How to Help the Emotionally Battered Child

I’m often asked about the meaning behind my logo.

It depicts two parents clinging to a child, while being drawn down into a vortex. Most poignantly, the child drops their teddy bear, mid-struggle, a metaphor for the tragic loss of childhood innocence that unwittingly accompanies the emotional tug of war.

Last week I was caught up in a debate on social media that brought this image to life. The debate concerned parental conflict, the impact on children and the notions of emotional splitting and attachment that are, in effect, self-defence meachnaisms that children often exhibit when drawn beyond the fault line of parental conflict. What is so tragic is that, as evidenced by the debate itself, too often, neither parent can see that they have any option other than to fight.

I also gave a recent lecture in which I explored the dynamics at play.

What follows is some of the ground covered during that talk, summarised in this blog in the hope that it may help parents and professionals alike view parental conflict afresh, from the child’s perspective.

In my clinical experience the concept of the ‘emotionally battered child’, caught between their parent’s animosity, interpersonal suspiciousness, distrust, vengeance and even manifesting as hatred often leads to a child experiencing symptomatic distress. The symptoms exhibited range from anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and lack of confidence.

This captures some of what happens to children caught in the middle of a parental war not of their making.

Parents caught up in their own conflict can often be preoccupied due to the high levels of energy invested in parental conflict and can be unaware of a child’s distress. The child can communicate the cumulative impacts of this distress later through behaviors indicating emotional distress. Often parents tell me they don’t understand and struggle to make sense of the meaning of their child’s symptoms or behavior.

I find often it is the child who is presented by the parents as the designated client. Yet the parents are cleary the root cause. The child exhibits emotional and psychological distress which parents in conflict are eager for me to assess and treat. In my formulation I can find the child’s symptoms are a normal reaction to living in an abnormal emotional environment. The child’s symptoms and distress are a strategy to mask parental relationship distress they are experiencing.

CAPRD is a condition introduced into the DSM – 5 under “Other Conditions That May Be a Focus of Clinical Attention” and is a useful terminology to refer to. A child affected by parental relationship distress, refers to child-parent conflicts associated with the child’s inner loyalty to each parent.

In the child focused separated family session a child will invite me to enter into their emotional turmoil with them to observe their experience of their parents through their eyes. A child affected by CAPRD will scan the emotional environment between the therapist and the child in a relational search to check the safety of the emotional environment with the therapist. A child will communicate consciously what they understand and unconsciously, what is not yet known through transference and projective identification.

In order to ensure the creation of an emotionally holding and containing therapeutic frame the child will be honed into scanning the environment the therapist provides in order to feel safe and secure. The therapist needs to be open to hearing and actively listening to the burdens the child carries on behalf of their parents.

Bowlby, cited as the founding father of attachment theory, produced a vast number of publications that were theoretical and only one paper that was purely clinical. Bowlby’s clinical paper was “The study and reductions of group tensions in the family” (Bowlby: 1949). After a long psychotherapeutic treatment with no improvement in the presenting symptoms of an adolescent boy Bowlby invited the parents to a session with the adolescent with a social worker present. After some time the atmosphere changed greatly and the parents and the adolescent boy started to have sympathy and empathy for the other.

Following the dance in and between the relational tensions and hurts I hold and contain the child to be empowered to speak to the parent they have become estranged from. This facilitated intervention has led to a reunification of the child with the estranged parent. This correspondingly leads to both parents witnessing the child is happier and co-operating with each other in an empathetic way. This is the model I utilize with children who are estranged from a parent once the child feels supported enough to request a facilitated session.

In systemic co-parenting  family therapy sessions the co-parents often need some sensitive reparenting while the therapist provides a safe therapeutic space to parent the child. The reversal of these therapeutic vantage points offers rich emotional understanding and fruitful learning as well as challenges for the transference manifestations.

The transference and counter-transferences are reflected on in clinical supervision so as therapist I can better manage the relational complexities the family faces. The concept of the  ‘emotionally battered child’ often leads to uncovering an intergenerational discovery that  parents and grandparents are caught in an intergenerational web of narcissistic relating associated with loyalty ties that bind as well as blind. This unresolved intergenerational relational dynamic becomes caught into the family system and is projected into the child who enacts the same estranging or alienating behaviours.

In essence the child in this situation becomes an emotionally wounded child burdened with carrying an intergenerational loyalty conflict in trying to sustain their love for each parent. This relationship problem is often rooted in an intergenerational family trauma of some kind.

What is known from extensive clinical psychoanalytical research is it’s important for a developing child to be able to internalize a ‘good enough internal image’ of each parent.

The child is a part of each parent and when parents hurt each other they hurt that part of the child that has an attachment to that parent. A child needs to be able to identify with their mother and their father so they can form relationships, sustain a relationship with a partner of their own in adult life and parent their own children.

Kempe (1969) was instrumental in bringing emotional abuse to the forefront and laws were passed to ensure children were protected.

Kempe writes:

“Usually these children are very loyal. They come to accept the parent’s image of themselves, believe they are bad, and deserve what they are getting. This attitude persists for a long time and surfaces later in life when the children become parents themselves and repeat the same with their own children”.

In understanding the birth of parents when they have a child there are not just two parents in the room but six parental influences at play. There is the mother and what the mother brings her internalized imago of her mother and father. There is the father who also carries the influences of internalized imago of his mother and father. Frainberg (1974) refers to the phenomena as the ‘ghosts in the nursery’ and in every nursery there are ghosts. These intergenerational ghosts appear as uninvited guests into the parent’s life when a child is born and they becomes a parent themselves. The new parent may often disconcertingly find themselves reenacting a moment in time when they are parenting their baby or child which belongs to a scene from another time and place with another set of characters.

