The beginnings of our problems, parent blaming
Freud saw psychological problems as originating in childhood, i.e. caused primarily by parents, and this view has been hard to discredit. At the end of this section, Table 9.2 summarizes some of the possible consequences of certain types of parenting and certain circumstances during childhood, such as an alcoholic parent, divorce, abuse, etc. In general, there are two basic notions about how the harm is done to children. One idea is that parents over-control the child, suppressing the true, basically good nature of the child. The other idea (Pillari, 1992) is that the over-whelming needs of the parents cause them to be abusive and overly critical, causing low self-esteem and self-defeating behavior in the child (who passes it on to the next generation). No doubt, both happen.
It is a humbling experience to have been a kid when everything was the kid's fault and a parent at a time when everything is the parent's fault.
Several well-known therapists (Bradshaw, 1985; Forward, 1989; Miller, 1983) describe harmful child rearing practices, called "poisonous pedagogy." When parents suppress a child's emotions--anger, fears, dependency--and needs--fun, sex, love--the true nature of the child is lost. The child is so preoccupied with getting Mom and Dad's love by doing what they want him/her to do, that the child looses sight of his/her own feelings and desires. In short, the children never get to know their true selves. Thus, such children are programmed to act out childhood roles ("games" and "scripts"), rather than become their real self. Such children also latch on to compulsions that help them deny or control their suppressed emotions and awareness, thus, the attraction to drugs, music, TV, socializing, exercising, romantic love, sports, etc. (Another consequence is that people who lack self-awareness project their "bad" qualities on to others who are different, such as Blacks, Mexicans, Jews, welfare recipients, etc. See prejudice in chapter 7.)
A psychologist (Caplan, 1989) found that mothers are blamed for over 70 kinds of psychological problems. Until very recently, fathers were blamed for very few problems (except in the areas of alcoholism, physical or sexual abuse, and abandonment). This wide-spread mother-blaming is not fair or valid. Phares and Compas (1992) reviewed the relationships between "sick" fathers and psychopathology in their children, and basically found that it doesn't make much difference which parent is maladjusted. That is, an alcoholic, a hyperactive, or a brutal father affects his child in the same way a similar-behaving mother does. (An exception may be depression: depressed kids tended to have depressed mothers but not depressed fathers.)
When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
Who is to blame for our faults? If we looked carefully and with an accepting heart, we'd see the deep-rooted reasons for our parents' behavior, even abusive acts. The reasons usually go back generations, either in terms of genes (ability, interests, temperament) or acquired personality traits and needs. Of course, there is also the influence of our friends and culture, and the effects of our social-economic class and religion. Nor should we deny our own responsibility between 5 and 25 for discovering our true self, correcting our childish behavior, and straightening out our distorted thinking, regardless of what our parents did to us or taught us. In short, the blaming should be spread around or stopped altogether.
I had no shoes and complained, until I met a man who had no feet.
If our parents are held partly responsible for our problems, then they surely deserve an equal share of the credit for our good traits too. For instance, research by Koestner, Franz, and Weinberger (1990) has shown that our level of empathy as an adult is positively related to specific characteristics of our parents: (1) Dad's involvement in caring for us, (2) Mom's tolerance for our being dependent, (3) Mom's encouraging us to control our anger and aggression, and (4) Mom's satisfaction from being a mother. We need much more detailed knowledge, such as this, about many connections between childhood experiences and adult adjustment, but we don't need to blame anyone. We can usually forgive ourselves for how we raised our children (see Dwinell & Baetz, 1993).
One approach has been for therapists and clinicians to look backwards and describe or speculate about the parent-child relationship difficulties associated with (causing?) specific problems, such as alcoholism or family violence. Ackerman (1994) describes "emotionally silent" sons from dysfunctional families. A related clinical approach is to describe the common problems associated with (caused by?) specific situations, such as rapidly changing mother-daughter relationships during adolescence (Apter, 1990) or continuing mother-daughter conflicts later in life (Firman & Firman, 1990). Recently, there has been some focus on the problems resulting from certain kinds of father-daughter relationships (Goulter & Minninger, 1994), such as romantic-sexual difficulties (Secunda, 1992) and compulsive, perfectionistic codependency (Ackerman, 1989). Most of these descriptions are based on talking with troubled people, not on objective research. Nevertheless, it may be useful information (it's better than being ignorant). Clinical opinion alone is not good enough, however.
