Friday, June 11, 2010

How Can You Be Empathic with a Child Abuser?

With my non-pychotic adult patients who exhibit chronic self-destructive or self-defeating behavior patterns, chronic anxiety and depression, and/or overt family discord, I eventually get to the point in psychotherapy where I recommend that they talk to their parents (or other primary caretakers) about their family dynamics. I tell them we will work on getting past their parents' rather formidable defenses, and finding a way to discuss their long mutual history of dysfunctional interactions. We will figure out a strategy for stopping ongoing, repetitive, and troublesome interpersonal exchanges, which will hopefully lead to reconciliation.

Even if the patients are finally convinced that it might be very helpful for them to do this, the first response I get is usually some variation of, "That's impossible." The patients then go on to describe how their families are the most difficult human beings on the planet, and how there is just no way their parents will ever be approachable like that, let alone alter the way they interact with the patient.

They go on to say that if I knew these people, then I would know this would be a fool's errand. Besides, they've already tried a variety of different strategies to talk to them, and got nowhere. Certainly, I could not possibly have ever seen a worse family.

Actually, after 30 years of doing this sort of work, I probably have seen families that are much worse. Every time I think I have seen family members mistreat one another in every conceivable way, I am in for a shock. Soap operas ain't got nothing on real families.

Nowhere is convincing patients of the need to do what I recommend more difficult than for those cases in which one or both parents had been physically or sexually abusive to my patients when they were children, when other important family members did nothing to protect the abused child, and when the parents refuse to admit than anything untoward ever even happened. Worse yet are the parents who blame the patient for the abuse. One patient, right after a particularly reprehensible act by her father, was given a copy of the book The Bad Seed by her mother. The novel is about a little girl who was born bad.

The task of reconciling seems even more absurd in such cases when I tell the patient that he or she has probably not yet employed the basic secret of being able to get past parental defenses and calmly discuss family dynamics (a process called metacommunication). That secret is showing the parents empathy. Employing attacks and recriminations only leads to the parents exhibiting even more or their defenses, employing fight/flight/freeze reactions, or resorting to nasty verbal attacks and even family violence. (The exact way empathy is used in metacommunication must be different in the case of every family, however. Generic assertiveness skills often do not work. Interventions must be tailored to the family's sensitivities).

Empathy for a child abuser? For a child molester? I have got to be kidding, right? How can you be empathic with someone who has done something so heinous?

First, even parents who do horrible things almost always have redeeming qualities as well. No one is all bad (thinking otherwise is splitting, subject of an earlier post). They were not abusive twenty-four seven. Sometimes they were nice. Many people who were abused as children do not like to think about the times their parents were loving - it is just too confusing and therefore upsetting. It is much easier to focus on the hateful side.

Some take the opposite track and try to make excuses for the parents. All of them really have very mixed feelings about the parents and secretly wish for a healthy connection. Also, they fear that since their parents are monsters and they came from them, then they might be monsters too. Some folks with an abusive background are afraid to have children for fear that they, too, will be abusive.

Second, most people get empathy mixed up with sympathy. There is a huge difference. Abusive parents are not very sympathetic characters, to say the least. Empathy, however, means trying to understand what factors led the offender to do what he or she did without condoning what was done. Sympathy is saying that what happened was sort of OK. Saying that what they did was somehow excusable is, in fact, not empathic at all.

Why? Because abusers know, despite all their denial and verbal nastiness, that what they did was horrible. They are not stupid, and they know wrong from right. Their biggest secret fear is that their children hate them for it, and that they deserve not only the hatred that they receive but eternal damnation. This is why they use denial: not to escape responsibililty, since they and their children know very well what happened, but to make their children give them the hatred they think they deserve! If an abused individual says that what the parents did was all right, the parents know immediately that their child is lying. Lying can never be empathic, because it is phony.

In general, I use genograms, which are sort of the patient's emotional/historical family tree, to try to help patients put their parents' behavior in a more understandable context, so that the patient's justified anger becomes more manageable. Understanding the parents' past experience makes them seem less like monsters.

