The Root of Child Abuse: Anger
Professor Harry J. Gaynor, Ph.D.
President, National Burn Victim Foundation
Member, The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress'
Board of Scientific and Professional Advisors



While this paper focuses on child abuse by burning, it covers other areas of violence: children killing their parents, teachers, schoolmates. The danger signals that disturbed minds send and the anger signs may not be recognized or taken seriously by family members, friends, teachers, or neighbors, until tragedy strikes.

Child abuse by burning is one of the most difficult of injuries to identify properly and to investigate. The search for solutions has been varied, sometime haphazardly and based on innate guesswork, unfounded preconceptions and myths with little, if any, scientific input.

Of 1,356 cases of suspected child abuse reported to the National Burn Victim Foundation (NBVF) between 1975 and 1996, spontaneous acts of violence against children were involved in 176 cases (14%). In 168 of those cases (97%), the parent or guardian caring for the child was known to have an aggressive response behavior. In four cases, the perpetrator was identified as passive. There were four cases of premeditated acts of violence. Of the abusers, males totaled 79 (45%) and females 97 (55%). Two cases were homicides by burning.

Cases involving ignorance and/or willful neglect totaled 466 (35%) of the 1,356 cases. It was determined that accidents accounted for 712 (53%) of the suspicious burn incidents. I could find no data to support the opinion of some medical professionals that major burn insults or the severity of the injury occurred mostly in abuse incidents. Major, moderate and minor burns occurred in all areas of abuse, neglect and accident. Scalding burns totaled 952 (70%) while hot surface contact burns totaled 253 (19%). Other causes of skin irritation wrongfully identified as burns were diarrhea (68), insect bites (39), Ritter's disease (9) and allergies (35).

The aggressive response person is generally reported to be preoccupied with self, displays selfish behavior, and does not give adequate attention to the needs of others. That person displays a lack of concern for the impact anger will have on the recipient. Violent, aggressive response behavior includes verbal and physical attacks on others, labeling others, putting others down, teasing, humiliation of others and sometimes blatant sarcasm. Seen as a person with a short fuse, the aggressive response person may possess not only a quick temper but also a nasty disposition and may act impulsively. Any one or combination of these traits is a "red flag" when searching for a motive in cases of child abuse by burning, or any act of physical violence.

On the other hand, the passive person is aware of hostile anger but keeps it down. If problems persist over time, a blowup or emotional breakdown can be expected. The passive behavior person may avoid the problem, use the "silent treatment," display apathy, use subtle sarcasm, forget things, and does not give adequate attention to personal needs.

When there is a mystery as to how a child was burned and there appears to be no motive, that is the time to explore, in depth, whether the person responsible for the child at the time of the incident is known to possess an aggressive response behavior. A common error is to assume prematurely that the character of the adult is impeccable. An articulate, glib person is capable of covering up a quick temper; that person can and does demonstrate remorse when appropriate. During an investigation, friends, family and associates generally will express an opinion as to whether an adult has a quick temper. If that is established, then a psychological profile follows to identify the adults strengths and weaknesses and determination of whether that individual fits the mold of an aggressive, quick-tempered person.

The Bible addressed "anger" in Proverbs 14, verse 17: "A quick tempered man does foolish things." Verse 18 says, "A hot tempered man stirs up dissension." Proverbs 22, verse 24, says, "Do not make friends with a hot tempered man, do not associate with one easily angered." The hot-tempered man (or woman) flying off at the drop of a hat, was as socially unacceptable then as he (or she) is today.

While the Bible references "angry men," men today have not cornered the market on anger--women can be just as angry in today's violent society. Women, in an act of anger, generally strike out at a single person. Aggressive males can extend their acts of anger and may vent their rage on a larger scale of violence.

Reported child abuse, physical and emotional, in the United States is like a "runaway train," whose engineer fails to see the danger signals along the way. Reports of child abuse are soaring to new heights year after year. Education and training of physicians and investigators in forensics is needed. The need for higher standards of training is tremendous. Violence seen in movies and on home television is turning this countrys youth into believing that aggressive, dangerous anger is an acceptable social behavior. However, we know that aggressive anger results in violent crime. Public service television station have an opportunity to educate their viewers on the subject of violence. We live in a sensationalized society thirsting and bent on sensationalism; it is sensationalism that sells newspapers and draws record numbers of viewers to movie theaters and television programs in which violence is glorified.

Teenage violence is becoming a national crisis. Some sections of the country are beginning to talk about martial law and curfews on youth. Some areas enforce curfews. Further, it seems children and teenagers have no fear of consequences for bad behavior. Students in grade school and high school are beating teachers, stabbing and shooting fellow students and sneaking guns into school. Surely we can anticipate more future teenage violence and the "runaway train" will continue to gain speed into the next generations and beyond. Today's angry youth are destined to become future child abusers. God help us, we must stop that train, now!

