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Mothers Who Harm Their Kids to Garner Attention

Exploring Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Key points

  • Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) refers to an adult caregiver who fakes or causes harm to a being in their care.
  • The mother is the lone culprit in 86% of cases of MSBP.
  • Some of the benefits reaped by MSBP perpetrators include being showered with sympathy and lauded for their "heroic love."
Doux Rêves by Firmin Baes/Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1JKgxRb)
Source: Doux Rêves by Firmin Baes/Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1JKgxRb)

Next Sunday, millions of people will celebrate Mother’s Day. Needless to say, the mother-child relationship is one of the most intense relationships that humans experience. While countless mothers bestow unconditional love upon their children, there are instances where this uniquely privileged relationship breaks down.

Maternal filicide

While very rare, maternal filicide (a mother who kills her child) is maximally repulsive because it runs contrary to some of the most fundamental evolutionary principles that govern kin investments (see Bourget, Grace, & Whitehurst, 2007 for an exhaustive review of paternal and maternal filicide). Many people might remember the 1995 case of Susan Smith who was found guilty of having murdered her two very young children (by letting her car roll into the lake with the children fastened to their car seats). For most people, it is impossible to imagine that a biological mother could be so diabolical toward her offspring. Most people would be willing to die in the protection of their children and yet here was a woman who disposed of them in a bewilderingly evil and cruel manner.

Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP)

Beyond maternal filicide, there is another very dark maternal phenomenon that few people are familiar with: Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP). This disorder refers to an adult caregiver who fakes or causes harm to a being in their care. In most cases, the victim is a young child but other possible targets including the elderly and pets.

Cross-cultural studies of this disorder have revealed that the mother is the lone culprit in 86% of cases (Feldman & Brown, 2002). Some of the benefits reaped by MSBP perpetrators include being showered with empathy and sympathy, as well as being hailed for their “heroic” parental love and devotion. Several years ago, I authored a paper in Medical Hypotheses (Saad, 2010) wherein I offered possible evolutionary-based explanations for MSBP, as well as providing a summary of variables associated with female perpetrators (e.g., minimally vested male partners). Incidentally, MSBP should not be confused with Munchausen syndrome, which refers to a similar quest of seeking empathy and sympathy but by faking or causing an illness or injury to one’s self. In a sense, MSBP is much more diabolical in that it utilizes an innocent third party in the pursuit of one’s quest for attention.

MSBP reminds us that while the nuclear family serves as the source of love and comfort to many people, it can also be at the root of some of the greatest forms of cruelty. After all, in many instances, individuals seek therapy precisely because of damage that was inflicted within the confines of the family unit.

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