THE CHILD ABUSE PROBLEM
MORE PIECES OF THE PUZZLE
I have thought about the problem of how not to think a thought one is not supposed to think. I cannot think of any way to do so except, in some peculiar way, to ‘think’ what one must not think in order to ensure that one does not think it. (R.D. Laing - from Rules and Metarules)
From a systems perspective child abuse is child abuse, regardless of the particular form that the abuse takes. Whether a victim of physical abuse or the more covert forms of emotional abuse, the child is engaged in a chronic projection process that selects him or her out to be the target of parental anxiety.
Child abuse is part of a larger, more complex puzzle of disturbed family interactions. It reveals something about the inner sanctum of the family; that final, private, mysterious, sacred refuge that for so long now has been legally, morally and even socially protected from scrutiny by the outside world.
It is almost as if by some grand collusion the world has agreed not to venture into this inner sanctum of family. Even in splashy murder cases that lawyers so painstakingly dissect for us on television, detailed information about the murder's family is almost never offered. Occasionally those families will surface to tell us they grieve for the victims but that is about the extent of it.
The media [including media-driven lawyers] tend to focus instead on the nature of the perpetrator's social connections, grades, prescription drug history, and occasionally on inept interviews with clueless neighbors who can barely muster statements like "he was a nice guy" or "he kept to himself" for television cameras.
The public is almost never privy to the details of family functioning that we need to know and can learn greatly from, things that even forensic professionals know little about. I am speaking about the kinds of things that would allow us to intervene earlier if we only knew what to look for in famlies.
Although they provide for some of the deepest satisfactions of living, families also provide the context for human tragedy and anguish of endless variety.
WHAT CAUSES CHILD ABUSE?
Abuse between family members is the result of entrenched and disturbed relationship dynamics. Those dynamics engulf family members and rigidly define the ways in which these family members relate to one another: how they deal with power, how they deal with stress and relationship tension, and how they cope with feelings of rage. The rules also prescribe the amount and type of intimacy that is acceptable or tolerable to the family
When these relationship rules are violated abusiveness erupts as a form of reactive coping triggered by a need on the part of family members to adapt to over-whelming relationship forces by the only means they know how: by using coping strategies that were modeled to them by previous generations.
Abuse can be viewed as a form of coping not unlike other forms of coping: excessive drinking, over-eating, running away, psychosis, even suicide. The question is, why does child abuse predominate in some families?
Just as a person cannot be fully understood part from the context of his or her important family relationships, it is also true that no relationship can be adequately understood outside the context of the way it interlocks with other family relationships.
The key to understanding the child abuse problem rests in an understanding, not only of the interlocking nature of relationship process in the family of origin, but also of the ebb and flow between the generations of family.
Child abusing family are anxious families that have become [stuck] in a state of anxiety overload. The spousal relationship is the most vulnerable and sensitive to this anxiety and so it is into this relationship that most of the family's anxiety becomes concentrated. The spouses tend either to absorb the anxiety continuously until one or both collapse into some state of dysfunction, or their marriage self-destructs. Alternatively, the spouses can pass it on (so to speak) to other vulnerable family members. The latter is what we see in the child abusing family.
The original spousal anxiety is transferred to a vulnerable parent-child relationship by way of an intense focus upon the child. This focus serves to redirect anxiety away from the already tense and fragile marital relationship. Indeed, the more intense the focus on a vulnerable child the more comfortable and relieved the spouses.
In this case the existence of abusiveness between a parent and a child is a barometer of martial tension. Increased marital tension triggers the abuse, and the severity of the marital tension correlates directly with the severity of the abuse aimed at the child. Conversely, marital calm reduces the treat of abuse.
Child battering, then, can be seen as a way for some 'peace-at-any-spouses' to ventilate a deep-seated rage that has been building between them over time. Such spouses typically come from families where they, too, were focused abusively upon by anxious parents like pawns in a much larger family struggle.
The result for the battered child is extreme loss of self. The problem is this: selfless, anxious and enraged children grow up to become selfless, anxious and enraged adults whose minimal coping skills allow them to enter into marriages of poor quality where such patterns repeat.
Battering in any form is a tip-off to the presence of touching issues in that family where its members constantly vacillate between violent touch or no-touch in their intimate relationships.
Although tender touching is essential to emotional bonding, some people simply cannot touch others in nurturing ways. They are the product of family relationships where violent touching was modeled; they may have watched as their own parents battered one another or they may have been a victim of battering themselves.
When combined with feelings of rage, touching issues become extremely problematic.
Then there is the question of which child gets 'selected' as the target for a parent's abuse.
The child's sex and sibling position are important variables in this process, as well as his or her association with important events in the marital dyad. Such events include things of intense emotional significance like marriage, divorce, remarriage, death, catastrophic illness, family migration, birth, as well as precipitous cutoffness between important family members.
