From the Therapist's Desk

Is It Child Abuse?

A 5 year old returns to his mother's house and asks his step-father, "does my mommy really love my daddy more than she loves you?"

An 8 year old returns from a week-end spent with her father, and tells her mother "it's your fault that daddy doesn't have any money anymore."

A 14 year old, angry when her father won't buy her a new cell phone, tells her father "you're a loser anyway who can't even pay child support and spends all your money on your girlfriend."

The parent who hears such words from a child rarely reacts in a helpful way to the child because it is so clear the child is echoing something heard in the home of the other parent. And the immediate response is almost always in reaction to the other parent, as the parent demands "why would your mommy tell you that?" Or exclaims "your daddy has plenty of money?" Or sarcastically says "gee, I wonder where you heard that?!"

Parents who speak negatively to their children or even in front of their children about the child's other parent are engaging in destructive, even emotionally abusive, behaviors. For most parents, these moments are rare and typically occur only in the first few months of the transition from living together in one home to living apart in two homes. During the early transitions days and weeks of the family break up, these hurtful disclosures are also rarely intentional and most parents regret the words almost as soon as they are spoken when they realize the hurt they have inflicted on their child.

Unfortunately about 10-15% of parents struggling with family break up either don't notice that they are hurting their child, or they don't care because they place a much higher priority on making sure that the child knows which one of their parents is good and which one is bad, which one is right and which one is wrong. These parents have deficits, either temporary or permanent, that prevent them from being able to protect their children from abuse and maltreatment.

So why isn't it child abuse when a parent repeatedly engages in behavior that is clearly harmful to the child? The answer is complicated. Children are rarely protected from the psychological and/or emotional abuse of a parent, whether the family situation emerges in a Juvenile Court context (Welfare & Institutions Code) and or in a Family Court context (Family Code.) The exception in both Juvenile Court and Family Court is domestic violence.

Children exposed to domestic violence in the home are often considered to have been victims of child abuse and the law requires that those children be protected from further abuse. Exposure includes visual and/or auditory and does not include any physical abuse of the child.

Domestic violence exposure was not always considered to be child abuse. It came to be categorized as child abuse as a direct result of research documenting the devastating effects on children exposed to parental violence. The harm to these child victims of exposure to domestic violence occurred regardless of whether the domestic violence between the adults included physical harm to one of the adults.

Perhaps the research on parental psychological/emotional abuse will eventually result in similar changes to the law in order to protect children exposed to such destructive behaviors from a life time of problems startlingly similar to those documented in children exposed to parental domestic violence: 
1 low self-esteem leading to depression and alcohol/drug addiction; 
2 relationship difficulties involving psychological control and manipulation; and
3 excessive dependency on others for approval and attention that prevents self-sufficiency and adequate adult adjustment.

Parents who use negative strategies with the intent of harming the child's relationship with their other parent, can be considered to be psychologically maltreating their children. The expression of these strategies inevitably and directly results in children feeling worthless, flawed, unloved, unwanted, endangered, or only of value in meeting another's needs, a commonly accepted definition of psychological maltreatment.

Parents who use psychologically and emotionally abusive strategies to hurt the child's relationship with the other parent also behave in other ways that add the child's feeling of being abused and mistreated. They intrude on the child's life in every area in order to prevent the child from feeling comfortable or safe anywhere except in the presence of the abusive parent.

Parents who abuse their children lack empathy and are unable to accept or acknowledge any needs or perceptions the child may express that are different form those of the parent. This lack of empathy and intolerance of interpersonal differences are the hallmarks of the child abuser.

For now, it is an unusual experience for a child victim of psychologically and emotionally destructive parental behaviors to be removed from or protected from the abusive, intrusive parent. The parent's constitutional rights usually take precedence over the child's need for safety and security because there is not adequate proof or belief that the child needs protection.

When a judge does see and understand the profound psychological damage to the child, they find themselves stuck for adequate intervention strategies. In most communities, there just are not adequate resources available to provide all members of an estranged and traumatized family with any hope of finding some peace and resolution. Hopefully, these community challenges will be addressed.

Transitions Family Program at Hannah's House has created an Intensive Family Restructuring Program with integrated Family Action Support Teams designed to help heal such family wounds. The program offers three levels of intervention strategies to help with varying degrees of estrangement between a parent and the child. The problem exists in the entire family system so the solution must be based in the entire family system we well. This is the philosophy and structure of the program.

Whatever the real world realities and limitations, the reality does not change the fact that it's child abuse. Any parenting behavior engaged in with the intent of doing harm to a child's sense of love, safety and well-being in their family relationships is, in fact, child abuse. Perhaps it's time to just call it what it is instead of denying it. Like any real problem that interferes with a positive life, the first step to being able to solve a problem is to admit that it is a problem.