The Meadows Blog

Wednesday, 22 April 2009 20:00

Child Abuse in the Name of Religion

Note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2004 edition of The Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.
Child Abuse in the Name of Religion
By Robert Fulton, MA, LISAC, Administrator, The Meadows

The father, like an Old Testament prophet, roars out the moral law at the child he cannot control. If the parent does not see or hear what the child's sinful deeds or thoughts are, certainly God does, and nothing gets past God. If the child does not learn to behave according to the holy law - to abide by its prohibitions against impure sexual thoughts and deeds, against drunkenness and dancing and sloth, to be neat and finish one's food - the child is damned. Obey God; obey your parents. And if punishment is not enough to change the child, God's damnation will be forthcoming as certainly as the sun rises.

The Bible-thumping parent, like the Old Testament God of wrath, lays down the law to his child.
He teaches that right and wrong are external concepts, sanctioned by a relentless God, and that disobedience is the measure of personal failure and evidence of flawed humanity. This substitution of power and control for nurture and love is the setting for traumatic abuse in the name of religion - a denial of the inherent worth of the child and the perfect imperfection of his developmental energies and appetites. Often there is a sexual element at the heart of the parent's own developmental immaturity.

Religiously abusive parents instill in their children a fear of an ogre in the sky with a great big chalkboard, writing down everything these children do - and that if these deeds are not erased, they will be damned. These parents have no idea how to maturely educate and guide their children, usually because they were never taught by their own parents. They make God into a Marine drill sergeant whose bellowed orders cover up their own feelings of parental inadequacy. Their denial of their anxiety and fear and the repression of their sexual energies infect the air like an undiagnosed epidemic, and it is the child who becomes diseased.

Let us say that a religiously abusive parent discovers his child's masturbation. He says to the child, "I know what you are doing, and although I may not see you doing it, God knows and sees what you are doing. If you continue to masturbate, you are going to be damned." The parent, because of his own psychosexual immaturity, cannot walk the child through a natural sexual evolution in a functional way, and rather projects onto the child his own primitive fear of sexuality. In angry self-righteousness, the parent invokes external authority to maintain control and to go one-up so that he can, like the Wizard of Oz, hide behind his role on the family throne. Most often, these "God-fearing" parents think they are frightening the wits out of their child for the child's own good. The child will now feel defective around a normal developmental stage, which the parents do not celebrate or honor. Instead, they demonize normal sexuality and shamelessly terrorize the child in the name of "holiness."

Parents who revert to the authoritarian threat of Biblical punishment are fear-based. They need an external control system because they don't have an internal control system. The child will carry the poisonous inheritance of his parents' shameful immaturity as he grows into adulthood, ruining his own attempts at intimacy in posttraumatic throwbacks to his original shaming.

Having been tyrannized into the same emotional and intellectual box with his parents, that child, should he ever become reflective and seek freedom from parental coercion, will rebel and develop the core issue delusion of taking his value from one being. But it is a sad truth that the budding desire to gain freedom will be shame-based and will eventually take a dark side, as the adult wounded child seeks relief from his shame. And as we see so often at The Meadows, this search for lessened shame will take on a medicative state, even if it is addiction in the name of a delusional freedom, a delusional selfdefinition and the delusional authenticity of rebellion.

Since the child's gratification will be shamed-based, resentment and remorse enter his adult relationships whenever he seeks gratification. All of his emotions are knotted up in the tentacles of carried shame, so when he steps outside the template of his parents' shamelessness, he takes their shame with him; he re-experiences the notion that he is defective, even in the midst of gratification. He feels the childhood shame of his parents' debasement of normal human developmental emotions, even in the rebellion through which he seeks his freedom from tyranny.

When he experiences the ecstacy of being outside the box, the wounded adult child has his wires crossed and must go outside the norm in order to find this ecstacy. Perhaps this adult wounded child will look to a prostitute in order to get subconsciously in touch with the shame, fear and intensity his posttraumatic stress require. The adult wounded child will demand shame, fear and intensity from the experience, because these emotions were present at the ego age of his original wounding. To be himself, he will search for the familiar, even though it is painful and degrading. He has become hardwired by posttraumatic stress.
These kinds of shame-based actings out will involve the adult wounded child in the blame game, in which he blames his partner for the remorse, guilt, inadequacy and anger he experiences when he has sex or when he seeks relational gratification. Daddy gets the blame, the partner gets the blame, and religion gets the blame. Everything but himself is at fault.

