Emotional Abuse by the Personality Disordered Parent: the Neglected Act of Child Abuse
Most forms of child abuse are quite identifiable in comparison to emotional abuse: neglect of proper care, physical abuse, and sexual abuse have tangible physical proofs that can be cited as evidence of child abuse. Each of these, of course, carry emotional abuse with them. But singularly, emotional abuse, on the other hand, has far, far less tangible proofs available to demonstrate that in fact, abuse has happened and continues to take place.
In many cases of emotional abuse, the abuser may be an extremely clever and practiced torturer; it is not uncommon for many perpetrators of it to be easily identified as Cluster B Personality Disorders (Histrionic, Borderline, Narcissistic, or Anti-Social). Often, such abusers never get any official diagnosis of their mental illness because part of the nature of these disorders is to never seek treatment, let alone get a working diagnosis and plan for treatment and recovery. Adults with Cluster B Personality Disorders (CBPD) likely have been ‘in practice’ for not just their entire adult lives, but also a good part of their adolescence and childhood as well.
The patterns of emotional abuse perpetrated by CBPD’s is well known and recognizable, especially to those in the field of human services. They may make up about ten percent of any particular population, which is a significant number of people with this mental illness. And, a mental illness it is, though a curious one in that it is generally understood that unlike people who have other mental disorders, like schizophrenia, for example, CBPD’s make conscious decisions to engage in the relationally ill (and often illegal) behaviors that they choose to do.
The Logical Protector of the Child: the Court
Practiced and bright CBPD’s are highly skilled in their ability to manipulate people around them and remain covert about their abusive behaviors; they are experts at being chameleon-like and presenting ever-so-innocent-and-reasonable cover stories to the point that even judges swallow what they deliver hook, line, and sinker. To be quote fair and honest, most human beings are suckers just ripe for the plucking for CBPD’s, because many people rarely or never engage their critical thinking abilities. Due to their lack of experience and relational skill, children are particularly vulnerable, and CBPD’s, being remarkably lazy, will always find the easiest target available.
CBPD’s also have an innate understanding that the things that they do that cause harm to the child are difficult to prove by anyone, and so do the attorneys that are getting paid by the CBPD. Much abuse is covered by claims of ‘discipline’ for the ‘strong willed child’, or other such nonsense that seems quite reasonable, and ‘reasonable discipline’ is well within the rights of the parent. When corporal punishment is still within a parent’s rights, how can one argue that keeping a child from an important playoff game with their school team is emotionally abusive? The key, of course, is in the pattern of the emotional abuse. More on that later.
Another problem, of course, is that most judges in custody cases or cases of child abuse are not specifically trained in psychology, after all, they are usually lawyers who got elected to their positons as judges. As such, they come to rely on the evidences that are generally accepted in courts of law, and that means hard, demonstrable evidence. Unfortunately, the evidences of emotional child abuse are rarely ever ‘hard’. And, in defense of judges, CBPD’s as a whole are astonishingly good at manipulation of facts and impressions. For example, if a child has a very low self-esteem, the source of that can be quite easily argued away from the emotional abuser (and usually to the CBPD’s ex).
One may arrive at a conclusion that the next best step would be to discover an ‘expert’ that can identify and speak to the central issue of emotional abuse, but this too gets rather sticky in several different ways. First, if there is a treating mental health professional for the child, that person cannot ethically then testify as an ‘expert’ in the case, even though they may be an ‘expert’ on the topic of emotional abuse in children. This is because it places the treating professional in a ‘dual role’, which violates most ethics guidelines for mental health professionals. A savvy attorney can then challenge that professional’s license. If the non-CBPD parent tries to hire an expert to testify on behalf of the child, you can bet the CBPD will find a second expert witness to counter the first.
The next logical conclusion is to find a non-treating, neutral professional to evaluate the child and adults involved to make an ‘expert determination’ about the situation. The difficulty here is finding and funding that individual. There are just not that many trained, experienced mental health evaluators and treatment specialists around that are willing to do that kind of work. And then, who pays? It obviously cannot be either party in the litigation. That leaves the court, and most courts do not have the tax dollars available to pay for what is usually a very expensive process.
Because of these factors, countless kids remain in highly stressful and emotionally abusive situations that can lead to genuine tragedy. Because of the secretive, hidden nature of emotional abuse, it’s very hard to figure out statistics on how many children run away from home, begin to use drugs, get pregnant, commit crimes, or even murder their CBPD parent due to the fact that the child has not found anyone who can help them escape their living hell. And of course, all but the latter behavior listed just give great excuses for the CBPD to continue to ‘hold a tight reign’ on the emotionally abused child. It is a truly insidious problem.
