Thursday, 3 November 2011

Simon Baron-Cohen: Inter-generational patterns of abuse

Imagine you’re in a shopping mall car park when you witness a woman scream at her child “I hate you! You’re an evil bastard! I’m leaving! You can look after yourself! I’m done looking after you! Good riddance. You don’t deserve a mother! I’ll kill myself and then perhaps you’ll realize you should have treated me better!” and then getting into the car, slamming the car door behind her, and driving off at high speed.

How should we, as witnesses to this scene, react to such words and actions that can cause deep emotional scars in the young child they are directed at? No doubt like you, I would find it deeply distressing and experience an urge to protect the child and condemn the mother for her hurtful behaviour.

But as a psychologist a further thought kicks in: Perhaps this mother herself also deserves our compassion. What has happened in her life to render her so overwhelmed that, in a moment of anger, she can no longer control herself and instead vents her most aggressive thoughts and feelings, and loses any empathy for her own child?

The study of Borderline Personality Disorder reveals strong links with an early history of insecure attachment to a caregiver, itself a consequence of early neglect or abuse. John Bowlby’s powerful concept of attachment reveals the long-term ‘sleeper effects’ of missing out on parental affection. Thirty years later, these can wreak havoc on one’s own capacity to parent.

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Simon Baron-Cohen is Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Autism Research Centre there. His new book is ‘Zero Degrees of Empathy’ (Penguin UK) and is published in the US under the title ‘The Science of Evil’ (Basic Books).

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6 comments:

  1. Anonymous8:05 pm

    As a former professor educational psychology, I had a similar experience in a parking lot. After revealing my decision to be empathic to the mother, I was accused of blaming the victim. Rick Burke

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  2. I always get affected seeing those kind of situations and I don't know why it takes me too long to get over it.

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  3. Anonymous4:05 pm

    I had an experience like this last Friday where I witnessed a young mother in a Target store yelling at and threatening her two little girls, about 3 and 5. My 11 y.o. daughter was with me and wanted to yell at the mom. I said to the mom, "you have 2 beautiful kids." She smiled and said, "the little one drives me crazy." I said, "I know it's hard when they are so little and so active." I patted her on the shoulder. Did that help? Was it the right thing to do? I don't know. But I knew (as a mom and a psychologist), that yelling at her wouldn't help at all.

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  4. Athena Stefanatou9:05 am

    I tend to believe that it is a pattern of behaving (from the side of the parent)when a significant relationship is on the way...The paradox of wanting to be loved but believing one doesn't deserve it, so destroying it is more comfortable...Feeling deep can be threatening. As a stance, I take the side of the child as the minor has to be protected.As a bystander, I would intervene by saying: 'Do you need anything?'and offering help to the mother.

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  5. Jess Teel2:39 am

    Child abuse can leave a person emotionally detached from their child years later. It is hard for a person to create meaningful relationships and fully commit after being exposed to so much trauma. It's an endless cycle that can later leave neglect and abuse to the original victims children. It's rather sad. In a situation like this it is sometimes hard to think outside of the box but empathetic human beings and psychologists can see the mother as a victim because she has an internal conflict that deserves attention and the patterns of behaviour that have brought her to this moment probably has been caused by someone hurting her and poor coping skills. Some women have children, especially in poorer socioeconomic communities, in hope of having someone that will give them the love they've lacked before. If the child is difficult and the mother feels rejected this can cause a lot of confusion..and anger.The mother might detach herself from the child which in turn can lead to neglect and possibly abuse later on. Depression can also lead to situations like the supermarket. It is important for everyone to remember how to look at a situation in that "person's shoes" so to speak.

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  6. As a victim of abuse from both my parents, now myself a parent, I do all the things my parents did not do. I over compensate with my own child and have broken all the vicious cycles that i had been exposed to. However, if I witness such scenarios myself, I find it increasingly hard to detach from the situation. It is like I am re-living that moment in time all over again. ~Looking at it from the parents view, my mother too was neglected, but I find this hard to accept her behaviours back then and subsequent behaviours ever since.

    I guess in a way you could look at it, that the parent is dehumanising their child in order to be so cruel or projecting their own inner hate for themselves, that they may not be aware of.

    It is all too easy for people to judge a situation like that without knowing the facts first, however, children know no better and learn by their role models!

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