He does not have the tools to be self-empowering and accountable. Not having the power to defend himself, he will characteristically react as a victim - of everything bad that happens in his life. The adult wounded child goes into a victim stance as a way of coping with his lack of personal skills. He feels himself a victim to the spouse, to the parent... he is even a victim of God: "Dear God, how can You have abandoned me?"/p>

Some stay in the "poor-me" victim stance, while others flip into the aggressive offensiveness of "screw you." Not able to ask what their role was in all of this, or what they need to do in order take care of themselves, they attack from the victim position. These victim attacks take them from one-down to one-up. Addiction, always a one-up posture, is often concomitant with the victim stance.

Abuse and the Parish
When I was involved in parish life, a corps of volunteers kept the parish running. The pastoral team would always falsely empower these people by lavishly praising them. These volunteers needed self-esteem - people who did not have self-care, people who wanted a daddy or a mommy because they didn't have one when they were growing up to tell them how wonderful they were.

In parish life, so many people get their esteem externally. The healthy goal is to give from a place of fullness, to give of the fullness of yourself freely, without manipulation. If I give myself away so that you will tell me I am wonderful and I can feel good about myself, I have given myself away, and this is codependence. It is not self-esteem; it is other-esteem.

The good of the institutionalized church is not more important than the good of the individual. The persons who suffer in this paradigm of other-esteem are the children of parents who, while serving the church, are not at home parenting. They are at church buying their esteem. The church, by being a failed parent to its own priests and parishioners, recruits failed parents who willingly accept the church's abuse of authority and labor for the greater glory of the church, inc.

What this says to the children of these needy parents is that both parent and child have no value; they are less-than. It perpetuates a vicious shame cycle in which the parents get their esteem on the outside, and are abandoning their children in order to do it. The church requires failed parents to buy into its own failure of parental responsibility, and it applauds the failure by calling these abused parishioners "the faithful."

The spiritual demise of the church occurred because the church has opted for power, greed and secrecy over connection, empowerment and intimacy. The invitation of St. Francis of Assisi was to rebuild the church - not in terms of bricks, mortar and coffers - but in terms of being present and spiritually connected: to give a voice to the voiceless and to empower the powerless. The church needs to accept that invitation, so, like a parent to a child, it can nurture and love and be loved by God in return.

Published in Blog
Wednesday, 25 March 2009 20:00

We Are All Neighbors

Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2004 edition of Cutting Edge, the online newsletter of The Meadows.

We Are All Neighbors
By Peter A. Levine, PhD.

What has happened to our world? Why this large-scale killing, maiming and torture as human populations increase in number and complexity - and as their access to Ethernet information grows each year, seemingly in inverse proportion to their compassion? Even when competing for their most basic resources - food and territory - animals typically do not kill members of their own species. Why do we?

While there are many theories of war, post-traumatic stress is one root cause not widely acknowledged, even though it is the single most important instigator of the perverse cruelty of modern warfare. Mankind's history of war, xenophobia and genocide has generated a legacy of trauma-induced dysfunction fundamentally no different from that experienced by individuals, except in its scale. There remains, however, an enormously important question: Can recovery from trauma be replicated on a larger, societal scale, with similar healing effects? At The Meadows, this has become our living promise.

Let us review what happens when a person is traumatized. First, his internal system remains aroused; he is always on edge, unable to relax or tune down. He is constantly aware of a pervading sense of danger, suspicious of everything and everyone. Not knowing why he feels threatened, this fear and reactivity escalate. This, in turn, amplifies the need to identify the source of the threat. Propelled by a tremendous terror and rage lurking just beneath the surface, he is unconsciously driven into re-enactments to help regulate the ongoing escalation of arousal.

Imagine now an entire population of people with a similar post-traumatic history. In fact, imagine two such populations located in the same geographical region, perhaps with different languages, religions and traditions. What will happen? Croatian civilians are sawed in half by Serbian soldiers. Atrocities are committed, in turn, by Croatian troops. Dozens of truces are called, and each time the result is the same: The urge to kill and destroy takes over, and insanity once again prevails. The Serbs and Croats have been repeating their violent patterns as virtual instant replays of World Wars I and II. Middle Eastern nations can readily trace their wars to Biblical times. Even when wars do not repeat with the kind of ferocity and brutality seen regularly around the globe, suffering in the form of societal dislocation, child abuse and other forms of hatred will. There is no avoiding the traumatic aftermath of war; it reaches into every segment of society.

Transforming Cultural Trauma

Trauma is an inherent part of the primitive biology that brought us here, biology which cannot be changed without completely redesigning us, down to our very cells. To release ourselves from reenacting our traumatic legacy, both individually and as a society, we must transform it. We can do so only by addressing the problem at its roots: in our physiology.