Children are the victims of adult anger, not adult inability to control anger, but their unwillingness to change poor behavior. Behavior is changeable. The innocent, trusting infant or small child often becomes a target when there is a domestic disagreement or an outside threatening situation. Some adults' expectations of children are far beyond a childs ability to respond. When the child acts according to his/her age and does not respond to the aggressive adults' expectations, a spontaneous act of violence may occur. In the 172 cases previously mentioned, the child was alone with an abusive adult when burned. Child abusers know that what they are doing to an infant or child is wrong and do not want any witnesses to their bad behavior.

Many child protection programs have failed to identify the basic root of child abuse. Now children are being told to report their parents or guardians to their teachers if they believe they are being abused. Parents from all life styles are now being threatened by their children when they attempt to correct their childrens attitude or behavior. Children are not small adults - they are different, physiologically, biologically and psychologically. Can children really ascertain the difference between abuse and appropriate parental discipline? Remember, Hitler invaded the minds of children, twisting their minds and turning the children against their parents, and he was successful. Could the unthinkable happen in America? It already has. Many parents today hesitate to discipline their child for fear of being accused of child abuse.

Is all anger bad? No, anger is a feeling, and adults and children need to deal with feelings. It is reasonable to be angry when aroused by injustice or something unworthy. The assertive person thinks rationally, acts prudently, feels constructively and stands up firmly for personal convictions in a manner that respects anothers dignity (see Andrew Savicky's, Ph.D. 1990 publication, A World Without Tears). Fortunately, most parents are able to recognize the potential danger in a situation and take steps to remedy it. Most parents have tales to tell of times when they could have crossed the line and harmed a child. If the equation had been weighted with more negative factors, had the incident been just right, the outcome could well have been different.

Violence is not new in our society; however, violence against children when the parent(s) is/are under emotionally stressful circumstances can be identified with a measure of predictability. Most parents are able to exhibit restraint, to walk away when they are angry, or to stop short of striking the child, thus sparing the child from becoming an innocent target for violence.

Certain risk factors that appear in abused children when one or both parents have aggressive/passive personalities include the following: unwanted pregnancy, premature birth, failure of the infant to thrive, disappointment to parent(s) (e.g., sex, birth defect, appearance), hyperactive behavior, a "difficult" child, difficult to nurture, special care needed for the "sickly" child, economic burden, etc.

It is rare that the first act of violence on a child is a thermal insult. The abused, burned child has experienced other acts of violence: excessive slapping, pinching, belt strap and/or buckle on lower legs, arms and back and/or chest areas, hair yanking, pin sticks and then the ultimate most

painful - burning.

While the configuration of the burn injury and the thermal source are important when investigating suspicious burns, the history of how the incident occurred is equally important. A forensically supported conclusion must be attained prior to judgement on the suspects character.

Medical professionals receive little (if any) training in medical school to render a professional opinion in a case of child abuse by burning. The physicians in hospital emergency departments or in burn units are often too pressed by time and workload to make a judgement as to whether a burned child was abused, neglected or the victim of an accident. They rarely if ever have all the facts needed to render a professional judgement. Further, during the emergency stage, they are subject to emotionally-packed stories, some second and third hand. Once a doctor states "abuse" or "suspicious," rarely is this opinion challenged.

The physician or nurse is expected to know the answer and thus render an innate opinion or the popular word "suspicious" is used - a term which implies a factor of guilt. During the initial treatment of a burn, many times a wrong decision is made that has far-reaching repercussions and devastating results. Families can become torn apart, with the familys lifestyle disrupted and some times damaged beyond repair.

The cost of investigating reported suspicious incidents of child abuse/neglect, social services, foster care for children, and subsequent legal matters involving prosecutors, public defenders, private attorneys, and the whole process of a trial runs into hundreds of millions of dollars annually. No price can be placed on a person wrongfully stigmatized, falsely charged and tried as a child abuser. Even if found innocent they will always be suspect in the minds of others.

Children in growing numbers are threatening to report their parents as child abusers when a parent attempts to impose proper discipline. A staff physician tells how his 8-year-old son was watching too much television and his room was a mess. The father instructed his son, "No TV and I want to see your room straightened up when I come home tonight." When the father arrived home, the son was watching TV and the room was still a mess. As he began to scold his son loudly, the 8-year-old jumped off the chair, pointed his finger at his father and said, "Dad, if you continue to holler at me, I will tell my teacher, and she will call the police to arrest you for child abuse."

