crept into a family or peer group, or whether it has always been there – such as for a child who has only ever known their parent to be abusive – an example is set for the children involved. 

“Learned behaviour is very much a part of the cycle of abuse. Children who grow up witnessing abuse could consider that behaviour as normal or acceptable, and may then copy it and go on to abuse others. This may not only relate to physical abuse, but is commonly linked to emotional abuse too. This could be as outright as a parent telling their child that they are stupid and useless, for example, or could be something more calculated such as using a child as a strategic pawn in a divorce. Any type of act on this spectrum of emotional abuse can invalidate the child, leading them to perpetuate emotional abuse towards others,” Van Rensburg cautions. 

Identifying child abuse

Van Rensburg asserts that when it comes to the perpetrators of abuse, there is no absolute rule and abuse of all types can occur in all situations. However, generally speaking, there are patterns that have been observed in certain relationships. “Neglect as well as emotional and physical abuse, are most commonly enacted by parents or guardians, the child’s primary caregivers. Sexual abuse, on the other hand, is often carried out by someone close to the family such as an extended family member or close friend. 

“Children who are being abused and are not telling anyone about it need help. Concerned family members or friends may first notice that something is wrong when a child or teen displays a sudden change in behaviour that is not transient. Signs to look out for may include:

  • Regression in functioning, such as bedwetting in young kids 
  • Depression or withdrawal in teens
  • Symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder such as flashbacks and/or anxiety
  • Aggression and/or agitation

Art therapy abuse

Getting help

Van Rensburg explains that when it comes to officially reporting a case of abuse there are steps that need to be taken, starting with the police and social services. “Concrete evidence is required for the police to become involved, however, if an adult is aware of a case of abuse against a child they should report it regardless of proof. It is also important to report the abuse to someone else within the family who can be trusted, in order to start building a team around the young person who needs help,” he advises. 

“A psychologist who suspects that a child is being abused may start by inviting the parents in for a conversation to understand events at home. Alternatively, the psychologist may involve a social worker from the outset who would then go to the home of the child and undertake an inspection, possibly with follow-ups, to assess the situation. 

“If you are an adult in whom a child has confided, it can be difficult to tread the fine line between keeping the child’s trust and getting help. It is important to let them know that you need to tell someone who can help because they are in danger, and the abuser may also abuse others.” 

Stopping the cycle

Van Rensburg asserts that there are many cases where an abuser is open to addressing the underlying issues that cause them to abuse. He notes that therapy can be useful and in cases where a psychiatric disorder exists, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, adherence to the correct medication can have a positive impact.

“Those who become violent after alcohol or substance abuse bring a whole new set of challenges into the mix, as the individual needs to work through the phases of denial, admission of a pattern and so forth. It is possible to make real change but it requires commitment and support.  

“If the abuser is a child it is important for them to receive help in working through the underlying issues that drive them to abuse others. This is not only for the sake of those negatively impacted by the child’s behaviour but also for the child in question, who may be suffering from abuse or other serious contributing factors.  

“Finally, at a societal level, we need to step away from stigmatisation and work towards conversation and healing if we are to break the cycle. It can be difficult to consider an abuser’s point of view, but the more we shun and stigmatise those who abuse rather than to get them the help they need, the more the cycle is perpetuated,” concludes Van Rensburg.  

For information about concentration and memory concerns or accessing mental health services or if you are in an emotional crisis, Akeso is here to help. Contact or visit or In the event of a psychological crisis, emergency support can be reached at 0861 435 787, where you can access a counsellor 24 hours a day.

Outpatient psychologist and occupational therapist consultations can be booked via and psychiatrist consultations through Netcare appointmed™, online at or by calling 0861 555 565. The COPE Therapy website also contains many useful blog posts on various issues and tips relating to mental health.

*Burton P, Ward CL, Artz L & Leoschut L (2015) The Optimus study on child abuse, violence and neglect in South Africa. Cape Town: Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention.line break

About the Akeso Group

Akeso is a group of private in-patient mental health facilities and is part of the Netcare Group. Akeso provides individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment in specialised in-patient treatment facilities, for a range of psychiatric, psychological and substance useconditions, as well as out-patient options. Please visit, or email for further information. In the event of a psychological crisis, please call 0861 435 787 to speak to a counsellor for assistance.

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