A Re-cap of Elisabeth Young Bruehl's Childism05-23-2012
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's final work, Childism, was published soon after her untimely passing in December of 2011. In the book, Young-Bruehl, a long time psychoanalyst and child advocate, focuses on the pervasive prejudice she feels overshadows many children in our society. Be it abuse, or the modern day phenomenon of helicopter-parenting, she felt these injustices served to demarcate children, marking them as less worthy than adults. The resulting consequences result in unhealthy and damaging parent-children relationships.
Arendt Center intern, Anastasia Blank, has been reading Childism and providing us with a chapter by chapter review, highlighting some of the most interesting and compelling insights and arguments. Her previous posts about the book can be read here. Today, she shares her final thoughts and impressions about the book. We hope you have been inspired to read along. You can purchase the book here.
My past four posts on Elizabeth Young-Bruehl’s Childism have emphasized the role of prejudice in the mistreatment of children. Young-Bruehl has laid a foundation for her reader to both see how childism manifests itself through abuse, prejudice, and neglect and to question where the motivations for such action comes from. In the fifth chapter of her book, Young-Bruehl turns our attention elsewhere, to the researchers, investigators, and theorists who work within the fields of Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN) and Child Protective Services (CPS). Her claim is that progress helping abused children has been stunted by the disjointed views of those working to help them.
One example of the challenges facing those who would protect children is the widespread panic that occurred between the 1980’s and early twenty-first century surrounding satanic ritual abuse (SRA). In 1983 reports around the country began to spring up about how young children were being forced by workers at their daycare centers or preschools into sexual acts and disturbing sacrificial ceremonies.
Workers responsible for the protection of children proved ill equipped to handle this new phenomenon of abuse. Social workers had commitments that rendered them unable to acknowledge the occurrence as a conspiracy theory. Prejudiced by suggestive interviews and Recovered Memory Therapy (RMT), many social workers insisted on finding guilty parties. Others pushed for more family involvement in childcare; and a few select others were trying to use the responses to this mass hysteria as a means for self-reflection on the flaws currently plaguing the field.
From out of the Satanic Ritual Abuse phenomenon rose another issue, False Accusation Syndrome or FAS. Suddenly, the very field that was in place to protect children was wielding them as weapons against their abusers. Worse, the children being used were being victimized in a whole new way:
The problem of false accusations was not a syndrome and was not a condition of child victims….FAS was misnamed; it was made into a child’s problem when it was in fact an adult’s problem: convinced they were helping children, adults projected their images of children as liars [onto them]… FAS was yet another manifestation of childism.
In FAS, the child is doubted solely because of their age. Even the workers charged with protecting children are susceptible to what Young-Bruehl calls the childism prejudice.
Young-Bruehl writes that, in seeking answers and solutions for the abuse and harm being inflicted on children, those within the field began to add to the damage by blaming children. Childism, she writes, occurs when an adult sees problems with a child that actually originates from the adult’s own projections. A person is prejudiced towards a child or children when they place blame, feel resentful towards, or doubt the capabilities of a child.
A progressive shift was made in the early 2000’s when Child Abuse and Neglect (CAN) practitioners began to acknowledge the flaws the field had demonstrated over the past two decades, “Personnel in social work, child services agencies, and Child Protective Services departments… acknowledged that their own field, CAN, was a contributor to [the] crisis”. The major issue within the CAN field was that practitioners and researchers alike were often classifying children into one category of maltreatment. A child was either a victim of physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, or neglect. In reality, however, only 5 percent of abused children suffer only one type of abuse.
The problem is that children are sorted and said to suffer one particular type of abuse, but the entirety of their abuse and its effects are not being recognized. When a child is taken from their home because someone in the home was sexually abusing them, this does not address the other factors that were likely involved. The child may have also been neglected, which is why the abuse was allowed to go on. The child may have been verbally abused, which is why they were afraid to speak out about the sexual misconduct. When only one factor in the abuse is given focus, then all of the other issues take the back burner. This means that they are still percolating and affecting the child, but are not being addressed.
Young-Bruehl sees the field of CAN’s tendency to consider the four types of abuse separately as a form of childism, ignoring the children for the adult's “ease of discussion.” Sadly, this leads to misleading conclusions about what type of abuse is taking place and how to treat affected children. Worse, the conclusions drawn from studying abuse in this type of way will not be producing accurate conclusions, because traumatized children will be classified and treated as a child of a specific type of abuse.
What arose in the CAN field around the satanic ritual abuse uproar was a turn away from hearing the actual experience of a victim towards a classification of their abuse. By sectioning off victims under an awning of a certain type of abuse, the field has turned a blind eye to the needs of the victim. The issue within the CAN field surrounding the cases of SRA were those where practitioners were scrambling to understand what this new type of abuse could be. It was something they had never encountered, and so they needed to make-up for their lack of knowledge by herding the children under a new title. The children were victims of multiple abusers, but what does this actually tell us about the abuse and its effects?
CAN needs to be asking children and adult survivors of abuse about their own experiences. By considering specific cases of victims, CAN will be forced to shed their restrictive abuse-act typology, because most children fall under an umbrella of multiple abuses. Each type of abuse harms the child in different ways, and each needs to be addressed (as well as how the abuses acted together). People who are prejudiced towards children, those who find them burdensome and bad and want to ‘eliminate’ them (both theoretically, by destroying their sense of self, and actually, through means of starvation and physical abuse), can use any one or all of the different types of abuse as a way to harm the body and psyche of a child. As Young-Bruehl puts it, “The acts are weapons in a war between the generations.” However, what we see is that a “silencing” of children has been occurring within the field that is supposed to advocate for the voice of the child.
Children who are attempting to speak out against their abuse are viewed as incapable of doing so. If CAN workers believed in their ability to identify their trauma, then they would let the victims experience determine the help they need. Instead, they tack a title of abuse onto a child, which often does not address the experience(s) of trauma as a whole.
These harmful acts of abuse and neglect go on to shape how the child sees themselves and the world. This view permeates their psyche through adolescence into adulthood. In order to prevent and treat the traumatic events children experience and the prejudices against them, the focus needs to be turned to why adults can view children so negatively that their thoughts evolve into harm, and also how this harm manifests itself in the mind of a victim. In order to understand the mind of the victim, the field needs to start listening better, even if the story being told does not fit perfectly into a box with a specific title.