Little girls in school are being told, "Dont sit on a mans lap if you feel uncomfortable." What does that mean? When a small childs father says, "Come, sit on Daddys lap and Ill read you a story," how will she react? Will she make excuses again and again and fear that some terrible thing will happen to her if she sits on a mans lap? What about grandad and Santa Claus, they are men. Children have been lied to by adults; consider the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, the Wicked Witch flying on a broomstick and many other adult fantasies. As children mature they learn that they have been lied to and lying becomes an acceptable tool for them to use.

A single working mother was having a problem with her 11-year-old son. He was hanging out with older boys and using vulgar language. She grounded him and hid their portable TV. He failed to come home after school. The mother was frantic waiting for him. Finally, around 10:30 p.m. he arrived home in a car and sneaked into the dark apartment. The mother started to scold him. He responded by calling her vulgar names. She took his pants down and gave him two "whacks" with a belt and sent him to bed. The next day two police officers came to her place of work and placed her under arrest. She was charged with child abuse and jailed.

A young father hated to change his 3-month-old daughters diapers. One morning while his wife was at work, as he was removing the babys diaper, she began to cry. The father put the baby in the kitchen sink and turned on the hot water to wash off the babys bottom. Knowing the water was too hot, he used the sprayer located at the kitchen sink and burned the babys buttocks and groin area. The baby received deep second degree burns. The incident was termed accidental according to attending physicians. Eight years later, this father was suspected of sexually abusing the same child. He was known to have a violent temper. The case against him for burning his baby daughter was re-opened and he was found guilty of child abuse by burning.

The following data (from the National Child Abuse Protection Agency) demonstrates the national annual reported suspected child abuse cases:

1960 64,000 cases of suspected child abuse reported in the U.S.

1970 72,000 cases reported.

1975 Law changed to protect accusers from civil suit.

1980 1,100,000 cases reported, 15 times the number reported in 1970.

1990 2,400,000 cases reported. 33 times the number reported in 1970.

1993 3,000,000 cases reported. 42 times the number reported in 1970.

1996 4,000,000 estimated cases (final number not available).

1997 It is estimated that the number of reported cases of child abuse will likely double by 1999.

Anger can cause conflict and conflict is a normal part of close relationships. Anger can provide an opportunity for a better understanding of another person. When someone cares enough to take the time to resolve a conflict, that person demonstrates caring. Conflicts can occur because of the differences between individuals. Relationships do not have to be destroyed because of those differences. Rather, recognizing the differences and viewing them in mature, responsible, positive ways instead of being fearful or unwilling to work through differences gives credence to the positive side of anger. Every person must learn to recognize the positive and negative effects of anger. Few people take the time to observe their actions when under stress or when their behavior is openly challenged. Road rage is an example of an aggressive person's spontaneous act of anger, to strike out and assert dominance over another driver.

Ideally, good anger was a sense given to an individual as a tool to condemn injustice and help build relationships. In pure form, anger is an emotional signal that alerts a person that something needs to be changed. It obviously was intended to be a positive motivator to be used in giving one another feedback about how life can be lived more productively. Bad behavior must be understood and realized that it has consequences. Bad behavior can be changed... it must be changed, or there can be no hope for a more socially civilized society in the future. To do nothing but complain about "kids today" will surely leave them unprepared to respond to the challenges the future will bring.

The failure of society, teaching institutions and government leadership to aggressively address the "root" cause of adult and youth violence will assure the "runaway train" will continue on its journey, leaving a trail of death, disfigurement and emotional scars lasting a life-time.

Pre-teens on a shooting spree kill classmates and a teacher. A 12 year-old is charged with sexually assaulting an 11 year-old girl in school. Children are threatening to report their parent(s) as child abusers when the parents attempt to appropriately discipline them. Time is running out.

It is foreseeable that violence by children on other children, teenage violence on their parents, teachers, schoolmates and even strangers will continue like the runaway train in reporting child abuse, failing to heed the children's cry for help. Societys leadership has failed Americas children. Society will pay a staggering price for its "failure to lead" in teaching children that bad behavior has consequences. It seems that no one today wants to take responsibility for their acts and/or omission of acts but blames the "system" or someone else for their indiscretions.

Anger Management programs, which offer assistance for habitually angry adults, are becoming a growing resource for adults who need treatment for aggressive personality traits. Road rage drivers, male and female alike, may receive tickets for being overly aggressive with their vehicles. Instead of fines they will have to attend Anger Management programs. This is only a beginning but it focuses on adults already addicted to bad behavior. Unfortunately, we are a crisis response society and fall short on innovation solutions of preventative methodologies to teach children in schools, churches and in the home that bad anger is an unacceptable trait in a civilized society.

©1998 by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc.