Child Myths

Straight talk about child development.

Child Abuse: Why Do They Do It?

How love and fear can create child abuse.

For some years now, I've been studying situations where parents choose unresearched mental health treatments that can harm or even kill their children. There are obviously many similar situations that have to do with physical health. In addition, parents sometimes choose to use child-rearing techniques that are seriously abusive. In all these cases, people working on this topic will periodically turn to each other and moan, "What makes them do it? Are they crazy? Are they desperate? Are they just plain bad people?"

These questions don't usually apply to ordinary child abuse and neglect. Much as we may disapprove of their actions, we can understand why most abusive parents might impulsively harm a child when annoyed, or might escalate a spanking to abusive levels when very frustrated. It's obvious to us how alcoholic or drug-using parents can become abusive. But how can parents keep up systematic "treatments" that obviously have ill effects on their children?

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Patricia Crittenden has offered some interesting and relevant ideas that I believe may help answer the questions stated earlier (Crittenden, P. (2006). Why do inadequate parents do what they do? In O. Mayseless [Ed.], Parenting Representations (pp. 388-433). New York: Cambridge University Press). Among various categories of parental thoughts and behaviors Crittenden provided was one which she associated with a Canadian case reported in 2004, in which an adoptive mother kept two well-developed boys in cages, tied them, diapered them, and beat them, even into their teenage years. The boys were released to go to school (where they did well academically), but returned home to the cages and diapers each day. The mother had been severely abused in childhood and in marriage, and was diagnosed with PTSD, which Crittenden defined as a psychological disorder in which the mother was unaware of some aspects of past threats, but excessively aware of others.

Crittenden described the mother in this case as an example of what she called "parents who misconstrue powerful forces as threatening both themselves and their children, thus responding with irrational protective measures". These parents rely on experiences of danger from childhood memories that may or may not be accurate, so they become confused about whether there is danger in the present. Because there is no real danger in the present, the parent's actions cannot affect the perceived danger or relieve their fear.

In their attempts to feel less threatened, these parents may be drawn to belief systems that consider all or some human beings (for example, adopted children) to be inherently evil, and may express these beliefs by irrationally suspecting children of sexual predation or attempting to manage the child's urination and defecation in inappropriate ways. They may follow compulsive rituals like caging or demanding specific actions or postures from the child, while at the same time neglecting needs like food or medical care. These parents may be committed to beliefs that demand faith-based rituals rather than normal mental health or medical care. They may also believe that punishment of the child is essential to prevent evil behavior, and that severe punishments such as confinement in cages, fasting, or heavy physical work are needed for this purpose.

Crittenden notes that parents in this group rely heavily on external authority. This may be in the form of religious groups, of quasi-religious cult systems, or of self-identified child-rearing or child mental health gurus who stress their superiority over conventional child guidance or psychological thought. Crittenden suggests that these parents have unusual difficulty with close relationships, becoming both isolated from normal supportive relationships and highly dependent on strangers and on organized groups. (This dependency is much facilitated by the availability of the Internet, of course.) An important point is that the parents are "particularly vulnerable to authorities that prophesy dire outcomes and require painful sorts of propitiation because these are consonant with their childhood experience" (p. 418).

An important point made by Crittenden is that these parents (and other groups she describes) genuinely love their children and show this in ways the children understand. The inappropriate and harmful parenting behavior is not caused by indifference or hostility to the child, hard though this is to imagine. However, the very existence of recognizable love makes life even more difficult for the children, who are not able to protect their own thoughts and emotions from the complexity and evident contradictions of the parents' behavior. These children may appear to be, as Crittenden puts it, "happy children--- who should not be happy".



Jean Mercer is a developmental psychologist with a special interest in parent-infant relationships.


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