As I was leaving gym one morning, I overheard a mother berating her daughter for refusing to put her face in the water during a toddlers' swim class. "You're such a little coward," she told the sobbing child -- who could not have been more than three years old. "It's the same every week. You always make your daddy and me ashamed. Sometimes I can't believe you're really my daughter."
Although my stomach churned with rage on the child's behalf, I said nothing. After all, I rationalized, the mother would just tell me to mind my own business. But I had no doubt that what I had witnessed was in many ways as bad as a brutal beating. It was emotional child abuse.
"The bruises don't show on the outside, so there are no statistics on how many children are victims," says Dr. Elizabeth Watkins, chief of pediatric primary care at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City. "But anyone who works with children knows that the problem is widespread."
University of Minnesota psychologist Byron Egeland, who has conducted extensive studies on parenting and early-childhood development, says the effects of emotional child abuse may be at least as devastating as those of physical abuse. Research conducted by Egeland and his colleagues suggests that emotionally abused children suffer an even greater decline in mental and psychological development as they grow older than do physically abused children.
This is because, according to authorities on child development, emotional abuse involves nothing less than the systematic destruction of a child's self-esteem. The key word is systematic.
The mother I overheard used words that indicated a sad pattern: "It's the same every week. You always make your daddy and me ashamed. . . . I can't believe you're really my daughter." These weren't simply the remarks of a harassed mother having a bad day; they were those of a woman who made a habit of attacking her toddler.
Emotional abusers are prompted not by children's misbehavior, but by their own psychological problems. Whether abusive parents come from low-income or affluent families, they are usually people who received inadequate love and nurturing from their own parents.
Nearly all are unable to see that a child's behavior may not be related to anything the parent has done or failed to do. An abusive parent may feel, for instance, that an infant is crying not as an expression of hunger or fear, but because the baby is "bad" or "out to get me."
Dr. Jay Lefer, a New York Psychiatrist and former editor of the newsletter for the Society of Adolescent Psychiatry, refers to the "four Ds" of emotional abuse: deprivation, distancing, depreciation and domination. Abusive parents may use one or all of the four Ds to play out their own psychological conflicts and avoid facing up to the real pressures of child-rearing.
Deprivation and distancing. When five-year-old Sally broke her arm in a playground accident, her kindergarten teacher didn't realize the child was hurt until she found her weeping silently in a corner. At the hospital, where the teacher met Sally's mother, the little girl didn't turn to her mother for comfort. Instead, she went off quietly with a nurse and didn't seem to notice when her mother ignored the nurse's invitation to accompany them. "Rather than put her arms around her child, the first thing the mother did was look for a coffee machine," said the teacher. "I could see why Sally didn't tell me she was hurt. She was accustomed to being ignored."
Psychologically unavailable parents rarely cuddle a crying baby or express much interest in the infant's development. As a result, their babies fail to develop what psychologists call a secure attachment to their parents. When securely attached children need reassurance, they know they can get it from their parents-and; eventually, from other adults who care for them. "A physically abused child will avoid the caretaker for fear of being hit," says psychologist Egeland. "An emotionally abused child does the same thing to avoid the appointment of not being accepted. appointment of not being accepted.
"Unavailability is shattering because a child doesn't get any of the usual emotional rewards for curiosity, growth and accomplishment," continues Egeland. "Think of a normal parent's reaction when a child takes a first step: it's a celebration, a reason for praise and excitement. But in a home where emotional unavailability is the standard, the milestone is ignored. If the parent notices at all, it's with irritation. After all, a child who can walk will only demand closer supervision and attention."
Depreciation. In some families, parents "team up" in depreciating a child, using a steady stream of verbal abuse that discounts the child's achievements and blows out of proportion every sign of misbehavior; in other families, one parent is the active abuser and one is a silent partner.
Words like "always" and "never" implying that a child invariably fails to live up to a parent's expectations -- are keys to distinguishing a consistently abusive parent from one who criticizes occasionally in anger or frustration.
Sara, a 26-year-old computer programmer who says she has never enjoyed a satisfying relationship with a man, grew up with a father who constantly undermined her self-esteem. "He had a chant," she recalls, her voice quavering, "that he used to repeat at least a dozen times a day: 'Pimples and fat, pimples and fat, no boy will ever be seen with that.' To this day I find it almost impossible to believe it when a man gives me a compliment. I still hear my father's voice."