There is advice for adult men (Llardo, 1993) and women (Boynton & Dell, 1995) who want to re-create a healthy, independent relationship with their same sexed parent.
The causes and results of alcoholism and abuse--the clinical vs. research description
Since the "drug counter-culture" of the 1960's, our society has been obsessed with the effects of alcohol and drugs. One positive consequence of this concern is the highlighting of the problems of adult children of alcoholics (ACA's). A flood of self-help books describe ACA's variously as overly anxious and responsible, passive placaters, martyrs, apathetic, substance abusers, poor problem solvers, distrustful, out of touch with their feelings, unable to maintain relationships, codependent, shame-filled, suicidal, and so on. These are the clinical descriptions that come from actual case histories; no doubt they are valid descriptions of many ACA's lives. However, when Wright and Heppner (1991) compared ACA's with non-ACA's using objective tests, they found no differences on these kinds of characteristics. One possible explanation is that Wright and Heppner surveyed college freshmen and some therapists have contended that the problems of ACA's don't become pronounced until the middle 20's. So, a study of 25-35-year-olds might yield different results. Another possibility is that, while some have serious problems (seen by therapists), many ACA's may not be aware of their problems or may not have problems, at least not serious enough to drive them into therapy. In any case, if you are an ACA with problems, there are many books available: Seixas (1979), Hobe (1990), Messina (1989), Wholey (1988), and Napier (1990). Individual or group therapy may be necessary.
Clinical theories first described the type of families that produce children who abuse drugs and alcohol. Only now are objective, scientific studies being done (Glantz & Pickens, 1991). Again, the clinical and objective studies don't entirely agree. One common clinical notion is that young drug users are emotionally over-involved ("enmeshed") with an over-indulging Mom and have distant or strained relationships with Dad. Then, supposedly, the youngsters find a drug-using crowd which provides a way to escape--to a limited degree--from his/her smothering, emotionally ambivalent family situation. Another clinical theory is that the young drug user is unconsciously helping the family carry out certain functions, namely, (a) his/her mischievous behavior (and peer group) diverts attention away from the poor marriage of his/her parents or (b) his/her drug use with friends provides an illusion of "I'm growing up" and "on my own" while holding the family together via his/her defiance of parents' rules. Surely there is emotional parent-child enmeshment sometimes but not always.
Indeed, objective research (e.g. Volk, et al, 1989) paints a different picture: teenaged drug users are often uninvolved or disengaged, not enmeshed with a parent at the time (perhaps earlier). Teenagers, who do not use or abuse drugs, on the other hand, have emotionally close relationships with both parents, especially father, and are willing to take advice from mother (Coombs & Landsverk, 1988). These non-users are also willing to follow the "rules" established by their parents about homework, TV, curfew, etc. (Their parents have more rules and are seen as stricter, but they do not punish more than users' parents. Instead, they use praise more.) Of course, excessive drug-use by an adolescent would ordinarily worsen the parent-child relationships (and kids who cause no trouble have better relations with Mom and Dad), but we still don't know the connection between the start of drug use and family relationships. Surely friends play a big part; general psychological well being and other factors may play a part too. There also appear to be gender differences, e.g. female college students with drinking problems tend to be "too far apart" or "too close" with mother and, thus, had a poorer sense of identity. College males with drinking problems did not show this too close-or-too distant relationship with either parent; peer groups may exert more influence on college males (Bartle & Sabatelli, 1989). We have so much more to learn about helpful parenting.
Do abused kids become abusing parents?
It is a popular notion that people who abuse their children were abused themselves. That happens, of course, but it is not predictable. Many abusers were not abused! And, if you were abused, it does not mean you will abuse your children. Only about 30% of abused children abuse their children. Secondly, the abuse may not be the same, i.e. a physically abused child may emotionally abuse his/her children.
