How to Cope with Institutionalized Child Abuse

Three Methods:Recognizing AbuseCoping During the AbuseRecovering

Institutional child abuse happens when you are sent off to an institution or program (often an overnight one) that destroys your health or sense of well-being. This may be in the name of making you "normal," or the people may be badly-trained, or you may not understand why. If people at your institution are belittling you, ignoring your needs, or trying to control you, then you need help.

Method 1
Recognizing Abuse

Understanding abuse can be difficult, especially if you experienced it for a long time. This section is for kids and teens who are unsure whether they are being abused.

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    Consider how your physical needs were treated. Physical needs include water, food, shelter (e.g. wilderness camp), access to sanitary items, necessary disability accommodations, and more. Abuse regarding physical needs includes...
    • Outright denial of needs
    • Partially granted needs; care was not sufficient (e.g. tiny meals or meals offering limited food groups)
    • Expected to take care of your own needs, regardless of whether you could
    • Needs only met if you were a "good boy/girl" or could meet certain standards (e.g. disabled children expected to speak in order to get water)
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    Reflect on whether emotional abuse occurred. This can be difficult to pinpoint because it is so complex, and you may not realize it is going on. An emotional abuser may insult you, belittle you, blame you, humiliate you, refuse to listen to you, and use other tactics to destroy your emotional health. Here are symptoms you are being emotionally abused (you may have some but not all):
    • Low self-esteem, hating yourself
    • Low confidence
    • Constantly modifying your behavior to avoid getting yelled at
    • Feeling powerless
    • Afraid to make decisions
    • Needing constant reassurance
    • Afraid of the person
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    Identify any attempts to control you. Abusive people may pin you down, attempt to change your identity, harshly punish you if you do something they don't like, and more. You may feel afraid of them, and worry that they are constantly watching.
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    Consider any physical punishments or other physical abuse. No one should ever grab you without consent or intentionally cause you pain. If there was no immediate safety threat motivating their behavior, then that is abuse. Here are some examples of things that are physical abuse:
    • Hitting, slapping, punching
    • Kicking
    • Grabbing/dragging
    • Hitting you using an object (coat hanger, drinking cup, rope, anything)
    • Burning you
    • Forcing you to interact with something that hurts you (e.g. kneel on painful gravel)
    • Electric shocks
    • Spraying vinegar in your mouth, purposefully hurting you with loud noise, forcing you to touch awful textures (Labeled "aversives" in autism/ABA therapy)
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    Be very wary of attempts to change your identity. Institutions may use conversion "therapy" in an attempt to change your gender identity, sexuality, disability, religion, etc. Here are examples:
    • Gender identity—pushing you into rigid gender roles, tearing away anything "feminine" or "masculine" (depending on your assigned sex); may overlap with attempts to alter your sexuality
    • Sexuality—teaching that certain sexualities are wrong, forcing you to study a different sexuality in great detail, treating sexuality as a choice instead of an inborn/natural trait
    • Disability—suppressing harmless symptoms (e.g. most stimming), forcing you to perform new skills before you're ready, fighting for normalization instead of adaptability (e.g. forcing deaf children to speak instead of teaching sign language)
    • Religion—refusing to respect religious differences, attempting to convert you without your consent, treating people of other religions as lesser
    • Size—forcing you to lose weight at the expense of physical and mental health, rather than prioritizing health and happiness over weight loss
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    Consider how they responded when you expressed unhappiness. Did they accuse you of being needy, whiny, or annoying when you asked for respect or things to meet your needs? Did they promise to handle it and never follow through? Or did their follow-through prove inadequate, or not last long? Did they treat you like you were the problem if you came back?
    • Or were you too afraid of them to even bring it up with them?

Method 2
Coping During the Abuse

It's important that you get help immediately. As you wait for help to arrive, stay as strong as you can and remember that you are doing your best.

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    Repeat to yourself: "I'm okay, they're mean." You are not a bad person, you are not weak, and you are handling this as well as you can. It is not right for adults to hurt or neglect children. Any mean words from them are not an accurate view of you as a person.
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    Comply as much as you need to for safety. Even if they try to control your body, they do not control your mind. It may be necessary to obey them as you seek help. Imagine yourself as an undercover agent or science fiction hero if it helps make it more bearable.
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    If an adult poses an immediate safety threat, consider hiding or running away. Could you hide without getting caught? Would you be able to run away to the nearest gas station or other building to get help? Where is the nearest phone to call the police?
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    Contact an adult you trust, like your parents. Arrange a visit, call them, email them, or contact them via social networking. Explain what happened to you and how you are feeling. They may pick you up right away, and talk about involving the police to keep the other children safe too.
    • Unfortunately, sometimes your parents may not believe you. (This is especially likely if they are the ones who sent you to a conversion camp.) If this is the case, call the police or Child Protective Services. This is serious and you deserve help.
    • If your parents will not listen about abuse, and you worry they will send you back, call Child Protective Services.

Method 3

Recovery is a long and difficult process that may take years. It's important to get lots of support, from both loved ones and professionals, so you can heal.

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    Realize that they can't hurt you anymore. You may always feel like there is someone that will try to take you back to the "place," but you will be safe. If you feel safe talking to your parents or guardians, explain to them what happened.
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    Get medical help for any Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or lingering effects. You may experience nightmares, flashbacks, inability to relax, and other symptoms of trauma. A trained therapist can help minimize these effects so you can feel okay again.
    • Your family doctor can recommend a good therapist.
    • Ask your family for a doctor's appointment. Then tell your doctor about what happened to you, and how you are coping now.
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    Network with other child/teen survivors. You are not the only one who has escaped institutional abuse. Meeting others with similar experiences can help you process what happened to you, and you can share coping tips with each other.
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    Get back in touch with your identity if conversion therapy was involved. It is okay to be you, and there is nothing fundamentally wrong with your identity. Find support from the LGBTQIA community, join a religious group of your chosen religion, or network with the disability community. You have the right to be yourself. Meeting people like you can help you move on.
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    Find activities you enjoy. Do you like to paint, write, swim, program? Join a club about your hobby, or try a new activity. Figure out which skills you want to cultivate and focus on them.
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    Get supportive people on your side. Reach out to family, friends, and other people around you. You're facing troubles that no person should have to face. You don't have to deal with it alone.


  • Contact for information to talk to others about. Whatever you do, do NOT lose hope if you are still held against your will. Be smart and stay safe until help comes, and NEVER GIVE UP!!


  • People in abusive programs may be sent there for behavioral problems, which can be worsened by abuse. Your safety comes first. Keep your distance as needed.
  • If you are part of a minority (race, sexuality, disability, etc.), you may be targeted more then others. It is especially important to "lay low" and keep yourself safe at all times.

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Categories: Child Abuse | Abuse