Transformation and Healing After Trauma, Loss and Grief

My Mythic Garden

A blog by author and trauma expert Gary W. Reece, Ph.D.

Breaking News!!!!
American News Discovers Domestic Violence and Child Abuse in the glamorous world of the NFL.
Gary Reece, Ph.D.

For the past month there has been a feeding frenzy about domestic violence and child abuse committed by National Football League players. Every major news outlet, sports programs, MSNBC, CNN, all the talking heads are opining about a topic which they have apparently just discovered: Domestic Violence and Child Abuse. Not only have they just discovered it, they show an appalling ignorance about the subject. Probing questions like, “Why does she stay?” “Can’t they separate their violent profession from their personal life?” “Doesn’t every parent have the right to “Discipline” their child?” One talking head interviewed a “sports expert” and asked the question, “Is it the game which causes them to be so violent?” His answer was, “No, I don’t think so, but there is an awful lot of trauma to their brains because of the violence; maybe that could be part of it.” Besides being ignorant and totally wrong, they are not even in the same ballpark as the truth: in the metaphor of football, they rushed the quarterback and whiffed. Here is the real news flash: (1) domestic violence and child abuse are not a sexy topic unless it is associated with celebrities and high profile sports; (2) it has been a national disgrace for decades!

It has been sad, amusing and pathetic to see very wealthy sports owners waffle, shed tears, take a hard line, change their minds and then change them again as pressure is put on them by really big money sponsors and the fickle winds of public opinion. Are they really so naïve to believe that this has just become a recent problem? I don’t want to get bogged down in statistics, but let me assure you that Domestic Violence and Child Abuse have a very long and tragic history in this country. In one 5 minute search on Google, these statistics on Domestic Violence were available from the National Institute of Health: “On average more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States. (MURDERED) In 2005 1,181 women were murdered by an intimate partner. (MURDERED) In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data collected in 2005 that found that women experience two million injuries from intimate partner violence each year. There are 900 victims every day and 7 million children live in families where a partner is violent. Five hundred women are sexually assaulted every day. The statistics are grim and endless. What, of course, is so puzzling is why now? This is not a new problem; it has been occuring for decades, women being abused, dying, and living in constant fear of their partners. Have we all of a sudden become a passionate and compassionate advocate for the well being of children and women? Two years ago I wrote a book about what I believed was a national outrage, children being abused and killed in the Child Welfare System. Broken Systems/Shattered Lives. Even though over 900 children had been killed while in the care of child protective services no one noticed, it did not become the latest sensation it did not go viral.

That is because these children are disenfranchised, they are not wealthy celebrities. The most recent figures from Children’s Defense Fund report that 1,825 children are abused daily. National figures for child deaths from abuse in 2012 were reported as 1,625, this estimate is believed to be conservative. These statistics do not get even a footnote or a headline, let alone endless, minute scrutiny by national media. Why such deafening silence on this area of American Life until now?

It is easier to focus our discussion on the accused player’s salaries than looking at the story hidden under the rocks and in the dark corners of our domestic life. This is the real issue; the prevalence of this terrible scourge in America of violence against women and children is happening every day. Not the very impressive salaries the targeted players are missing by being “deactivated,” in one case an astonishing $772,000 per week. These large sums speak to the fact that they are highly valued assets by their teams and if lost because of their conduct could hurt the team and its “image,” as well as the bottom line.

Domestic violence and child abuse are deeply embedded in the cultural values and daily life of the American family. Adrian Peterson who was arrested on two counts of child abuse for hitting his 4 year old son with a “switch” said that his son needed a good whooping and so he got one, he was just disciplining his child. “I am a good father and husband, I am not a child abuser.”
He also said and his mother confirmed it, “Adrian was just disciplining him the way his father did him.” Adrian when you leave bruises scars, and raise bloody welts on your child, you by legal definition are a child abuser. It is also an unfortunate fact that millions of children have been disciplined by this method. And still are!

