A young child’s mind is a fascinating thing. Filled with imagination and easily influenced, a child can believe virtually anything s/he is led to believe, especially by those closet to him/her. I believe this to be a survival mechanism. When a defenceless child cannot reconcile a situation she experiences or witnesses, her mind perceives it as fantasy, rather than a terrible reality in her life. For instance, children who witness abuse or who are abused may refer to their abuser as a monster. The monster however may be a parent or a trusted guardian or sibling. Normally the relationship is somewhat “normal.” The abuser may build a false sense of security in the child in order to win his trust. Then the parent betrays the child but not always through abuse.
Case Study – 1991, Milwaukee, WI
A pimp named Joseph White tortured and murdered a young woman he tried to force into prostitution but who attempted to leave him. Her screams attracted White’s little 3-year-old son Joseph Jr who innocently walked downstairs to the basement. The pimp had hung the woman upside down from a steam pipe and was kicking her in the face and chest. When his father realized the child was in the room, he shouted at him to “go upstairs goddamnit!” Later the little boy spoke about the incident to police, not referring to the killer as his father. Rather, he was the “monster” who hurt the girl. The little boy made a complete separation between his parent and the monster in order to retain his regard for his father and not to become afraid of him. every time they get a new type of experience, they have to modify or expand their faculties in order to assimilate it. In the meantime, the experience is dissociated and held in the unconscious. There, they “play with it,” using their imagination until they work out a way to make a fit.
One thing that many people do not know about abused children is that they often love the person who is hurting them. This is very hard to believe but it is true. This happens because the person who is abusing them is often someone they know well and trust a lot.Some children maintain a complete split between their everyday life and the abusive episodes. They may be seen smiling when posing for family photographs. Perpetrators often use such photographs to prove there is nothing bad going on. Children are therefore hesitant to reveal that they are being abused because they fear that they will get the person into trouble if they do so. Another reason for children not wanting to disclose abuse is that many times they have been frightened or threatened by the abuser.
The Sexually Abused Child
People who were sexually abused as children can often recall the event, so the problem is not that the belief is repressed. Instead, the problem lies in suppressed beliefs they would insist on. For instance a woman might insist that, since her father did this to her, it must have been her fault. And if it was her fault then she must be a (totally) bad person. In some cases a person might have truly repressed the molestation. However, in such cases, what may be keeping the belief about what happened repressed is a suppressed belief, for example, “If he did this to me he must be a horrible monster.” Even into adulthood the abuse victim separates father from monster. As an adult perhaps it is unfair to think of the abuser as a monster. A person with a pathology, absolutely. But childhood monsters only exist in childhood and as adults need to be examined from a new perspective.
Children and Physical Abuse
Monsters are not an unusual theme in children’s art, but for children who have experienced interpersonal violence, these monsters often take on universal meanings. Many children literally depict a real-life monster that represents an abusive parent, neglectful caretaker, a bully or anyone whose intent is to terrorize or intimidate. These images often reveal a foreboding entity capable of hurt and harm to those less powerful. Other children depict themselves as monsters that have superpowers over others, aligning themselves with the aggressive nature of their own perpetrators.
The monsters depicted in art and play are less literal, but are just as real. They are the “inner monsters” that communicate the emotional experiences of abuse and neglect. Because a monster is sometimes perceived as hideous or repulsive, children also convey their own perceptions of being flawed or unwanted in their monster images. These depictions reflect guilt and shame. These young survivors believe they have caused their physical abuse, sexual assault or psychological torture. In all cases, these images reveal profound sadness, anxiety and loneliness common to individuals whose lives have been threatened. Pictured left is an abused child’s drawing of a monster mask.
Child survivors of violence are silent in their suffering and often afraid of divulging the secret of their abuse. Art expression is a way to communicate what is unspoken. Art therapy is an appropriate approach to assisting children in the emotional recovery of what has been stolen from them by abuse and neglect.
The sexually abused child often draws peculiar self-portraits that are very unlike their non-abused peers. They tend to draw themselves in geometric shapes, without facial features or arms and sometimes encapsulated within a circle or a box, indicating the inability to escape. Teenagers may draw themselves hiding their genitalia with unhappy expressions on their faces and unflattering facial features and clothing. The picture at right is a child’s depiction of his mother as monster.
This is a form of child abuse that is lesser known. The bitter or rejected parent during a divorce who alienates his child from his father or mother is guilty of this psychological abuse – and make no mistake – this is abuse. The parent may be overt in her attack on her former spouse, telling her children that their father is a “bastard” or doesn’t love them anymore just because she and her former spouse are divorcing. Sometimes the alienation is more covert. Perhaps the child informs her parent that her mother is in love with someone else and may marry him. Her father might assure her (in actuality, himself) that this probably won’t happen since people who like each other don’t always get married.This confuses and hurts the child, who still loves his mother or father.
In this case, the parent who is being maligned whether covertly or overtly is the target parent. The rejected spouse is guilty of parental alienation. The latter is no less a “monster” in the child’s mind than a physically or sexually abusive parent. The child may be forced into a parental role, trying to reassure the manipulative parent that she still loves her father or mother. The chid is a pawn. She is both abused and manipulated and the consequences may be lifelong.
Sometimes the monsters in plain sight are much scarier than the monsters hiding beneath the bed.