“A parent’s worst nightmare” is a phrase which seems to come up all too often these days, and leaves me wondering how many worst nightmares there could be, as it is used in relation to children who are the victims of bullying, predatory abuse, abduction, drug addiction, suicide … the list is seemingly endless. This is not to belittle the experiences of these parents. For each individual parent experiencing one of these events it will indeed seem like their worst nightmare, just as will the reality of being abused by your own child. But perhaps we need to move away from hyperbole towards a calmer rendering of events. As we talk about our passions and commitment to our work we can believe that descriptions of the extreme will further our cause as they “whip up” emotional responses and “convert” people to our way of thinking and understanding. That can happen, but there can also be interesting and unexpected side effects, not least in the unconscious ways we come to construct our own belief systems through the words and phrases we repeat.
Frank Furedi, talking about child abuse, had some interesting comments in an article in Spiked this week. Yes, I know it’s Spiked, but it is important that we read broadly, not just people we know we will agree with. He was talking about the use of expressions such as “scarred for life” in a similar vein. By using these terms we can shut out the possibility of belief in healing and change. For some individuals, their experience might indeed have a permanent crippling effect, but others are able to move on in their lives and we need to spend more time looking into what contributes to their resilience and in learning to use more positive and affirming language.
Furedi also talks about the construct of the “cycle of abuse”, suggesting that the evidence for the existence of this is very flimsy, and yet we have somehow become obsessed with the need to find “the missing link”, as abusive behaviour transmits from one generation to the next. I have heard both teenage partner abuse and parent abuse described in this way in recent months. By focusing on the inevitability of permanent harm, we once again shut out the potential for breaking free from the chains of the past. Furedi writes:
Cycle of abuse theories give a strikingly fatalistic account of human beings and the human condition. Indeed, the widespread influence of these theories speaks to contemporary society’s pessimism towards the human potential.
Families experiencing abuse come for help because they need change in their relationships and because they believe, against the odds, that we can effect that change with them. We need to remind ourselves that parent abuse can have a very clear root – for a variety of scenarios – but can also seem to ”come out of nowhere”. Whatever the reason, we now are developing strategies which have been seen to be effective in turning around families, restoring healthy relationships and allowing parents and children to put their difficulties firmly in the past. This is surely a good enough reason to “speak hope”.