Several years ago, Dr. James Prescott, then at the National Institute of Mental Health, engaged in some important anthropological research on the effects of infant and child rearing practices on the prevalence (and absence) of violence in aboriginal societies. He found that the societies in which child rearing was characterized by close physical bonding and stimulation through rhythmical movement had low incidences of violence. Conversely, the societies with diminished or punitive physical contact with their children showed clear tendencies toward violence in the forms of war, rape and torture.

As we know from the studies of Dr. Prescott and others, the time around birth and infancy is a critical period. It is then that the infant associates the states of its parents with basic security and ability to regulate arousal. When parents are traumatized, they have difficulty imprinting their young with this sense of basic trust and resource. And without this sense of trust, children are more vulnerable to later trauma. One solution to breaking the cycle of cultural trauma is to involve infants and their mothers in an experience that generates trust and bonding before the child has completely assimilated the parents' anxious state.

In Scandinavia, I am involved in some exciting work inspired by my Norwegian colleagues. This project uses what we know about this critical period around infancy to allow not just one individual, but an entire group of people, to begin transforming the trauma of their past encounters. This method of bringing people together requires a room, a few simple musical instruments and some blankets strong enough to hold a baby's weight.

The process works as follows: A group of mothers and infants from opposing factions are brought together at a home or community center. The encounter begins with this heterogeneous group of mothers and infants taking turns teaching one another simple folk songs of their respective cultures. Holding their babies, the mothers dance while they sing the songs to their children. A facilitator uses simple instruments to enhance the rhythm in the songs. The movement, rhythm and use of voice in song strengthen the neurological patterns that produce peaceful alertness and receptivity. As a result, the stuckness and fixation produced by generations of strife begin to soften.

At first, the children are perplexed by the events, but they soon become interested and involved. They are enthusiastic about the rattles, drums and tambourines the facilitator passes to them. When not provided with rhythmic stimulation, children of this age do little more than try to fit such objects into their mouths. In this situation, however, the children join in generating the rhythm, with great delight, squealing and cooing.

Because these infants are not blank slates, but highly developed organisms even at birth, they send signals that activate their mothers' deepest senses of serenity, responsiveness and biological competence.
In this healthy exchange, the mothers and their young engage in an exchange of mutually gratifying physiological responses that, in turn, generate feelings of security and pleasure. It is here that the cycle of traumatic damage begins to unravel.

The transformation continues as the mothers place their babies on the floor and allow them to explore. Like luminous magnets, the babies gleefully move toward each other, overcoming barriers of shyness as the mothers quietly support their exploration from a circle around them. The joy and mutual connection generated by their small adventure is difficult to describe or imagine - it must be witnessed.

The group then continues, with smaller groups of a mother and infant from each culture working together. Two mothers swing their infants gently in a blanket. These babies aren't just happy; they are completely blissful. They generate a roomful of love so contagious that soon the mothers are smiling and bonding with members of a community they earlier feared and distrusted. The mothers leave with renewed hearts and spirits they are eager to share with others. The process is almost self-replicating.

Once a group of people has participated in the experience, the group can easily be trained to replicate it. The impact of this experience is so powerful that participants want to spread it throughout their communities, and many of them do so. The beauty of this approach to community healing lies in its simplicity and effectiveness. An outside facilitator begins the process by leading the first group.

The experience offers a gentle alternative to the destructive cycle of trauma, suffering and violence by allowing the biological imperative for natural bonding and love to assert itself. Resistance to stress and trauma, the development of basic trust, and the capacity for enduring personal and peaceful relationships are forged during a critical period of life.

Developing physiological and neurological patterns give us the instinct of the animal and the intelligence of the human being. Lacking either, we are doomed to act out our hostilities. With the two working together, we can advance on our evolutionary path, utilize all our human capacities and bring our children into a world that is safe.

Non-traumatized humans prefer to live in harmony. Yet traumatic residue creates beliefs that we are unable to surmount our hostility and that misunderstandings will always keep us apart. It is imperative that we make every effort to discover and teach treatment modalities like the Scandinavian model I described previously. We must be passionate in our search for effective avenues of resolution. Not just peace, but survival, depends on it.

Nature cannot be fooled. Evolution happens as a result of forces that threaten to destroy the species. Trauma is one such force.

Cutting Edge Editorial Board comments in response to this article:
The theory of childhood development and immaturity developed by Pia Mellody and its application to the patients at The Meadows is a most encouraging demonstration of how post-traumatic stress can be treated and individual destinies turned to the path of self-knowledge and relational peace. And while The Meadows applies its processes of analysis and recovery to individuals, at its center lies a template that we must apply on a broader societal scale.

Published in Blog

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