The Casey Anthony Trial and Family Dynamics

Can we turn sensationalism into education?

Posted Jun 24, 2011

Can we learn from the fascination and national interest in the Casey Anthony trial? There appears to be something enticing and luring as a story unfolds about a young mother accused of murdering her child. With many people watching, we see speculation, premature conviction, emotionally blasted opinions, and others attempting to just understand. Enormous resources have been invested to media play this trial. A child is dead. There is a need for deeper understanding and further education. Why do people harm children? Can we learn something to prevent child abuse in the future? Can we learn more about dysfunction in families to help others and create more effective child rearing? These issues are close to the hearts of many. Without diagnosing, or pointing fingers in blame, let's take the issues raised in this trial to learn more so that education is the end goal. Perhaps then we can justify the method to the madness of this highly publicized social trial of the year.

We are not the judge and jury. We cannot know all the facts. We may never know the real truth. But, unpacking the defense theory could help us learn from the issues presented. Narcissism and incest are two subjects raised in this trial. Without judging, convicting, or taking either side of the podium, let's look at some deeper family issues that may play out in this case and in other families. Can we turn sensationalism into education?

Little is understood about narcissistic and/or incest families. There is room to grow here. The defense claims that Caylee died by an accidental drowning in the family pool and then the body was hidden to cover up secrets. One of the secrets claimed by the defense was that Casey, from the age of eight, was sexually molested by her father and there was attempted sexual abuse by Casey's brother. Then we see lie after lie, and many dynamics in the family that keep people questioning and shaking their heads. Most just want to convict and that is understandable because the case is horrifying. A child died. It just breaks the hearts of all watching.

To understand better, let's look at some of the family dynamics presented so far in this case. They include: lying, delayed reporting, keeping secrets, jealousy, strained family relationships, fear, denial, lack of empathy and trauma. Not only has a child sexual abuse allegation been raised, but the media speaks frequently about the concept of narcissism. How could these dynamics relate to incestuous and narcissistic families?

In both incestuous and narcissistic families, lying is a membership requirement. In the narcissistic family the lies are used to uphold the image of the perfect family. In the incest family, the lies are used to keep the secret of sexual abuse.

Delayed Reporting:
In narcissistic families a delayed understanding of the family dynamics is common. Adult children raised in narcissistic families do not realize the impact until they become young adults. Then they see the subsequent life patterns caused by the damage of lack of empathy and unconditional love in childhood. In incestuous families, delayed reporting of sexual abuse is common. The victim is often coerced, threatened, bribed, and told not to tell because of the ramifications to the offender, victim, and the family if the secret is told.

Keeping Secrets:
In both narcissistic and incestuous families, secrets are the norm. It is all about protecting the family and continuing the pretense or façade of "everything is fine," when it is really very different in the dark and behind closed doors. The reality is not what it appears to be on the surface.

In narcissistic families, particularly when we look at maternal narcissism, we commonly see jealousy in the mother-daughter relationship. Narcissistic mothers are alarmingly jealous of their daughters from everything to how they look, their careers, their youth, to the relationships they may have with the father. In incest families, when the victim is female and the offender is the father, the mother commonly views the daughter as " the other woman," and of course this creates a dysfunctional jealousy in the mother-daughter relationship.

Strained Family Relationships:
In narcissistic families, all relationships are strained and none are close emotional connections. There is a lack of empathy and the narcissistic parent is the center of attention. Siblings are typically pitted against each other, and the family has to orbit around the narcissist.
In incestuous families, where the victim is female and the offender is the father, there is a strained relationship in the mother-daughter relationship, and an obvious strained relationship in the offender-victim connection. There are strained relationships with siblings because the victim is treated as special by the offender. In general the secrets, lack of connection, and dysfunctional communication patterns held by both types of families cause strain, stress, trauma, and confusion.

In narcissistic families, the members are fearful to stand in their truth and if they do point out the pretense or façade created, they become the scapegoat and are often punished, alienated, and made to feel like they are the crazy one. Adult children of narcissistic families report that they spent a childhood in fear, unable to speak up, because they desperately were searching for love, acceptance and approval. In incestuous families, fear is a motivation and tool used by the offender to control the secret of sexual abuse.

In narcissistic and incest families both, denial is the coping mechanism used to maintain the homeostasis of the family. The children have to stay in denial to survive in both types of families. Children are dependent upon their parents for their care. If they break through denial and call the truth, they could lose their caretakers. They could suffer abandonment. Children need to see their parents as strong and all knowing so they can feel safe. When they don't, it threatens their very security. Who then can they rely on?

Lack of Empathy:
The trademark of the narcissistic family is lack of empathy. Narcissistic parents are not capable of tuning into the emotional world of their children. This causes the child to constantly doubt their own feelings and creates children with an undeveloped sense of self.  A sex offender, who perpetrates on children, obviously has no empathy for the effects on those children. Sex offenders are one of the most malignant types of narcissists.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is an outcome for the children of both narcissistic and incest families. The dynamics of both cause significant trauma to a child. Symptoms of trauma can include such things as depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, hyper-vigilance, lack of trust, self-esteem issues, relationship problems, sexual promiscuity or lack of desire, eating disorders, dissociation, addictions, and many other serious complications. Anger, rage, and confusion are often emotions expressed in untreated cases.

So, hypothetically and back to the defense theory in the Casey Anthony trial, if the dynamics of incest and narcissism were present in the family, could this possibly explain why a young woman is behaving in such a way that few can make sense of. For example:

1. Could Casey's father have told her to lie but she could not maintain lies that made sense? Or, as a young woman did not understand how the system would work as the lies unfolded?

2. Could Casey have experienced three levels of trauma with the loss of a child, incest, and being raised in a narcissistic family with severe posttraumatic stress reactions that caused her to run away and numb her feelings with partying and sex?

3. Could the mother be totally in the dark if there was a conspiracy between the father and daughter, but also angry at the daughter from both a jealousy perspective (father's attention is on the daughter) and for destroying the image of the perfect family? If there is incest in a family, and the father is the offender, the mothers are often in the dark about it.

4. Could the father have tried to numb his feelings with an affair?

5. Could the delayed reporting of sexual abuse make more sense?

6. Could the truth have come out when Casey's attorney-client privilege came into play and she had someone to rely on to discuss what happened?

Although, bizarre and dysfunctional, if one understands the dynamics of incest and narcissistic families, the defense theory does not appear so irrational or impossible. This is not to say it is the truth in this case. Pressman and Pressman best describe the narcissistic family as "the shiny red apple with the worm inside." This same description would fit an incest family. Just food for thought.

So, if we are continuing to raise children, live in families, have love relationships, have extended family understanding, maybe we can learn from high profile cases. Taking apart certain scenarios and issues raised can give us opportunity to gain knowledge. Maybe it could make a difference in preventing child abuse in the future. With the epidemic of people harming children in our country, there is a call for more education, understanding and accountability.

Please note: this post is educational in nature and does not take a stand in the above-mentioned trial. The issues raised are purely used to provide additional understanding of dysfunctional families.

Additional Resources:

Book: Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers


Survey: Is This My Mom? Use this to assess if your parent has narcissistic traits. It is applicable for men as well.

Research: Interview You?

FB Parties for Adult Children of Narcissists:

Will I Ever Be Good Enough?
Healing The Daughters Of Narcissistic Mothers Workshop
October 7, 8, 9, 2011 at The Inverness Hotel in Denver
For Information: