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A Psychologist's Thoughts on Clinical Practice, Behavior, and Life

 Parent Behavior and Children's Safety

A basic human tendency is to consider other people as being rational. Disagreeable perhaps but rational nonetheless. Except for those who commit such unspeakable acts as the Utah father, Michael Haight, who recently killed his mother-in-law, his wife, and their five children ranging in age from four-years through seventeen-years. This occurred two weeks after his wife filed for divorce. He had earlier removed guns from the house apparently so his victims couldn't defend against his planned attack.
Two-years before his oldest daughter, Macie, then fourteen, reported to the police her father's multiple assaults and the extreme abuse she suffered which made her, to quote a news article, "very afraid that he was going to keep her from breathing and kill her." Which he did.
This raised the significant question of why nothing was done by the police. The possible answer, that the wife refused to press charges, isn't sufficient since Macie had clearly been harmed. Had an adult behaved similarly toward another adult they would have been jailed (hopefully, though this is not certain in these odd times). Yet the testimony of youth even older than Macie tends not to taken as seriously as an adult's.

Another possible answer for why children aren't removed from an abusive family is the belief that children are best raised by biological parents despite aberrant parental behavior. This, even in states where judicial decisions are required to be "in the best interests of the child," is hardly ever done. Only rarely are parental rights abrogated with children being freed for adoption.
Not that foster care is always better: a recent news item descirbed foster parents who not only sexually abused their two young wards but prostituted them.
Clearly, more sophisticated evaluations are needed of both criminals and foster parents, and greater education of police and judges too in the hope that, finally, decisions are made consistent with the safety of children rather than hoary philosophy.



























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Every Infant's Inescapable Battle

While the psychological world that the newborn confronts is complicated they possess a biological predisposition to create a sense of who they are or, as psychologists term it, a "sense of self" from the social experiences they encounter. Beginning in their second year a profound continuing struggle exists between infant and caretaker as the child battles to establish their autonomy apart from the people who controls their destiny. But because babies are not born with instructions and parents have their own childhood-based limitations, the "good-enough" parent-child interaction needed by a child is not always gained, to the long-term suffering of both. Which is where psychotherapy may enter their lives but that is another matter.

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On Inborn Psychological Capacities

While humans are born with instinctive psychological abilities like the ability to learn language, a child being able to induct the grammatical structure of their native language (thus a child born in China easily learns Chinese while a child born in Germany easily learns German), the successful development of more complex functions depend on experiencing the "good-enough" interaction with their earliest parenting figure, which for most children is their mother. Because of an infant's psychological immaturity, conflict between their desires and the needs of their parents are inevitable. Yet, from this, the child's mind usually expands healthffully. It is only when parents don't encourage their child's struggle for individuation that unneeded exaggerated tension occurs. Caused by the parents lacking knowledge about child development (a baby doesn't exit the womb with instructions), or the lingering effects of the parents' psychological struggles with their parents. 

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Coping With Work or Marriage Conflict Through Triangulation

Triangulation is the commonly occurring reduction of anxiety in a problematic relationship by introducing a third element into the situation. At work this can be a person or corporate directive depicted as "crazy" and in a marriage a child being termed "impossible." Though reducing anxiety, this unconscious maneuver is destructive since it doesn't resolve the problem. To accomplish this a third party, a management consultant or a psychotherapist, must reframe communication so the real issues are confronted. But here triangulation can also occur if the consultant identifies with the worker or the psychotherapist with the patient(s). As I never tire of repeating, the unconscious is very powerful and one must respect its power.

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Early Child-Parenting Experiences In The Development of Psychopathology

A child's mind grows by sharing and borrowing aspects of themselves as they develop their unique life experiences which become woven into their view of the world. While many aspects of their "story," their philosophy of life, are accurate, the child's immaturity inevitably creates errors of belief that lead to difficulties in relating to themselves and others. If deprecated by their parents they may feel worthless and unlovable, which is an apparently valid conclusion since their parents, who seem as Gods, think little of them. But with different experiences, feelings of confidence and optimism are inculcated.
The development of an organized sense of who one, what psychologists term the "sense of self," begins at birth through the interactions and play between infant and caretaker, who need not be their biological parent. Often, when only one of the many children in an abusive family becomes a successful independent adult, it is because of an outsider's (often a grandparent's) different, powerful, early-life influence, with the child's mind having "fed" on this mind-saving infusion as does an ill person's body their healing medication.

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The Unconscious Factors Underlying Some Learning Difficulties

Psychology has long known of the association between unconscious emotional attitudes and academic failure, or with a subject that is considered disagreeable from association with a parent's occupation. Reading difficulty can result from the angry feelings it arouses or a frightening experience of self, and school failure from the unconscious desire for criticism and punishment. A child's problems with their mother, the most important figure in their early development, can extend to their relationship with their teacher.
An overly narcissistic mother, or one who views their child as defective, will hinder their child's ability to adapt to reality, particularly when speech is used to gain praise rather than communicate. Underachievement, a failure to learn, can reflect hostility, an indirect passive attack on parents and society. Clearly, for some children, the powerful, genetically endowed hunger to learn has been throttled.

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Why Many Children Can't Read

That many children can't read shouldn't be happening since this ability is innate and learning it presents no greater difficulty than learning to eat with a spoon. Why it does is the unacknowledged "Elephant in the Room," and not the fault of teachers but of parents.
A child naturally learns the language of their country of birth. Thus one born in the U.S.A. learns English and one born in Germany learns German and the same for other countries. They accomplish this not by memorizing all combinations of words which is impossible, but by inducting the grammatical structure of their language, a task for which the human brain is genetically programmed at birth.

Thus if parents first read to and then with their toddler beginning at two years of age, aiding the reading learning process by moving their finger along the printed line, their child will read simple books upon beginning kindergarten. Not all children but nearly all, provided that they are experiencing a "good-enough" parenting since its lack can create psychological difficulties affecting learning.

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Helping a Child Cope With Their Severe Illness

Being seriously ill as an adult arouses terrors. These are infinitely worse for a child since their understanding lacks mature insight. They perceive their all-powerful parents as deliberately bringing them to doctors who cause them discomfort and pain. Which are unavoidable for those suffering from cancer or convulsive disorders even when the prognosis is favorable. The child feels friendless, having none who can understand except for their stuffed animal friend who mutely observes.
Young children consider stuffed animals as friends who are no different from living friends with whom adults share their secrets. Children talk to them, play with them, and sometimes hurt them which, like good parents, they lovingly forgive.
Speaking to these children of their medical situation, by using their stuffed animal friend as intermediary, can be supportive by relieving their trauma and isolation and giving hope.

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Parental Reluctance to Confront Their Child's Emotional Problems

Years ago a mother brought her child to my office. While speaking with her alone, I referred to her son's "emotional problems." "My child does not have emotional problems," the mother insisted, and stormed from my office. Had I been given the chance I might have asked, "Then why are you here?" but already knew the answer: to gain reassurance that, despite having observed his bizarre behavior, her child was perfectly fine.
This illogic, when a parent's emotion-based reality clashes with actual reality, is understandable. Though unwise, it reflects the parent's feeling of shame from the belief that they failed as a parent. Which is undeserved since children are not born with instructions nor have all parents experienced a "good enough" parenting during their own childhood. Once a parent gains help for their troubled child they have no reason to feel guilt and it is counter-productive to the success of their child's treatment. But not seeking treatment for their child, especially when it leads to harm, is inexcusable.

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Childhood Developmental Failures and Its Consequences

By the end of toddlerhood, important human lessons must be learned: that people can be trusted; that warmth from others is possible; that verbalizing feelings leads to greater comfort than behaving impulsively; and that continuity of relationships is the rule and not the exception.

These convictions and such basic ego capacities as the ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, to modulate mood, to control thinking and behavior, and to create an accurate sense of who one is ("sense of self") are critical if a child is to feel confidence and realize joy in living.
This is why the severer psychological disorders which derive from the earliest years are devastating, making many of these sufferers incapable of living an independent adult existence and achieving satisfying relationships. Leading to continuing frustration and despair, and even suicide.

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