What is the most common childhood factor in the background of abusive parents? Feeling unloved and unwanted by your parents! The abused-neglected child tends to suffer more problems than normal as an adult: depression, alcoholism, sexual acting out, criminal behavior, and a variety of other psychological problems. The more the abuse, the more psychiatric problems. As a society, we pay a heavy price for this neglect through the Criminal Justice System and the Mental Health System. A study of 15 teenaged murderers found that 13 had been murderously abused. See Miller (1983) for a powerfully depressing picture of abuse and the long-range consequences.
The consequences of abuse are worse when the child is mistreated for a long time, early in life (before puberty), by a close family member, and in a very stressful, hurtful, degrading manner (Goleman, 1989). The bad effects are more lasting if the family environment is emotionally cold. Indeed, if the abused child has significant, continuing contact with just one supportive, nurturing adult, this can "save a life." One more thing: it has been observed by workers in this field that the effects of abuse are often worse when the victim denies that the abuse occurred. They may say, "it wasn't that bad" but will describe horrible atrocities when asked for details. They may say, "I deserved it," feeling they were so bad that harsh punishment was necessary. When parents or other care-takers have been cruel, it is healthy for the child to believe "my parents were wrong" and "I was innocent."
Child Sexual Abuse (CSA)
One hundred years ago, Freud at first thought child sexual abuse was a major factor in many emotional problems in adults. But as he saw more cases, he couldn't believe sexual abuse occurred so often. So, he decided that children had sexual/love wishes and imagined the childhood sexual experiences. Of course, some fantasies or "memories" are almost certainly just fantasies, but today, many therapists (Forward & Buck, 1978) believe real, actual sexual abuse is fairly common. Incoming data seems to support that view. We are left with the difficult problem of deciding when such a memory is real and when is it not. In general, however, clinicians tend to believe a client's report of CSA, unless some unusual experience, like exposure to a biased therapist, has occurred that might tend to "implant" or encourage such a memory.
Sexual abuse of a child or young person is a self-centered, self-gratifying sex act sometimes by a considerably older person who ignores--or doesn't know--the fact that great psychological harm may be done to the victim. CSA acts may range from fondling and masturbation to actual intercourse, sometimes only once or a few times but often for several years. The median age of occurence is amazingly young--about 9 1/2 or 10 for both boys and girls. (Note: this young age may partly be due to the fact that sexual "assaults"--frequently included in CSA research--are more often committed by brothers or by friends than by adults.) For incest specifically, the contacts start, on average, between 7 to 9 years-of-age!
How often does CSA happen? Of course, surveys vary but in one study 17% (another study found 27%) of women and 12% (other studies found 15% to 20%) of men were inappropriately touched sexually as children, 96% of the time it was by someone they knew, not a stranger. Additional recent surveys have found that 20-45% of women and 10-18% of men were sexually molested as children (Janus & Janus, 1993). The "abuser" of children is usually defined as being at least 5 years older than the victim, and sometimes much older, like a grandfather. (We don't seem to have words for the pushy harassment by siblings and peers that go beyond casual sex "play" or "exploration" but might not reach the criminal "assault" level, e.g., the brother who demands some sex play every time mom and dad leave home.) Between 20% and 30% of adult women have been forced to do something sexual before 18, but only 3% of men report having been forced (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael & Michaels, 1994). Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that young boys, as well as girls, are sexually abused (see Berendzen, 1993, for an unusual case of seduction by a psychotic mother, which supposedly resulted in the victim making obscene phone calls many years later).
Since the abuser of young children may involve a family member or a close friend of the family, the act of sexual abuse will, in those cases, involve a breach of trust which may add greatly to the serious emotional consequences for the child. Between 8% and 15% of all unwanted sexual contact is by an immediate family member (and, considering siblings, maybe the figure is considerably higher). The child trusts, likes, and feels safe with someone who then deceives and uses them, seriously upsetting them. The emotional trauma to a young girl is greatest when incest occurs before puberty rather than after and when the offender has previously been well known and liked by the child, i.e. when the abuse is a betrayal of trust.
Fairly sophisticated recent research has strongly indicated that it is the actual childhood sexual abuse and not some associated family factor (income, education, parenting style, religion) that increases the risk of developing a variety of psychiatric, eating, and addiction disorders years, or even decades later, as an adult (Kendler, Bulik, Silberg, Hettema & Myers, 2000). However, these findings seem to conflict somewhat with other studies showing that the sexual abuse of girls tends to occur in situations where domination of and violence towards women are tolerated (see Interpersonal Violence publications by Sage Publications; Forward & Buck, 1978).