In my clinical work with high conflict parents many parents who have experienced early object relation privation or deprivation in the first three years of life through parenting that did not meet their needs can unconsciously be left with a need to parentify a child. The presence of the child can unconsciously serve as a relationship for the parent’s unmet childhood needs. Or parents can be caught into an unconscious negatively binding loyalty bond to their family of origin and may be unable to trust or rely on their partner. In these instances it’s not uncommon to find many of these parents have lived in a chronic state of unconscious rage, which is then often projected into the dependent child.

Over time a child eventually responds through a demonstration of resist – refuse dynamics to have contact or a relationship with one of their parents. A child will often eventually reject a relationship with a parent in these circumstances. In clinical practice my experience is that unconsciously this occurs when a needy parent projects their own feelings of badness about themselves into the child. The child cannot make sense of why they feel so bad about themselves so they employ a defence mechanism and split off from an identification with that part of themselves. In my clinical work with adults who have lived through these experiences their own emotional development has often been sacrificed to try to keep their parent happy when they were a child because the child feels it is their fault.

I have found Melanie Klein’s term projective identification is important to understand. Projective identification is a term used to describe a process whereby in a one to one close relationship, such as mother – child, a partner – partner, a therapist – client, projects parts of the self in unconscious phantasy as thought of as being forced into the other person. Feelings that cannot be consciously thought about can be defensively projected into the child, partner, or therapist in order to evoke the thoughts and feelings projected so they are processed and understood by the other. Dorpat (1994) describes “gaslighting” as one of the examples of projective identification. Philips (1994) talks about the emotional labour of one partner, parent, child or therapist carrying the projected aspects of the other for them.

The Jungian’s refer to the concept of the “wounded couple” in which projective identification provides the object relation to ensure each partner carries the most ideal and the most primitive part of their partner. The partners may have singled each other out unconsciously or consciously to carry part’s of each other’s psyche. The projected inner conflicts/divisions come to be replicated in the partner and the parenting relationship itself.

The parentification and scapegoating of the child is often an unconscious process and offers important clues for the therapist’s role with each member of the family. The systemic and loyalty implications of parentification are important to understand because the term describes a facet of pathogenic family dynamics. By definition parentification implies a subjective distortion of a relationship ‘as if’ a child is the parent. Also a child must learn to tolerate some degree of being parentified by his parents if they are to identify with their roles of responsibility as adults. There is a balance to be struck between the internalized image of a child feeling they can support a parent and overwhelming guilt-induced feelings of obligation. This interactive relational pressure can trap a child into continuous compliance with the emotional demands a parent makes of them. For a parent to do this they have to image the child transformed into an imaginary adult. What does a parent gain by parentification of a child? What effect does parentification have on a child? A parent’s needs can me met with an imagined or unconscious infantile dependence on the child. The child can satisfy their needs for security. The parent may have an unworked through unconscious fantasy of bringing their own parents to life in the child. A parent’s loss of their own infantile dependency needs can come into the mind in all adults from time to time. The parent relates to their child as if they were an equal rather than an immature underdeveloped growing child. The scene is set for a violation of the boundary between the parent and the child.

The child’s distorted and fused personal boundaries can lead to feelings of abandonment (Keirg: 2005). When a parent holds a child responsible for what is the parent’s responsibility they are exerting interactional pressures on the child and expecting something impossible from the child. A parent who bestows more power on a child then than they can manage creates the conditions for the child to feel a sense of futility and inadequacy. When a parent creates a friend, mate or peer out of their child they expose the child to inappropriate adult information and may confide in the child. This creates anxiety and a sense of age inappropriate burden for the child. When a parent fails to respect the child’s boundary they disrespect the child as a separate autonomous little person in their own right. When a child’s boundaries are disrespected the implicit message communicated to the child is it’s not ok for you to be a person in your own right because you are here to meet my needs. This results in a child experiencing feelings of chronic abandonment, fear, doubt, low self-esteem, hypervigilance around the emotional needs of the parent and feelings of worthlessness. Because the child has little self-esteem they internalize shameful messages about themselves.

“Family Constellation” throws more light on this process.

Family constellations work is an intergenerational, phenomenological, therapeutic intervention rooted in family systems therapy, existential phenonomelogy and the intergenerational ancestor syndrome.

Martin Buber (1923) – I and Thou. I-It relationship there are two entities , a subject and an object. The subject is you, the I, and the object It. This type of relationship is not a true relationship but a monologue. The relationship is based on the object being a utility, to satisfy your needs and wants. There is little concept of balance between give and take in a relationship. There is a difference between a dialogue that authentically flows between two people and a conversation that is flat, transactional and only occurs to serve a purpose. In an I-Thou relationship the two subjects continue to grow and develop their relationship with each other over the course of time. When we view another person as a subject and not an object, we are open to being affected and can change in that interaction. It is harmonious reciprocal and meaningful growth rather than a transaction.

Family Sculptures referred to by Boszormenyi-Nagy (1973) refers invisible loyalties are sculpted into an image a parent can understand about their own parenting.

This approach has helped some parents to uncover some of the unconscious loyalties they are enacting in their adult life. Intergenerational loyalties are not consciously in the mind but are from a deeper level of genetic, systemic and or cellular consciousness (Gottesman & Hansen: 2005). Boszormenyi-Nagy refer to the unconscious regulators of balance, entitlement and merit that bind individuals into narrowly defined roles within the family system.

These regulators are unconscious and appear as intergenerational invisible loyalties. (Franke: 2003, p.66 – 67) refers to “injustices that have not been resolved are doled out by an intergenerational tribunal to future generations using a sort of debit and merit account”.

*This bog contains extracts from a lecture and you can request full details including references by contacting Trish direct.

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