Blaming the victims…even the children

Used as the illustration to the poem, “I Want Missed Connections in Brooklyn”

Until we understand the etiology of a disease or condition, we tend to blame the victim. It seems to be human nature.

In the mid-1800s, people thought that if you came down with cholera, a disease caused by bacteria, it was your fault. Those who came down with cholera “deserved” it. Some people thought it was caused by immoral living, including not attending church. During New York City’s cholera epidemic in 1832, according to New York Times reporter John Noble Wilford, the director of New York City’s historical society wrote:

 “Those sickened must be cured or die off, & being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker [their] dispatch the sooner the malady will cease.”

In the 1980s, the same reaction occurred when the AIDS epidemic, caused by a virus, came to light. It was commonly regarded as a disease of gay men, whose “immoral” lifestyle was to blame.

People who are violent and/or victims of violence, especially within families, are generally regarded as entirely to blame for their actions. Men are “evil” or “bad” because they abuse (most abuse in families is carried out by men). Women are “stupid” for staying in the relationship. But epidemiological, neurobiological and epigenetic research is showing that behaviors, brains and genes are shaped early in childhood, and that without intervention or support, the likelihood of a child who witnesses and/or experiences abuse continuing on a path to abusing or becoming a victim of abuse increases substantially.

So, it’s no wonder that, generally speaking, if children behave “badly”, our systems blame them for it and slap labels on them: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder (CD), mood disorder (MD), oppositional defiance disorder (ODD). They also hold the child responsible for changing her or his behavior — either with drugs or therapy — and, except in cases of obvious and repeated child abuse, don’t look to see if the environment in which the child lives needs to change, too.

Some interesting research is emerging that’s taking a more holistic approach. According this recent overview of a study of 2,422 children who were treated at four Indiana pediatric clinics, researchers at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis found that “children exposed to both parental violence and depression before the age of 3 were significantly more likely to be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) before they were 6…”

In another overview of a study at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, researchers following 320 children found that in “children whose families were investigated by child protective services for suspected abuse and where there had also been reports of intimate partner violence, cessation of the violence led to an 11.9% decrease” in withdrawal and depression in children, and nearly a 20% decrease in aggression and anger. These changes lasted throughout the length of the study — seven years.

The researchers also asked the caregivers who’d been investigated for abuse and violence how many had received referrals or services to help them stop the violence — only 11.5% had. That’s a shockingly low

number, but not unexpected since in many communities, domestic violence is not yet considered child abuse.

One of the most interesting studies to appear recently comes from two researchers: Dr. Stephen Scott, a child psychiatrist at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry and director of the National Academy for Parenting Research in London, England; and Thomas O’Connor, director of the Wynne Center for Family Research, Department of Psychiatry, University of Rochester Medical Center in New York City.

They divided 112 five- and six-year-olds with emotional problems and their parents into two groups: one control group that had no intervention, and the other in which parents participated in a 12-week Incredible Years program and were given additional resources and assistance.

The results: A year later, the kids who had been identified with “emotional dysregulation” — and whose parents had changed their own behaviors as a result of participating in the Incredible Years program — had fewer angry outbursts and irascible behavior problems. The researchers wrote: “Parent interviews revealed that compared with controls, intervention parents were warmer, less critical, used more play, praise, and less harsh discipline (spanking and prolonged exclusion) at follow up.”

Note that there’s no labeling of “good” parents and “bad” parents here. More often than not, parents with children who are angry, depressed, anxious or moody aren’t “bad” parents. They’re modeling behavior that they learned from their own parents, and if they don’t make a conscious effort to change or aren’t taught skills that help them alter their interactions with their children, they pass on their own childhood adversities, especially if they’re under stress.

Toward the end of their publication (IncredibleYears.pdf), the researchers added this interesting observation: “While not all children would be expected to respond similarly to parenting interventions, it is perhaps surprising that we do not yet have robust evidence of many child moderators of treatment response to parenting interventions.”

That’s because, for the most part, our systems are still too focused on holding kids alone responsible for their behavior. But a slow shift is occurring in child welfare agencies, schools, juvenile justice, medical practices, mental health services and youth services as people understand that kids with behavior problems aren’t being intentionally bad. There’s an emerging awareness that a child’s uncontrolled outbursts, anxiety, moodiness or severe depression are normal responses to a difficult, dysfunctional or abusive environment in which they are trapped. Most children act out or withdraw because they can’t describe with words what’s happening — they’re too young to understand that abuse, neglect or other family dysfunction isn’t normal or healthy, and they’re not in a position to change their environment to get what they need.

As one children’s advocate noted: “Sometimes the kids are just doing their job, and we just don’t understand it.”