The initial effects of incest on the victim may be fear, anger, sadness, shame, guilt, and feeling inferior. Sometimes these feelings are intense. More long-term effects may include depression, a very negative self-concept, anxiety attacks, phobias, nightmares, conflicts with parents, difficulty trusting others, sexual problems, and other psychological stress (Blume, 1990). (Note: many other non-sexual experiences may also cause these problems.) As yet, we do not know why being abused results in the victim feeling very negatively about herself. This is important to research. Clearly, even a fairly young child soon realizes and is usually told to keep the sexual activity a secret. Needing to keep it secret would mean to most kids that others would not approve, i.e. maybe that what you are doing, even under pressure, is bad. Imagine the difficulty, as a child, of deciding to keep "the secret" or expose the crime. Imagine further that the offender may be a very important person in your life...and you might have ambivalent feeling about the sexual activities. In short, it can be a terrible experience which is a very high price for a child to pay for some older person's momentary sexual pleasure.
Assorted long-term consequences of abuse: The causal connections are not clear but the relationships are amazing. Abused young girls are three times more likely than other women to later have a psychiatric illness, especially anxiety, depression, anger, and relationship problems, such as distrust. (Remember, CSA may also be related to PTSD and DID, as discussed in chapter 5 under Dealing with Trauma.) About 40% of women hospitalized with a psychiatric disorder have been sexually abused. We don't know why but women victimized before age 18 are 2.4 times more likely than others to be victimized again as an adult. 30% of women in prison and 90+% of those in prostitution have a history of sexual abuse. Even certain "physical" (perhaps psychosomatic) disorders, such as breast cancer, arthritis, thyroid disease, fibromyalgia (intense pain) and chronic fatigue syndrome, are also associated with sexual abuse (Stein & Barrett-Connor, 2000). Abused young boys are more likely to commit suicide, use drugs, and get in trouble with the law than boys who were not abused. 1/3 of delinquents, 40% of sexual offenders, and 3/4 of serial rapists were molested. The psychological-neurological mechanisms underlying these far reaching processes are not clear, yet.
Sexual abuse of children is obviously a serious problem but little good research has been done about preventing it (Adams, Fay, & Loreen-Martin, 1984). About all we know is that sexually abused children tend to be in situations where a parent is absent, such as working, and, interestingly enough, where the level of family conflict is high (Benedict & Zautra, 1993). Several untested educational programs attempt to teach children about sexual abuse--what it is, who might do it, the many forms it takes, how to know it is happening to you, how to stop it, how to report it, etc. These are commendable efforts, but this is a very complex process for a 5 or 6-year-old child, or even an adult, to handle. A 30-minute discussion at school will probably not be adequate. Also, potential harm can be done (causing nightmares, fear of strangers [or family], negative attitude towards sex, etc.). What about parents, can they help? Yes, but less than 1/3 ever discuss sexual abuse with their children, and, perhaps understandably, less than 1 in 16 ever suggest that a family member might try to abuse them (Reppucci & Haugaard, 1989). Parents need help in this area (for prevention see Adams & Fay, 1981; Adams, Fay, and Loreen-Martin, 1984). The school-based efforts need to be more carefully researched and improved. Unfortunately, society's moral zealots would be enraged if schools attempted to distinguish among (a) psychologically harmful sex, such as abuse, (b) non-sexual contact, such as tickling or wrestling, and (c) good sex, such as self-pleasuring or even "exploring" with same-age friends. Some people want children to be sexless, but that may be another very harmful attitude.
I believe we need, among other things, an intense national effort to teach males that a girl/woman saying "no" means to stop immediately and permanently. Certainly, males need to be bluntly disabused of the idea that a young girl or woman will want and enjoy sex play even if she is misled, wooed, flattered, pressured, intoxicated, threatened, or forced. The same confrontation with reality is needed with date rapers, sexual harassers on the job, and rapists. All men must also realize that sex with a minor is a serious crime, even if she agreed to have sex or if she invited it. Most importantly, males must be confronted with how truly horrific sexual abuse, harassment, date rape, and rape can be for the woman. The effects can last for a life time. The absurd, arrogant male idea that "she will like it" is sick. The violators must be reported (every time!), punished, and treated effectively before being released. (See the Rape section in chapter 7.)
Help for teenagers recovering from incest is available in a book (Mather, 1994). There are also several self-help books and programs for female incest victims after they have grown up (Blume, 1990; Poston & Lison, 1990; Jarvis-Kirkendall & Kirkendall, 1989; Bass & Davis, 1988, 1992; Bass & Davis, 1993) and for men too (Lew, 1990; Sonkin, 1992). A spouse can often help a survivor recover (Davis, 1993). However, psychotherapy is probably needed in cases where the reaction to abuse is severe.
An area of special interest is sexual abuse by siblings, usually older brothers. This may be more common than one might think. Certainly it rarely becomes public knowledge; parents may discount the possible seriousness of the sexual activities; it isn't uncommon that a younger sister would initially like a closer but not a sexual relationship. The abuse can, of course, cause a long-lasting traumatic reaction, including self-doubts and low self-esteem, as well as serious family conflicts. Books and articles specifically addressing sibling sexual abuse that might be of interest to survivors include: Shaw, 2000; Canavan, Meyer, and Higgs, 1992; Laiola, (1992); Rudd and Herzberger, 1999). There are also a few other books at Amazon but they are mostly for therapists dealing with sibling incest.
Note: There is no doubt that sexual abuse during childhood is sometimes forgotten...but the associated stress and emotions may cause problems. On the other hand, there is another note of caution: some "recovered memories" of sexual abuse may not have actually happened. A few self-help books, including Blume and Bass & Davis, and several therapists have suggested (strongly and repeatedly) that sexual abuse is probably the cause of several adult problems. Naturally, some people will believe the suggestion of sexual abuse from an authority and dwell on that possibility until clear mental images falsely appear. What an injustice to the innocent people falsely accused of sexual abuse! (But not nearly all accused are innocent, so how do you know the plea that "I didn't do it" is the truth?) As a person trying to understand and cope, it is good to look for the causes of your problems, but don't allow anyone (or a group) to tell you repeatedly what "must have happened" to you sexually. There are many ways to get any given symptom. Early childhood memories are very undependable. There are angry camps on both sides of this issue (see sites below). Science still knows very little with certainty about the accuracy of these sexual "memories."
Web sites about Incest and CSA
Information about incest and self-help groups for incest victims may be obtained from Survivers of Incest Anonymous; they will also tell you how to start a local group. Incest Abuse Support is another good site for information, Forums, chat, and links to 20 support groups. Pandora's Box-CSA and Tamara's House link to extensive information about CSA.
Sexual assault sites (Also see Rape)
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) (1-800-656-HOPE) and the Sexual Assault Care Center are among the nation's largest anti-sexual assault organizations, providing many forms of help and links to extensive information on many related topics. They offer counseling, advice, and information about 850 affiliated Rape Crisis Centers around the nation. Also, a place online for victims to tell their story, talk with other survivors, and, if they like, identify their offender is This Healing Journey.
Male Sexual Abuse sites
National Organization of Male Sexual Victims, Inpsyte Trauma Psychology, Child Abuse Books, Sexual Abuse of Males, Male Survivors (click on Male Survivors; also, look for the myths and bookstore sections on this site), and Male Survivor of CSA for several good online articles.
A site about Sexual Offenders
Understanding the Sexual Offender.
Sites about False Accusations and Blaming Your Childhood.
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation and now the Website Memory and Reality offer information about "repressed memories" involving sexual abuse and they offer help to persons falsely accused of CSA. Another completely unrelated legal concern (so far as I know) is expressed by Alan M. Dershowitz in his book, The Abuse Excuse. He sees the plea of innocent on the basis of "I was abused" as an abrogation of responsibility which could ultimately result in the end of the rule of law (which is based on the principle that we are responsible for our actions). This is an interesting dilemma for a determinist (see chapter 14).
A site about Ritual Abuse
Ritual Abuse Resources.
A site for Mothers of an Abused Child
Info for Mothers.