In ambitious middle-class families, one of the most common forms of emotional abuse is the denigration of any achievement that falls short of perfection, such as when a child is punished for bringing home a B instead of an A. Jeree Pawl, director of the Infant-Parent Program at San Francisco General Hospital, observes that "perfectionist" parents may display irrational expectations. "They have completely unrealistic ideas about how long an infant or toddler should wait to be toilet-trained, or be expected to be quiet," she notes. "So normal behavior is seen as a deficiency on the part of the child, and a failure on the part of the parent."
On a recent cross-country flight I saw an example of this type of behavior when I sat across the aisle from a young couple traveling with a year-old baby. The cabin service was slower than usual, and the flight attendant had failed to warm up the baby's bottle in time for his feeding.
The baby, predictably, started to cry -- and the father refused either to hold him while the mother went to find the stewardess, or to look for the bottle himself. "That kid can't wait five seconds for anything," the father said (apparently oblivious to the loud complaints of adult passengers about the lateness of their dinners). "If you think I'm going to bother the stewardess because that kid is spoiled rotten, you're crazy. There's something really wrong with him."
Domination. Four-year-old Tommy was recovering from a routine tonsillectomy in the children's ward of a hospital when the nurses noticed he was unusually withdrawn. He refused to speak to anyone.
When Tommy's pediatrician suggested that his mother discuss her son's behavior with a staff psychologist, she became furious. "I've told him never to talk to anyone -- children or adults -- if I don't know them," she explained. "I'm not going to spoil his training just because he's in the hospital." Later, the pediatrician learned that Tommy's mother had in fact told the boy he would die if he talked to strangers.
The use of such extreme threats to stifle a child's natural curiosity is a common form of emotional abuse, according to psychologists and pediatricians. "We're talking about the kind of domination in which a parent tries to take control of a child's every action," says Dr. Watkins. "Instead of putting up a real boundary like a fence to keep a child from running into the street -- a parent creates invisible walls. The child is told that terrible things will happen if he explores and violates the parent's orders."
Dr. Lefer notes that all parents try to dominate their children in certain respects -- by setting standards of conduct and trying to instill parental values. "But there's a big difference between domination through education and example and domination through cruelty," he says. "The abusive parent gets his or her way by terrifying the child into following his or her wishes."
For some young adults, the experience of having been emotionally abused as children has made them determined to become good parents themselves. But the problems of many "second-generation" child abusers don't surface until they already have children of their own.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
If you answer yes to these questions, you may need professional help. Local mental-health organizations, hospitals (especially those associated with universities) and your child's pediatrician are the best resources for finding an experienced family therapist in your area.
- Am I constantly angry at my child? '
- Do I see characteristics in my child that remind me of how much I dislike someone else in my family?
- Do I compare my child unfavorably with other people's children? With brothers and sisters?
- Am I indifferent when someone else praises my child?
- Do I often feel ashamed of my child?
The best hope in such cases, experts say, is therapy that involves every member of the family. "When a child is being emotionally abused," says Dr. Lefer, "the problem cannot be successfully treated in isolation. Once a parent realizes something is wrong, this can open up the whole matter of how the family works. And other family members can be brought into the therapeutic process."
Looking beyond the immediate family, experts say that emotional child abuse is abetted by the reluctance of outsiders -- including friends and relatives -- to confront abusive parents. "Many children who are remorselessly denigrated by their parents think they deserve it," notes psychologist Pawl. "The silence and inactivity of other adults help convince the child that it's true: he really is worthless, evil or a coward."
I asked each of the professionals I interviewed whether I had done the right thing in keeping silent when I overheard the mother calling her child a coward. All felt I should have spoken up and said something like, "Everyone is afraid of some things. It's nothing to be ashamed of."
I asked one psychologist if she thought that a challenge from another adult might not have made the mother treat her child even more harshly. "That's possible," she replied, "but at least the child would have understood that not every adult agrees with her mother. That's important, because we know sometimes children are able to survive abuse if they find someone -- a teacher, an aunt or uncle -- who makes them feel valuable and worthwhile in spite of what their parents say.
"People shouldn't mind their own business when a child's life is in danger -- and that means the heart and mind as well as the body."
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