1. Physical Abuse
(GIF from this amazing short film/PSA on child abuse, which you should absolutely check out.)
Physical abuse doesn’t always consist of simply punching or hitting.
It can also involve:
How to write it:
Remember that in only the most severe cases will the abuser be abusive all the time: more often than not, they will behave as “normal” or even loving parents to the child at least some of the time. This will often be emotionally confusing to the child, and make them feel as though they did something to warrant it when the parent eventually explodes.
Oftentimes, physical abuse will coincide with alcohol addiction. Other times, the parent will legitimately believe that physical abuse such as beatings, whippings, and spankings, will help their child to be a better person. Others believe it’s simply a natural power dynamic that should exist: when I was younger, for instance, I remember an acquaintance of my father complain that you “can’t even slap your kid anymore, or they’ll send you to jail for child abuse.”
When depicting physical abuse on paper, understated language will often have the most emotional impact. The last thing you want is for a child abuse scene to become unintentionally hilarious.
For instance, this:
Sandy’s father struck him again and again, his fist a merciless hammer. Agony wracked his young body, already riddled with black and purple bruises. Anguish racked his soul, cry after cry tearing its way from his lungs. When would it end? When would the abuse stop? When would he get the chance to be a child for once in his life?
Would be significantly less effective than this:
“I said shut up, ya little shit!” Sandy’s father barked.
His hand struck Sandy, hard, across the face, leaving a tender pickened mark across his cheek. Sandy brought a hand up to touch it delicately, tears pricking his eyes as he turned and quietly shuffled away.
Don’t be an exhibitionist, and don’t rely on drawing the audience’s attention with a spectacle. Keep things simple and honest, and trust in your audience to feel the emotional weight of it.
How to avoid it:
2. Mental and Emotional Abuse
How to write it:
As with physical abuse, mentally and emotionally abusive parents very rarely appear abusive all the time, and can outwardly seem like great and loving people. Keep this in mind when depicting them – abusive parents will frequently be a lot more chilling and realistic when you show that they can also be loving and sympathetic.
As Stephen King put it, “murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.” The same philosophy applies to almost any kind of monster or monstrous behavior.
As for writing the abuse itself, oftentimes, it will be passive aggressive:
Luna’s mother looked up from her newspaper, arching a judgmental eyebrow. “Eating again, are we?”
Luna looked down at the yogurt in her hands, and then sheepishly back to her mother. “It’s just my breakfast,” she pointed out. “That weight-loss book you bought me said-”
“You know no one’s ever gonna love you if you don’t lose weight, sweetie,” said her mother knowingly. “No boy wants to marry a girl whose thighs are thicker than he is.”
Luna’s face fell.
“Oh, come now; don’t give me that look.” Her mother went back to her paper, casually sipping her coffee. “You know I’m only telling you because I want what’s best for you. And everyone else is thinking it anyway.”
Luna swallowed dryly. Suddenly she didn’t feel so hungry anymore.
Note that emotionally abusive parents will often use looking out for the child’s well-being as a scapegoat.
Other times, it will be a lot more blaring:
“That shirt makes you look like a damn faggot, boy,” Eli’s father grunted, taking another swig of his whiskey.
His breath reeked of liquor that Eli could smell from where he was folding laundry halfway across the room, focusing on his task and pretending not to listen.
“Is that what you want?” his father sneered, evidently unsatisfied with his lack of reaction. “You want everyone who looks at you to think you’re a goddamn cock-sucker?”
“No sir,” Eli muttered. He could feel the hateful flint of his father’s eyes boring into his back.
“Ha!” his father spat. “Shoulda left you at a damn foster home when you’re moma left you. She didn’t want you, and I don’t want you neither.” He took a final swig of his whisky. “Goddamn lazy queer.”
Eli breathed a silent sigh of relief as he heard the floor creak softly under his father’s receding footsteps. He tensed when he heard him pause by the door.
“And hurry up with my damn laundry, would ya?” he called. “I work too damn hard keepin’ a roof over your head for you to slack off.”
“Yes sir,” said Eli. He didn’t dare look up.
With a final grunt, his father departed the room. Eli knew already that once he was sober, he probably wouldn’t remember any of this.
Also note that substance abuse (most frequently alcohol) coincides with or triggers abuse, and that emotional abuse frequently involves slurs attacking the child’s disabilities, sexual orientation, or even race (though if you are a White author, I would personally recommend against ever using the N-word or other racial slurs in your writing.)
How to avoid it:
3. Verbal Abuse
This one coincides with mental and emotional abuse, so I’ll keep it somewhat briefer, but it merits a point all its own anyway.
Child neglect is one of the most prevalent forms of child abuse in the Western world, and also one of the most easily dismissed.
Parents, well-meaning or otherwise, may routinely neglect to pick their children up from school, for example (thus forcing them to make long walks and possibly be put in danger in the process), lock them out of the house, forget to feed them, fail to provide them with enough food, give them age-inappropriate responsibilities, or leave them unsupervised for inappropriate periods of time or in dangerous situations.
It may also take a more emotional form, when the parents don’t acknowledge the child’s need for affection and camaraderie, and never offer them physical or emotional comfort.
Sometimes, neglect is most prevalent when children are in dangerous or abusive situations, or outright disregard them: I know of children who attempt to tell their parents they had been raped or sexually abused, only for the parents to trust the abuser’s word over theirs.
Like any form of abuse, child neglect can take any number of forms, poses an extremely serious risk to the child, and frequently does irreparable psychological and emotional damage.
When depicting it, be sure not to shrug off the parents’ behavior with a “they were doing their best” type excuse: in any kind of abusive situation, the first priority should be the well-being of the victim, not the abuser.
How to avoid it:
There are others, including spiritual abuse and financial abuse, as discussed by Psych Central here, but these (like CSA) warrant posts all their own.
In the meantime, best of luck and happy writing!
About the Author
Brooksie C. Fontaine is an author and illustrator, currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing.