What makes some people capable of acts to children that most of us regard as “unimaginable”? How can a mother be so insensitive to her own child’s suffering?
Psychologists talk much of attachment theory. This revolves around the fact that the “higher” parts of a baby’s brain (the parts, if you like, that make us human) are relatively unformed at birth. They develop in a child’s crucial early years, as they develop an idea of who they are, how other people feel, how what they do affects other people, and how they sometimes have to control their impulses. This occurs through them being stimulated by new challenges, overcoming them with help from parents, and from them getting a sense of “normal” behaviour by being exposed to it.
None of this happens if a child is battered, frightened or ignored. In fact, such a child is likely to detach itself from feeling any emotion at all. It’s a way of protecting itself from further hurt. The skills of dealing with emotion and other people’s feelings are never learnt. They find it hard to feel.
That’s why many adults who maltreat children are those who have been neglected or badly treated themselves as children, they never learnt to understand empathy. So they are alarmingly tolerant to suffering, even that of their own children.
Recent research has explored the science behind this. When a child is cared for, the pleasure it feels results in stimulating hormones being released into the pre-frontal cortex, the brain area crucial in social behaviour and awareness of feelings. Social interaction also stimulates nerve connections in this area.
Babies who are frightened or neglected, on the other hand, will have higher levels of stress hormones in the brain. This may adversely affect the development of the orbitofrontal cortex and hippocampus – brain parts involved with managing emotion. Brain-scanning work in Britain and America has revealed that the brains of deprived children look different from those of loved children. In some cases, they are actually smaller.
The cycle is not inevitable, though. Not all maltreated children become maltreating adults, and there’s evidence that with the right sort of psychological support, which provides self-awareness and helps to break down the barriers to emotion, abused children can grow into loving parents. In fact often an person abused as a child can make a better parent as they are more sentitive to the felings and vulnerbilities of their child, as well as being more aware of the signs of distress.
Also not all parents and caregivers who abuse their children, were abused theirselves. There are normally some personal or situational factors that drive them to abuse the children who are in their care, but this is not always abuse in their own past. Below are some of the common reasons why parents/caregivers abuse their children.
* They were abused or deprived as children
* Lack of parenting knowledge
* Expecting too much from children, and not understanding the developmental stages and needs of children
* Financial problems and unemployment, which create frustration and stress, which are then transmitted to the child
* Insecurity and immaturity, particularly among teenaged parents
* Alcohol or drug problems, or other forms of addiction, such as gambling
* Inability to manage children
* Their self-image is defective
* They see physical punishment as a means of disciplining child
* They are trapped in an “old fashioned” way of thinking that children (esspecially sons) must be taught to be “tough”