Child abuse: what is the “Cinderella phenomenon”?


Cinderella is meant to be a fairy tale, but for some her story is a dark and relatable reality.

When by Ari Sherfield stepfather came into her life, everything changed. At age 7, she was put in charge of household chores and her younger siblings. She was also the only one in her family who was physically abused, sometimes for senseless things like “breathing too hard”.

This contrasted sharply with the experience of his siblings: the same parents who abused Sherfield treated his biological siblings with love, kindness and compassion.

“My mom definitely made it known that she preferred my siblings,” says Sherfield, now 22. “My siblings have never had as many chores as I have. I was always forced to stay home while my siblings were allowed to go hang out with friends and do extracurricular activities. … My mom really made me feel like I could never be enough. She was telling me I was hopeless.”

The experience eventually forced her to cut off contact with her family.

People often assume that abusive people mistreat everyone, but some are discriminating in their abuse. It’s what experts call the “Cinderella phenomenon,” when one child in a family is isolated and abused while the other children aren’t.

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“I wanted them to like me so badly. And I tried.

To this day, Sherfield does not understand why she was abused. When her stepfather came into her life, her family became more religious and conservative, and she resisted these changes. She has long assumed she was abused for speaking out and rebelling. Anyway, she didn’t deserve it: no child deserves it.

In 2019agencies received a total of 4.4 million reports of child abuse cases.

“Many factors are linked to the risks of being abused,” explains Jeannette Scheid, associate professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University. “Sometimes it has nothing to do with the child and more to do with the parents’ sense of their ability to handle what they might see as a challenge or a difference to the child.”

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When a child is targeted, the abuse they experience can be particularly damaging.

“If kids don’t have a strong support system that provides them with resilience, it can make it even harder to go through the experience on their own,” Scheid adds. “And when children report abuse and don’t feel supported in their safety and well-being, it makes it even more difficult for them to deal with the trauma later on.”

Besides being mistreated and abused by her parents, Sherfield felt isolated.

“I see my brother and sister posting (on social media) how amazing my mom is and how always there for them,” she says. “They all have a strong relationship with my mom. … It makes me resentful, honestly.”

Older child may be more at risk

Although it’s called the “Cinderella freak,” the term doesn’t just describe in-laws. Scheid says the term also includes abusive biological parents.

“It’s used quite widely in part because Cinderella’s experience as a character touches on so many different things that are reflected in people’s personal experiences. … Some people use it more broadly to reflect on their experience of feeling separated, neglected, unappreciated.”

Jessica Rosacker says her father singled her out in his abuse, starting when she was 2 years old. He became obsessed with unfounded concerns that she was not his biological daughter, and as a result, he began to abuse her. Rosacker says the abuse became physical as she got older.

However, her younger siblings were spared: As the eldest, Rosacker, now 20, suffered alone and hid the abuse from her siblings.

Scheid says it’s not uncommon for the oldest child to bear the brunt of abuse.

“Sometimes, over time and after having more children, abusive parents may change as they gain more experience in the relationships they have with their children,” Scheid says. “And unfortunately, often times the older child is placed in a position of authority, so their parents may have higher expectations of them, which could be a contributing factor.”

It can take a lifetime to overcome trauma

Abuse and child abuse are widespread, affecting more than 7.9 million children from 2019.

According to the CDCchildren with disabilities are more at risk of abuse and neglect. And a child who embodies a “physical reminder” of someone triggered from a parent’s past may be targeted, Scheid says.

It is essential to encourage victims to seek help. Only 60% of children received prevention and post-response services, a 2019 report found. But Scheid says trauma-informed care is particularly important because these children are at higher risk for mental health issues, including PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicidality.

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For Sherfield, it took years to overcome the abuse and the resulting anxiety.

“How you are treated by people who are supposed to love you affects your relationships. I had to unlearn all the toxic behaviors I was shown growing up. I had to learn how to manage my anger properly, communicate without shut down, not wanting to raise issues because I’m afraid I’ll be yelled at for how I feel,” she says.

And while Rosacker still struggles with PTSD, she says she did everything she could to “break the cycle” for her own children.

“I now have two children, and they are living my childhood dream,” she says. “They are the happiest little humans, they are fed, cleaned, loved and have a safe and happy home. I promised myself that I would never let my children relive my childhood. I kept that promise for myself. “

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Parents who need help speaking can call the National Parent Helpline at 1-855-427-2736 or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Helpline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD. To report child abuse or neglect, contact law enforcement or child protective services in your country.


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