  1. I have had every investigation done under me – I have been called all the names under the sun in the files – abusive – hit her child, nasty mother. The team have meddled left right and centre. Something happened to both my daughters. I cannot give details of what happened to the elder one but it had nothing to do with the home and family. The younger one was a bullying victim and got put on anti-psychotics as a child I managed to get her off and was called all t he names under the sun. The children were wonderfully behaved when they were young. My youngest has shrugged off her label of schizophrenia and is off the anti-psychotics drugs thanks to me not listening to the team. She has graduated from university and doing well. The other daughter is on a section 3 and again I had no problems with her. Always immaculately behaved and polite. The problems started when my daughter took herself off in one go harmful anti-depressants. She was put on them by her GP and took herself off 30mg of Cipralix before going to Italy and the team all said it is the home and family that is the problem. They were starting to give out labels to my daughter such as “nothing wrong” “behavioural problems”. I believe the drugs were to blame as I noticed a steep change in my daughter’s behaviour as a result of something terrible that happened to her (NOT FAMILY RELATED). All along the team have pointed the finger at me as a mother. At the time of my elder daughter becoming ill, I was looking after my elderly father who had Alzhiemers and put on anti-pychotics which made him violent. He was once placid like my elder daughter. How come an immaculately behaved girl became aggressive. You say it is learned behaviour! unless you come and meet the family and see for yourself no one should come out with such suggestions – it is purely guesswork. It is just as bad as the 5 diagnoses my daughter has had – the latest being chronic treatment resistant. All along I have listened to my daughter. I bought books to research these drugs as I felt they were to blame. Her eyes were dilated, her behaviour in a dream like state uncontrollable – I looked into matters and challenged the drugs and treatment of my daughter which was all drug pushing and then I got labelled as an aggressive mother, an abusive mother – I h ave the files to prove it and when my younger daughter took the file to show my elder daughter who was under section my elder daughter was very angry about the contents. A team of so called professionals ended up calling me a trouble maker – someone who was interfering in the care when I listened to what my daughter was saying about the side effects of the drugs about her feeling unsafe in the scheme where she was placed where something again terrible happened that no doubt would have been covered up if I had not gone to visit when the police were there and then I slept on the floor as my daughter was afraid. Her behaviour had become unstable on these drugs and she was living off junk food and sometimes there was no food in the fridge and the care was totally inadequate. When I complained it did not go down well and that is when they start to label you as a mother. I have come across some mothers who do not research like I do the drugs and blame their sons and daughters for adverse behaviour however Dr Ann Blake Tracy in her book Prozac Panacea Pandora explains exactly the cause of such behaviour and before these drugs my daughter was immaculately behaved and there were no problems whatsoever. This view of psychiatrists points often to family background and assumes that parents are to blame but instead of giving counselling and holistic care drugs are given and to this day my daughter is still talking about what happened to her and her greatest upset is the treatment from the team of so called professionals as she constantly asks to come home and I am seriously considering that but she is on another section and she had been sent to the most horrific hospital.

    A research hospital where patients are used as human guinea pigs and I stuck up for my daughter – in my blog on the Posterous site I have now had around 700 viewings from my piece “Abuse at the Bethlem”. This wonderful blog was not written by me but by a patient – a former patient and I am in touch with many patients. Yes some have suffered abuse from their parents but not all have and I dispute the diagnoses of which there are 5 in the files- I am requesting an assessment by Dr William Walsh and I accuse the Bethlem Royal Hospital of drug induced psychosis by taking my daughter off 150mg of Seroquel in two weeks. It was cruel and abusive. I have witnessed lack of care throughout my daughters admissions into hospital and lack of care in the community that have led to her decline. There is not one alternative care centre set up in the UK and that is appalling. Mental illness in my opinion is not always caused by the families – it is caused by some kind of trauma which may NOT always be connected to the family and if this trauma is not addressed properly and only drugs pushed then that person will not get better and then they become resentful when they experience terrible side effects and get ignored by these professionals who do nothing to help get them off the chemicals as there are no facilities in the UK. Dr Walsh has discovered through his research 5 bio types of depression and I want to know which type my daughter is as the drugs may be making her worse if for instance she folate deficient or has copper overload in other words overmethylated. I am sure this is the case and I just need this proof as the continual pushing of these drugs at my daughter is not curing her but making her worse and my fear is that she will never get better and especially being on a ward where there is so much control it is unbelievable. She is now under private sector care as the NHS failed – labelled with Chronic Treatment Resistant! I do not believe in this diagnosis – it is disgusting what is going on in my opinion – why on earth do they continue to push drugs at someone who is labelled in t his way? They – the professionals need to learn how to behave properly and they are the ones who stick together, gang up and then try to get rid of me as Nearest Relative twice. They have also banned me and labelled me because they do not like to be challenged. I am not the only mother who is experiencing exclusion and treated like an outcast – they are even meddling in the legal process of the Tribunal when I have decided if they are not giving the holistic care I do not want my daughter to remain there as they are killing her on these drugs and one is being given off label – Metformine for weight loss – my daughter was against Clozapine but the Bethlem specialise in Clozapine and conduct shocking research as you can see from the blog. The studies you mention are a load of rubbish. You take a look at the research that is going on at the Maudsley – “Re-challenging patients with blood dyscrasias and cardio vascular problems with Clozapine. I have seen their research papers. A group of patients who liked my blog got in touch with me to support me as they had suffered abuse – the greatest abuse coming from these so called professionals who then go on to blame the home and family. The abuse may have come from bullying/rape/loss of someone close – these kind of traumas can also lead to mental illness and that person should NOT be put on mind altering LSD like drugs and many parents do not understand the behaviour of their child that suddenly changes and the last thing on earth that is ever addressed is could it be the drugs! Well in my opinion it is the drugs not my daughter and I am 100% supportive and will go out of my way to get this section overturned and have my daughter properly assessed if I have to go to every newspaper and get together with the increasing number of mothers and patients I will do so because something needs to be done in the UK.


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