Thursday, September 21, 2006

New Insight into Familiar Ideas

I have just returned from the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego, California ( I presented the Restorative Approach at this conference as well as attending sessions. Several speakers I heard gave me a new way of thinking about some very familiar concepts.

Dr. Colin Ross is the author of The Trauma Model (Manitou Communications, Inc. 2000). ( In his work he emphasizes two concepts, the attachment to the perpetrator and the shift in the locus of control. This may be obvious to everyone else, but his discussions of these two concepts made me understand what was happening with our kids in a more complete way. Dr. Ross states that attachment is a biological necessity for mammals. Mammals cannot survive to adulthood without attachment. So we are biologically program to form attachments with our care takers. At the same time, organisms are biologically wired to move away from pain. A child does not have to be taught that when his hand touches the hot stove he should move it quickly away. So children in an abusive family have this bind- the attachment that is biologically necessary is causing them pain. What can they do? He defines dissociation as a method of protecting the attachment. If the child does not experience what the adult is doing to them they are still able to maintain he attachment which they need.

Dr. Ross points out that we all face this dilemma to some extent, as no parent is perfect and we all need to attach to a perpetrator. But in situations of “good enough” parenting, the pain is not extreme, and so the child can form an attachment which includes some imperfection. However, the attach/move away dilemma remains unresolved in our abused children and is the essence of their relationship style. Since the extremes are so intense, they are unable to reconcile the attachment and the need to escape. They are forever caught in oscillation between them. Black-or-white thinking- their parents (and everyone else) are either all good or all bad- is the only option they can find.

Dr. Ross also clarifies the shift in the locus of control- the concept we have focused on as shame. We have discussed how children naturally think that the world revolves around them, and that they cause everything. In addition, however, an abused child is in a very scary unpredictable world. If the child can come to the conclusion that they are causing this abuse by being bad, they are giving themselves and illusion of control and mastery that is soothing and protective. In addition, concluding that they are causing the abuse also protects the possibility of attachment to the parent which is so necessary.

These concepts have implications for the process of healing. We often try to convince our children that no, in fact the abuse was not their fault. But have we considered what it means for them to give up this belief? If in fact they were and are innocent victims then there is so much to be angry about, grieve and mourn about their childhoods. There are all the awful things that happened, and all the good and normal things that did not. This grief is the overwhelming feeling that our children are avoiding at all costs. And if I am not worthless, bad and deserving of abuse I will have to change many things I do, and I do not know if I have the skills and strength to do so. Far easier to hold onto this protective feeling of badness, with the control and hope it gives me.

This is the first post on this conference, a second will follow. It is interesting to have the opportunity to re-think these familiar concepts.

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