Psychotherapy alone cannot break the cycle

Psychotherapy alone cannot break the cycle of child abuse.

A large proportion of adults who were in fact treated badly by their parents deny that they were abused. They are unlikely to enter psychotherapy to address childhood issues. Perhaps in some cases they might seek Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for problems such as irrational anxieties or depression, but that would be unlikely to influence their attitude towards child-rearing.

On the other hand, many people vow to treat their own kids better than they themselves were treated as children without ever having entered a psychotherapist's consulting room.

Alice Miller was an influential writer on issues surrounding childhood mistreatment and how to deal with its consequences in adulthood by means of psychotherapy. Her article "What Can We Expect from Psychotherapy?" explained her most recent opinion. Out of the readers' letters published on Alice Miller's website, many came from people past child rearing age. But young adults who have not yet raised a family have the opportunity to break the cycle. A successful outcome to psychotherapy might help them avoid harmful child-rearing practices. However, therapy is not always successful, so probably less than 100% confer benefits on their children. Older psychotherapy clients can only make a difference if they become effective child advocates as a result of their therapy. Some may try without being effective and others may not even make the attempt.

In short, only organized public campaigns against harmful childrearing practices stand a good chance of breaking the cycle. Young adults who enter psychotherapy to resolve childhood issues make up only a tiny percentage of the population. Their contribution will be marginal.

Breaking the cycle – the CRC

The 20th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was celebrated in November 2009. It has become the most widely adopted human rights treaty in history. The Convention guarantees a child's right to privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of thought and the right to rest, leisure and recreational activities. Article 19 of the Convention says:

"States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child."

The achievements so far are concrete and measurable. More than 100 member countries now have laws banning corporal punishment in schools and more than 30 countries have laws prohibiting corporal punishment by parents (see the list). In addition, many countries have banned corporal punishment in schools through Ministry of Education policy rather than by legislation (e.g. Afghanistan).

The Convention on the Rights of the Child grew out of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1959. At that time Freudian psychoanalysis was dominant in the field of psychotherapy, with a central doctrine that women patients 'fantasized' early memories of rape and sexual abuse, an error exposed by Jeffrey Masson in his book, The Assault on Truth.

Alice Miller never mentioned the Convention on the Rights of the Child or its achievements. She never mentioned the proliferation of government-appointed Children's Ombudsmen/Advocates on every continent around the world. For Europe, the European Network of Ombudspersons for Children has a complete list of Members on its website:

Children's Rights are not necessarily respected by parents, but given time, these new developments are likely to influence most parents to treat their kids more benignly, just as Daniel Gottlieb Schreber's child rearing manuals influenced several generations of German parents — from the mid-19th century onwards — to treat their children harshly (see Alice Miller's For Your Own Good - Chapter 4).

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