Empathy for a Child Abuser?

Empathy for the Undeserving Can Be a Useful Strategy for Changing Families

Posted Mar 02, 2015

Wikimedia Commons: Martin van Maele: La Grande Danse Macabre des Vifs

With my non-psychotic adult patients who exhibit chronic self-destructive or self-defeating behavior patterns, chronic anxiety and depression, and/or overt family discord, I eventually get to the point in psychotherapy where I recommend that they talk to their parents (or other primary caretakers) about their family dynamics. I tell them we will work on getting past their parents' rather formidable defenses, and find a way to discuss their long mutual history of dysfunctional interactions.

We attempt to figure out a strategy for stopping ongoing, repetitive, and troublesome interpersonal exchanges that trigger the patient's symptoms and self-destructive behavior patterns. Often, when this process is successful, it not only puts a stop to these exchanges, but frequently leads to family reconciliation. Parents who had been abusive and who had been in denial about it or who had even blamed their victims, fess up to what they have done and apologize for it, although sometimes somewhat indirectly.

Even if I can finally convince my patients that it might be very helpful for them to do this, the first response I get is usually some variation of, "That's impossible." The patients then go on to describe how their families are the most difficult human beings on the planet, and how there is just no way their parents will ever be approachable like that, let alone alter the way they interact with the patient.

They go on to say that if I knew these people, then I would know talking to them would be a fool's errand. Besides, they've already tried a variety of different strategies to talk to them, and got nowhere. Certainly, I could not possibly have ever seen a family that was worse than theirs.

Actually, after 30 years of doing this sort of work, I usually have seen families that are very much worse. Every time I think I have seen family members mistreat one another in every conceivable way, boy am I ever in for a shock. Soap operas ain't got nothing on real families.

In no situation is convincing patients of the need to follow my recommendation more difficult than for those cases in which one or both parents had been physically or sexually abusive to my patients when they were children. Usually, other important family members did nothing to protect the abused child, and the parents refuse to admit that anything untoward ever even happened.

Worse yet are parents who, as mentioned above, turn around and blame the patient for the abuse. One patient, right after a particularly reprehensible act by her father, was given a copy of the book The Bad Seed by her mother. The novel is about a little girl who was born bad. The implication was that she deserved what she got - although it is also quite possible that Mom was secretly referring to the father as being the bad seed. Or she may have even been referring to herself.

The task of reconciling begins to sound even more absurd to patients in such cases when I tell them that they have probably not yet employed the basic secret of being able to get past parental defenses and calmly discuss family dynamics (a process called metacommunication). That secret is showing the parents empathy.

Empathy for a child abuser? For a child molester? I have got to be kidding, right? How can anyone be empathic with someone who has done something so heinous? So inexcusable? Why would they want to? The perpetrators cannot possibly deserve such a thing.

Well, first let me make one thing clear, although I am sure that people who understandably will be outraged by what I am saying here will ignore this: If I were a cop, a prosecutor, or a judge, I would offer no such understanding at all, let alone mercy, to a child abuser. And rightly so. Off with their heads! However, as a therapist, I have to be aware that, unfortunately, all of us are biologically built to be powerfully influenced by our kin group.

The flight/fight/freeze mechanism centered in a region of our brains called the amygdala has cells that respond to our mother's face - and nothing else. I has other cells that respond to our fathers - and nothing else. Fear tracks in the part of the brain called the limbic system that were laid down early in life are highly resistant to the normal brain processes by which tracts are weakened - those processes that are part of something called neural plasticity.

Furthermore, our behavior is shaped by watching others in our formative years. Between the ages of 2 and 3, the predominant mode of responding to our social environment makes a switch. Before then, it comes from from watching our family, whose attention is essential to our survival, and following their model. This is the time when our mental models of how to behave - referred to by some therapists as schemas  - are formed. 

After age 3, our social behavior depends mostly on previously laid down neural brain tracts based on our past experiences. We respond as if on autopilot and usually do not even realize that consciously. These neural pathways develop sheathes of a chemical called myelin, which greatly increases the speed of nerve impulse conduction. 

These automatic behavior tendencies can be over-ruled by the thinking part of the brain - the cerebral cortex - but are nonetheless very powerful.The behavior of primary attachment figures like parents are the most potent triggers for automatic behavior throughout our entire lifetimes.

So finding a way to get parents to stop reinforcing self-destructive behavior and high emotional reactivity is the most powerful way I know to help patients control problem behavior patterns.

Like it or not, that is the reality. It is not fair. It is not just. It just "is."

And patients who do this are not doing it as a favor to their parents. They do it for themselves, so they can improve their own lives as well as reduce the chances they will transmit dysfunctional family interactional patterns to their own children and future generations.

Employing attacks and recriminations in discussions with family members, however well-deserved, only leads the parents to exhibit even more of their defenses, increase abusive and/or invalidating behavior, employ fight/flight/freeze reactions, or resort to nasty verbal attacks and even family violence. The dysfunctional patterns get worse - often much worse - rather than better.

The exact way empathy is used in metacommunication must be different in the case of each family, however. Generic assertiveness skills often do not work. Interventions must be tailored to the family's sensitivities. But that is not the subject of this particular post.

And now for a key point about empathy with formerly abusive parents.

Does empathy include telling the parents that their behavior was not so bad after all?  Absolutely not!! Many people get empathy mixed up with sympathy. There is a huge difference. Abusive parents are not very sympathetic characters, to say the least. Empathy, however, means trying to understand what factors led the offender to do what he or she did without condoning what was done

Sympathy, on the other hand, is saying that they did was sort of OK. Saying that what they did was somehow excusable is, in fact, not empathic at all!

Why? Because abusers know, despite all their denial and verbal nastiness, that what they did was horrible. They are not as stupid as they sometimes act, and they know wrong from right despite appearances to the contrary. Their biggest secret fear is that their children hate them for it, but they also believe that they deserve not only the hatred that they receive but eternal damnation as well.

This is why they use denial: not to escape responsibility, since they and their children know very well what happened, but to make their children give them the hatred they think they deserve! If an abused individual says that what the parents did was all right, the parents know immediately that their child is lying. Lying can never be empathic, because it is phony, and everyone involved would know it.

So how can you be empathic with people who have been so horrible?

First, even parents who do horrible things almost always have a few redeeming qualities as well. No one is all bad (thinking otherwise is splitting, subject of an earlier post). They were not abusive twenty-four seven. Sometimes they were even nice and loving, however rarely.

Many people who were abused as children do not like to think about the times their parents were loving - it is just too confusing and therefore upsetting. It is much easier to focus on the hateful side.

Some take the opposite track and try to make excuses for the parents. All of them really have very mixed feelings about the parents and secretly wish for a healthy connection. Also, they fear that since their parents are monsters and they came from them, then they might be monsters too. Some folks with an abusive background are afraid to have children for fear that they, too, will be abusive.

The most important aspect of trying to understand the reasons behind the parent's abusive behavior and be somewhat empathic involves one major fact: A great majority of abusive parents were themselves abused in various ways as children. Tracing the evolution of the family problematic behavior by doing a genogram, which looks at the patterns from a perspective of three generations within their cultural milieu, can put the parents reprehensible behavior in a different light. Seeing what turned the parents into monsters allows patients to put their parents' contradictory behavior and mixed messages into perspective. It makes them more understandable.

Such historical understanding helps patients to temper their understandable, highly justified automatic angry responses to the parents, and avoid the attacking and blaming behavior that makes effective problem solving impossible.