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Abuse of Loved Ones Threatens the Soul of the Nation

A culture that does not protect its children is doomed.

Key points

  • A great shame as individuals and as a nation is a failure to protect our children.
  • Abuse perverts the emotional mechanism of attachment: alarm in one triggers alarm-care in the other.
  • If alarm-care stimulates feelings of powerlessness or inadequacy, abuse is likely.
  • We must not respond to assaults on the human spirit by becoming less humane.

At the request of the court, I recently assessed a parent who had shaken her 10-week-old infant to death. The death of this child was another instance of America's deepest shame — our failure to protect our children. (About one in seven children experienced abuse or neglect in the past year, according to the CDC, although experts acknowledge that abuse and neglect of children is an under-reported crime.)

Like many others who had shaken their babies to death, this parent showed no signs of mental illness, apart from profound grief over what she’d done. Like many others, she had no criminal history or record of substance abuse. Rather, she fell victim to a powerful psychological dynamic, one that illuminates how emotional bonds both sustain and threaten the survival of the species.

The Alarm-Care Mechanism of Love

The distress cry of an infant sets off an internal distress alarm in all adults in proximity, especially in those who have formed an emotional bond with the infant. The only way the adults can relieve their internal distress is to relieve the distress of the infant. (If they try to run away from it, they must fight a compelling guilt selected by evolution to pull them back.) The mechanism usually works well to protect the most vulnerable members of a species whose young are helpless much longer than those of other animals.

But this species-preserving mechanism short-circuits when adults interpret their internal alarms as signals of failure or inadequacy. When that happens, the rising anxiety in the adult caregiver spikes the distress in the child, who cries more intensely, making the adult feel more inadequate. The child is no longer a precious loved one in need, but an anxiety-provoking alarm clock that can't be silenced. What do you do with an alarm clock you can't turn off? You shake it, throw it, smother it, or smash it.

All new parents experience feelings of inadequacy when their infants continue distress cries. For the vast majority, the distress of the infant overrides the feelings of inadequacy. The pain of the child, more important than feelings about the self, trips us into gut-level compassion, which gives the child time to teach us how to comfort her.

The same alarm-care mechanism works in adult attachment. Even mild arguments see both partners attempt to turn off their internal alarms by turning off the other’s. Their mistake is trying to do it with blame, demands, or coercion rather than care, reassurance, and encouragement.

Those who feel victimized by the alarm-care mechanism are unable to overcome feelings of inadequacy and make the transition to gut-level compassion. For them, shame is not a motivation to escape the disorganized or painful self by focusing on the needs of the distressed loved one; rather, they perceive the alarm as punishment inflicted by the loved one. At the instant of abuse, they feel entitled to "defend themselves."

The alarm-care dynamic is at the heart of most attachment abuse, from harming children to the emotional and physical abuse of intimate partners and parents. The classic power and control tactics of batterers, for instance, is a warning:

"Don't make me feel something I can't handle." (Don't let your feelings set off the alarm in me that makes me feel inadequate.)

Abuse of loved ones is a struggle for the soul of individuals and for the soul of the society that fails to protect its most vulnerable members. It violates our basic humanity and impairs the ability to form and sustain emotional bonds. It is an assault on the human spirit more fundamental than any other.

But we must not respond to this assault on the human spirit by becoming less humane. Most abusers can be trained to act on shame as a motivation to become more compassionate and sensitive to the needs of loved ones. The shame we feel as a society for allowing abuse to continue is not telling us to punish abusers any more than the shame abusers feel is telling them to punish their loved ones.

Our shame tells us to work as hard as we can to train each other in the power of compassion and the skills of nurturing and emotion regulation.

The shame we try so hard to deny and avoid is telling us to save the soul of the nation.