This is the problem, when I teach classes on parenting, most parents feel they have a right to spank their child and that spanking is a “good” way to teach them a lesson, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” “Sometimes they just need a good smacking,” some parents confess. But what is being taught by inflicting physical pain on a small vulnerable, dependent frightened child who is made to feel worthless and full of shame? This kind of punishment is done to make the parent feel in control. Raising children is a demanding job. Children raise the most intense feelings in a parent by their misbehavior, temper tantrums, constant whining, squabbles, defiance, and out of control episodes. Parents get emotional and often resort to the methods that were used on them. Hence the legacy of abuse is perpetuated.

Child abuse and domestic violence usually occur when one person loses emotional control and strikes the other in anger. Domestic violence has its roots in child abuse. There are very close causal connections. Child abuse changes the developmental trajectory of an abused child’s life, one author put it, “Abuse a child and you give him a life sentence.” Abuse is usually about control and power. What we have learned in cases of child abuse is that harsh punishment teaches all the wrong things: (1) punishment teaches the child that it is alright to hit another person when angry, (2) punishment teaches the child to fear the punisher, (3) punishment does not teach the behavior we want the child to learn, it is not corrective, it merely suppresses the behavior. Finally punishment damages the relationship, as well as the self-esteem of the victim, causing fear mistrust and resentment, and that is why punishment does not work. In short, the psychological impact of abuse is considerable, it affects the child’s ability to regulate anger, it creates a sense of being fundamentally flawed, the child living under continual conditions of threat reacts by being hyper-vigilant, it lowers the tolerance for stress, teaches violence, and abused children equate abuse with the price of being loved. It becomes “normal.”

Most children abused in childhood grow up to be abusers not only of their own children but also of their partners. It is often a multi-generational phenomenon. In my case, my father was abused by his father, my father abused me and my brother, then my brother abused me. The legacy of this multi-generation problem is very complex and deeply psychologically embedded. It left me with serious issues related to self esteem, poor conflict resolution skills, and lack of trust, a strong need for control, inability to be intimate, rage, impulse control, shame and difficulty and impatience when relating to my children when frustrated or stressed. My son reports being terrified of me when he was young because I am a large angry man at times. This breaks my heart that my son thought of me as a monster. He surprisingly and gratefully is a much calmer and kinder father to his two children. We have broken the cycle.

Relationships in domestic violence cases are complex and conflicted. One wonders how a woman who is savagely punched and knocked unconscious by her boyfriend could go on to defend and then marry him. There is a dynamic of coercive dependency which keeps many women bound in relationships which are harmful to them. They both fear and need their partner. They often come from families where abuse was equated with love. Getting out of an abusive relationship often gets the woman killed.

There is much to be done to solve the problems of family violence in America, they are complex, and have deeply embedded historical roots in family traditions and values, as well as the individual’s psyche. They are also compounded by issues of poverty, mental illness, intergenerational abuse, guilt, and shame. Ignorance of healthy ways of raising children and the stigma of being a victim perpetuate abuse. A slick ad campaign is not going to do it.

These issues have been exposed, albeit clumsily, sensationally, and with more glitz and glamour and emphasis on drama than on understanding the important underlying psychological problems and issues which have given rise to the tabloid stories of the month. Perhaps it will lead to a national spotlight being shined on the real problems and perhaps the NFL can provide important leadership and funds for what needs to be done. Two game suspensions and deactivation of a player for a few games will not change behavior in the perpetrators nor in the behavior of thousands of abusers who are in denial. The main issue is how we provide relief and safety to their fearful families who feel trapped by the circumstances of their complicated relationships.

How do we shine the spotlight into every dark corner where a child cowers in fear and his mother wavers between staying and leaving, filled with self-doubt knowing that the way out is a dangerous path filled with uncertainty and danger?

In the meantime there is college football, Sunday night football, Monday night football, and Thursday night football. Let’s pop the corn, get out the snacks and watch our favorite sport. Somehow this very violent sport is mesmerizing, perhaps because we vicariously participate in each violent hit. How often do we get to hit someone like that and get away with it? Unfortunately some of us do. It makes for compelling guilt free theater. Socially sanctioned violence in a big arena celebrated with historical community rituals of tail gating, partying, and parades. Small towns, large cities, it is the center of community life. From pee wee football to the NFL football has a passionate following. But it is not the source of child abuse, nor is it the cause of domestic violence. Just ask the wife of a local mayor who recently shot him multiple times after “years of abuse.”

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