A child whose birth coincides with one or another of these significant events tends thereafter to be subtly associated with that event. When this happens, the parent's emotional reactivity towards the EVENT becomes generalized to the child whose behavior gradually comes to elicit a similar kind of emotional response from the parent.
The effect is similar to the conditioning of Pavlov's dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. The very fact that this kind of association could occur means that the parent has had a good deal of emotionality about that original event. Not all deaths or divorces or births or marriages, etc. cause such anxious stirring in a parent but negatively associated ones do, particularly those involving family members that have caused the parent great emotional pain in the past.
So long as these historical events remain unresolved for the parent, he or she will be overly sensitive and reactive to things in the here and now that symbolize and trigger memory for the event(s). The abused child is such a symbol in abusing families.
Other special circumstances of a child's birth and early childhood set him or her up to be more vulnerable than other children in the family to be the object of the parental over-focus. For example, the child may have personality traits that remind the parent of some other more despised family member. Or, a child may stand out as a target because they are 'ugly like their father' or mentally retarded, or even physically disabled in some way.
The following list suggests other common circumstances of birth that trigger anxiety:
|A child is illegitimately conceived and arrives unexpectedly into the life of the parent|
|A child is born after a long failure to conceive, such that the parent anxiously attends to the child for fear it will die or disappear from their grasp|
|A child is born after a difficult labor and delivery, causing the anxious mother to associate the child with the pain of the difficult delivery|
|A child is born after the death of another child in the family, triggering in the parent feelings that the 'wrong' child survived|
|A child is born at or around the time of the death of another important family member, such as the parent's parent who may have been an abusive parent as well|
|A child is born too close in age to other siblings, causing the parent to feel over-whelmed by this particular child who inadvertantly becomes 'the straw that breakes the camel's back'|
|A child bears a family name-sake that has negative associations for the parent, i.e., "Father and Son are alike in every way including having the same name|
|A child turns out to be the 'wrong' sex when the other sex was expected and greatly desired|
|A child is born at a time when the marriage is floundering, whose assigned function is to 'glue the parents' marriage back together again'|
|A child is the product of an unwanted pregnancy that the parent unsuccessfully attempted to abort|
|A child is the product of rape|
The more toxic and anxiety-provoking the family events with which the child becomes associated, the more vulnerable the child is to later parental over-focus.
The factors of sex and birth order play powerful roles in the child-focus process in families. The combition of these two factors with any of the above life circumstances of the child sets into motion a family scenario in which the child plays a very well-defined part. The closer the 'fit' of the child's sex and birth order to the abusive parent, the more intense the parent-child relationship and the more it resembles a parent-child relationship in the previous generation.
EXAMPLE: A first-born daughter should have been the family's much desired first-born son. She grow ups never being able to please her parents, especially her father, and she struggles constantly in the face of that parent's unspoken tension about her being the 'wrong' sex. Some females in this position will even dress and act like the desired son in an effort to please the father, so much so that her actual sex is hard to determine sometimes.
EXAMPLE: A family has a proud generational lineage of first-born sons. Each child that occupies this cherished birth-right position also must bear the name-sake; that is, they become John the IV after decades of John the III, John the II and John the Ist. The expectation is that this new generation of first-born male will in every way be like the previous generations.
Imagine the consequences for the son that does not measure up to that grand lineage: he doesn't want to become a doctor in a long line of doctors, or he doesn't want to go into the family business. Maybe he chooses another college to attend other than the one that all previous first-born males in the family attended.
Failure to follow the family's expectations can set into motion parent-child tensions that have less to do with the qualities of the son and much more to do with entrenched multi-generational expections of the parents.
EXAMPLE: A male Only Child marries a woman his parents strongly dislike. The new wife may be very good to him and for him, and their marriage may be a successful one on many levels. But the grown first-born son's parents show grave disappointment about his choice of spouse at every turn until the son finally gives up and stops communicating with them. His chances of re-enacting this scenario with his own first-born son are great, that is if he has one.
Regardless of which of the above circumstances prevail, the vulnerable child's existence becomes an unspeakable metaphor for a previous generation's unresolved relationship anxieties. And it is this that creates the conditions for spiraling anxiety, for protracted emotional distancing and for the despairing and sometimes enraging feelings of emptiness that affect those who cutoff and runaway out of a need for self-preservation.
People pass on only what they know. In some case the sum total of what they know is tragedy. The following is exerted from conversations with an all too typical abusing parent:
|"I have never really felt loved in my life. When the baby was born I thought he would love me. But when he cried all the time it meant that he didn't love me so I hit him."|
This young mother's baby, three weeks old, was hospitalized at the time with bilateral subdural hematomas.
References for Appendix 2:
R. D. Laing, Politics of the Family
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