Help the Non-CBPD Parent Play the Game Differently:
The non-CBPD parent is often just as emotionally abused as the child, or even more so, and is in great need of treatment to regain their sense of self and personal integrity. This process takes time, but can go on concurrently with efforts with the child. Great care through, must be taken to avoid over-allying with the non-CBPD parent and child, as this can play right into the hands of CBPD. The usual complaint from the CBPD is that they do not like the counselor, are being excluded from treatment of the child, or that they did not have input into the choice of counselor. This can be avoided by making strong efforts to include the CBPD in the child’s treatment right from the beginning, and then consistently challenging inconsistencies in their presentation, while remaining supportive of the process and the child.
Ultimately, the non-CBPD parent shifting their strategy and taking greater control of the playing field is the child’s best hope of making gains for the child. This parent needs to learn how to effectively emotionally ‘hold on to themselves’ to a much higher degree to lessen the emotional abuse that they themselves struggle with so that their child can learn how to do the same. Though the steps to do this are out of the scope of this article, the good reader will find a plethora of information available through reading. Even though it sounds overly simplistic, the old adage: ‘no contact’ is has more parts and positive effects than may be seen at first blush.
Help the Child to Play the Game Differently:
Emotionally abused children may or may not live with both parents, and helping those who have the relative respite of parents who are no longer physically together are admittedly a bit easier to help, because of the respite involved of being out of the presence of the abuser. The approach and process, though, roughly matches that of the non-CBPD parent: helping the child to ‘hold on to themselves’ emotionally well enough to think through better responses instead of the reaction that the CBPD so delights in. Depending on the age of the child, this process can take some considerable time, to help the child learn the ‘angles of attack’ that the CBPD uses, and the best defenses (of their psycho-emotional core) to use in any particular moment.
Again, the treating counselor must take great care to never communicate any means of coping or defense to the child that could be even be remotely construed as disrespectful or alienating. Providing the child with reasonable, respectful, differentiating, and theoretically solid healthy relationship boundary and limit technique is a key to helping the child cope with the CBPD parent.
Get the Court to Press the Adults into Co-Joint Treatment:
Pressing the court to move the locus of conflict out of the courtroom and into the more diplomatic therapeutic environment of the counseling room is a plus for everyone involved, except the CBPD, who may resist this mightily. But then, that is the point: to place the CBPD into a context where they are not in direct control of the process or content; in a place where there is someone with skills to see and challenge their tricks.
If, in fact, the CBPD is a mild case, the treatment process has the potential to re-balance the equation for the non-CBPD and child. Or, if the identified difficult parent is not really CBPD but only showing some mild signs, gives the situation a chance to make real progress at healing and a return to better co-parenting.
If the parent is a true CBPD, they will not be able to tolerate or follow through with the therapeutic process of the co-joint sessions or work to repair the relationship with their child. Because people with CBPD are so predictable, their posturing and repeated ‘monkey dance’ surrounding therapeutic process can be a dead-giveaway to the judge that has been educated in the behavioral patterns of CBPD’s.
More CBPD-Specific Training for Child Welfare Workers:
Most professionals working in child-protection are well versed in the basics of neglect, physical, and sexual abuse, but not so much in emotional abuse. Emotional abuse is often seen as a secondary effect of the primary abuse, while in fact, it can be a primary abuse that leads to increased incidents of neglect, physical, and sexual abuse. In addition, many workers in the trenches are young people fresh out of college, and while this is valuable experience for them, they often do not have the level of experience and wisdom need to recognize emotional abuse.
It’s this author’s bet that very few child welfare workers have ever had specific training in CBPD’s or the patterns of behaviors in the family dynamic that point to the fact that there is a CBPD as the source of the toxicity that the family and child is suffering. Nor is there specific training in discovering and using protocols and tactics with CBPD’s to neutralize their abuse and help the child in a meaningful way.
Educate Family Court Judges
Family court judges and lawyers also need to have specific training in understanding CBPD’s, methods of discerning their presence, and strategies and tactics for dealing with them while still guaranteeing their rights. Education on what to look for and how to listen to child victims of a CBPD parent are also key, as is consideration of hiring experts to review cases and advise judges. Investigation by family court systems into developing a high quality program of case assessment by a qualified professional, along with skilled forensic questioning, on video for the judge to make use of in decision for the best interest of the child is also a good direction.
Are you aware of 'emotional abuse'?
Until child welfare agencies and family court judges ‘get it’ about emotionally abuse by parents, the courts will continue to unwittingly participate in emotional abuse of children by failing to recognize when such abuse is occurring. Structures need to be funded and put in place with educated and skilled professionals that can discern and give reports to family courts about the interpersonal dynamics and any abuse that may be present in such cases. The public in general needs more and better information about Cluster B Personality Disorders and the nature and damage that emotional abuse can do to a child.