In Nebraska, prosecutors charged an 18-year-old mother and her boyfriend with child abuse after pictures they took of their toddler taped to a wall were passed to police by a family friend. The couple were high on drugs when they abused the child and seemed to think it was funny. Police and child welfare authorities apprehended the child but eventually returned the youngster to his mother. The home is being closely monitored.
Such phenomena are not new. Children have been kept in pens with dogs, teenagers have been chained to their beds to keep them from running away, children whose behavior is beyond a parent's capacity to cope are often burned or shaken, frequently resulting in injury or death. The psychological scars are more difficult to see until later when these same children become the inmates of our juvenile detention centers and then adult prisons.
In the past month I've delivered keynote addresses at a European conference on child abuse in Finland and then another in India. At both, I heard many of my colleagues talk about child maltreatment and its causes. There are no shortage of explanations, but several themes keep emerging. First, child abuse is more common than we like to think. Those images of the toddler taped to the wall are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Here are some reasons for what we're seeing:
1.Individual psychopathology: The mother or father show signs of a personality disorder or other individual problem like an attachment disorder that results in their not being able to empathically attune to (understand the feelings of) their child. In other words, for these parents, it's more about them and how they feel than the feelings of others. Most people who fit this profile often still have enough inhibition to know what they are supposed to do and keep their behavior in check. They will fake empathy but not really feel it. Get them a little drunk or stoned, and those inhibitions quickly become lost.
2.This pattern of abuse can also be the result of a parent who is under a lot of stress, which given today's economy isn't surprising. But that's not enough to create such horrific acts of abuse. Stress is usually coupled with a lack of supports, and few people to offer advice to an isolated parent. Child abuse is the result of the breakdown of our relationships with both our extended families and our communities (where else do we as parents get good advice? Television, yes, but it's not enough for the most damaged of parents). Parents who themselves have experienced poor parenting were never properly equipped with a range of tools and parenting tricks to use when times get tough. Abusive behaviors are seldom meant to cause harm...they are meant in almost all cases to control and make the situation more manageable for the parent. The abuse is understood by these parents as a solution to an unsolvable problem, though a very bad solution, and one for which there are substitutes.
3. Child abuse can also result from a sense that our children are ours to do with what we will. This denial of the child as a fully developed human being is well documented by sociologists and psychologists. Though a bit wordy, we can talk about "ontology mirroring phylogeny." What that means is that as the child develops individual cognitive capacities like speech and independence, we think of our children as somehow "evolving", becoming a little more human each step of the way. We can abuse them like pets only if we think of them as lesser than us, as sub-human. Human rights advocates, such as those who championed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, have worked hard to challenge a view of children as less deserving of human rights protection.
These are three possible explanations for horrific acts of child maltreatment. In any individual case we could argue one, two or three explanations are involved, working together to make the abuse more likely to occur. The point is, however, that these are complicated behaviors by parents and we need to respond with comprehensive, well-coordinated responses by the police, child protection workers, policy makers and mental health specialists.
The good news is that these behaviors by parents are treatable. Offering a little compassion, and skills training, and support to a parent is frequently a cost effective and quick solution to addressing child abuse. Schools can be tremendously helpful too, collaborating with parents so that children's behaviors are improved around the clock.
Often, despite a shocking episode of abuse, parents can change how they look after their children. Working with these parents, I often feel quite optimistic. Fundamentally, most parents want to love their children and feel that love returned.