Child maltreatment is a source of great evil in the world, “It’s impossible to find one person who wasn’t beaten who beats a child.”1 When we hear the phrase child maltreatment, we think of sexual or physical maltreatment of the sort that leaves visible damage, such as scars or bruises.
We use euphemistic language such as ‘disciplining’ to acquit parents who beat their children of malicious intent. Daily newspapers write of child abuse when they mean rape. The evening news reports on a family drama when parents executed their children in cold blood. Children who run away from home never have a valid reason, but are always difficult to handle.
Again and again, the Orwellian confusion hate is love comes to the surface that plays down parental violence against children. What is disciplinary about maltreating children other than instilling fear of their parents and of the world around them?
Psychoanalyst Alice Miller interprets the phrases child maltreatment and child abuse:
“Humiliations, spankings and beatings, slaps in the face, betrayal, sexual exploitation, derision, neglect, etc. are all forms of mistreatment, because they injure the integrity and dignity of a child, even if their consequences are not visible right away. However, as adults, most abused children will suffer, and let others suffer, from these injuries. This dynamic of violence can deform some victims into hangmen who take revenge even on whole nations and become willing executors to dictators and cruel leaders. Beaten children very early on assimilate the violence they endured, which they may glorify and apply later as parents, in believing that they deserved the punishment and were beaten out of love. They don’t know that the only reason for the punishments they had to endure is the fact that their parents themselves endured and learned violence without being able to question it.”2
Society Looking Away
General practitioners, teachers or child welfare workers can easily notice visible damage to a child’s body and report to corresponding authorities, or if necessary, offer the child protection themselves, but it is much more difficult to determine the consequences of emotional violence. Because those consequences are invisible, even science only scantily pays attention to emotional maltreatment, “the most hidden, less reported and least studied form of abuse.”3
Security forces, e.g. police, also naturally respect societal parental figures. The love they feel for their own parents makes them apprehensive in accusing other parents, even when those might be maltreating their children. Even in cases of murder, whereby a parent murdered his own child, the death is regularly attributed to suicide, an accident or an anonymous murderer, because neighbors, friends and even judges do not want to believe that parents can hurt their own children. The only exception is sexual abuse.4
Whoever maltreats a child starts a chain of violence that continues to victimize new innocents. “Often when one person wrongs us we focus our hatred on some one or some group that has nothing to do with it.”5 Not all maltreated children later suffer from the consequences of their maltreatment. There are examples of heavily traumatized children capable of processing their traumas, and who grow up to become good citizens. What is the difference between them and children who do not find healing?
In her book The Successful Self, psychologist Dorothy Rowe explains why some children will later vent their frustrations on others. As babies, we naturally complain with our cries about everything we dislike, but the quicker we will learn that our crying makes us a nuisance to others. During our childhood years, we learn through such negative experiences that we would be intrinsically evil, but as children we often cannot understand the reasons. When our parents punish us, we rather accuse ourselves than to regard the parents as bad. A beaten child thinks to himself, “I’m bad, so I deserve the pain my good parent does to me, and when I grow up, I will punish people the same way that I was punished.”6
Once they have become adults, children that learned to ‘deserve’ beatings will find it hard to understand that violence against children is wrong. After all, in that case, they would yet have to accuse their parents of malicious intent, an insight they had learned to repress since their childhood. Repression, therefore, is a defense mechanism, the first survival strategy that maltreated children teach themselves in order to uphold the image of their parents as good people. In the later repetition of the earlier abuse, the once powerless children have now become powerful adults themselves.7
Helping and Knowing Witnesses
In order to break the cycle of violence, we need a witness who believes us, someone whom we may express our pain with impunity, someone who does not force us to one-sided forgiveness of maltreating parents or caretakers. Such witnesses have a healing function, because people with traumatic stress heal quickest when others genuinely believe their trauma and communicate them they surely are good people.8
This kind of corrective experiences sympathetic people can give us help us process even the biggest traumas. The problem is that maltreated children often cannot find a witness. They fail to process their traumas on their own.
Alice Miller discerns between knowing and helping witnesses. Helping witnesses don’t themselves understand why a child is depressed, angry or confused, but they offer it the support and appreciation it needs to turn its negative self-image around into a positive image. The knowing witness offers the same support, but also understands what exactly the consequences of child maltreatment are to the child’s psychological development.
Miller researched the biographies of several dictators. She noticed that “in the childhood of mass murderers like Hitler, Stalin or Mao, no ‘helping [or knowing] witness’ can be found.”9 In a televised interview she explains what drives these dictators:
“Look at it the other way. What can happen to a human being who, as a child, was killed millions of times a day? He cannot wish for anything other than when it rises to power someday he will march millions into the gas chamber, or millions into the gulag, and then maintain it is good. Doing so, he saves the German people, or he saves Russia, or some entirely other people, because he experienced it like that himself as a child. ‘We really do it for your own good.’”10
She doesn’t mean that all maltreated children become mass murderers. Nor does she mean that a maltreated childhood acquits dictators of their behavior, on the contrary, but conversely there just aren’t any bloodthirsty tyrants known to history that haven’t been victims of brutal maltreatment as children.11