Also, it is important for patients to understand that getting past their parents' denial is a multi-stage process. There are usually four different types of denial that are employed, one after the other, as each one is confronted and then diffused - but that's a matter for a future post.


  1. I read your post, i really appreciate your experience and i will get good knowledge from their as well.

  2. I have read a few of the Article on your website now, and I really like your style of blogging.

  3. "I must garner all my powers of persuasion to convince patients that attempting to reconcile with difficult parents or difficult adult children is a good idea. ... I tell them that they would want a relationship if the relationship were not so frequently unbearable. When reconciliation and new interpersonal understanding take place between family members, the benefits are immeasurable."

    Oh I can measure it, I'm pretty expert...

    When I was cured of severe mental illness induced by parental neglect and abuse which I experienced as some kind of ghost in a frightening shadow-land for a couple of decades, when I transformed from that and became "me", I found I needed a new identity to function in society. I cut all my family off in order to do that. I never had any sense of loss, strangely enough I never felt the Kumbayah call. Then had a successful corporate career as an "orphan". That was well measured, a good move,
    a sound mind in a wealthy body.
    I did however practice meta-communication naturally first when I became involved in complex relationships in the corporate world. I think it's natural over time to any quiet mind.


    When my second career wound down, I phoned my father about once a year. I was very cordial, he was cordial. I just wanted to know when the SOB would die so I could close the book on him. Living longer than him was measurably satisfying.

    Now he wasn't all bad, I do remember when he was affectionate once or twice (I don't do splitting, God Forbid!) I only lost the hearing in one ear, and the other crippling wasn't that bad. Though I'm sure he wasn't abusive 24/7 so I guess he had a good life though that seems to have been counter-balanced by my going into schizophrenic emotional oblivion and having my entire life wiped out for 20 years. I remember being a teenager or is it that I remember something or someone else being a teenager?.. too bad I wasn't there to enjoy it.

    Yeah, I celebrated with some sadness, don't worry I'm a compassionate guy. He was worth a half a bottle of Bacardi.

    My stepmother was died of cancer, poor dear.
    Now I remember screaming in bed from meningitis, screaming "call a doctor" and she told me "Don't be such a baby" and left me all night untreated in fever and semi-coma, I passed out on the floor crawling to reach the light switch on the wall ..and there was more...much more...

    I wonder if she screamed from the pain when her time came? Karma's a bitch.

    But she was really only worth one satisfied but tastefully sad toasting of a shot of Bacardi.

    OK OK the sadness is selfish because it's a part of my life in memory that goes too. It's a Pyrrhic victory, life just isn't fair no matter what. I had dreams of doing victory jigs and turns out it wasn't even worth that.

    Four different types of denial you say? And genograms as a bonus! Wow! Thats' quite fascinating. I never knew about that, I guess I missed out, their secret cryptology now lies in oblivion with the Pharaohs. But it does leave a flavour of mysterious wonder about it by leaving something unfinished.
    "Always look on the bright side of death" as the song goes.


    Now I have a really big concern about all this:

    I'm wondering if I should stop mixing my Bacardi with coke or should I learn to be a purist in experiencing the taste and drink it straight?

    What do you think?

  4. There is really something to this, it seems so obvious but also weirdly forbidden to acknowledge. My maternal grandmother was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriends, and her mother also had some major red flags of being abused young (such as running away from home as a teenager). My mother was a knowing and willing passive participant in her husband / my father sexually abusing me when I was growing up.

    So, what seems like a possible missing piece of the puzzle is - was my mother also abused? Apparently it is a bit of a 'thing' in our family. But my mother insists that she was never abused besides emotionally (she sees her mother as all-bad and her father as all-good). I wonder, as she is her father's 'golden child' / favorite, and it seems like she constantly pushes this notion. Just doesn't all add up to me, as it is presented anyway.

    I have tried meta-communicating with her about it (not perfectly I am sure but I try my best) and it always goes the same with her A. insisting that her father is basically perfect and never did anything bad ever, and B. getting relentlessly focused on how she never did anything bad either, that it was all my father's doing and basically that I should hate my father.

    I'm not psychic and I guess might also be projecting or something but I can't shake the sort of gut feeling that my mother was abused by her father.