Ritualized Sexual Abuse

June 29, 2014

There is ritual sexual abuse and there is ritualized sexual abuse. The terms are sometimes interchanged, but for the purpose of this article I am delineating between the two as Ritual Sexual Abuse being cult or cult-like abuse in which “the abuse has a spiritual or social goal” (David Finkelhor, National Study of Sexual Abuse, 1988) and usually involves brain washing, torture, animal/human sacrifice and drugging while Ritualized Sexual Abuse as being long term sexual, psychological and physical abuse that occurs habitually and is the dominant factor in a secret relationship between two or more individuals.

 

Although the perpetrators of Ritualized Sexual Abuse may use many of the techniques used in cult-like abuse – intimidation, humiliation, mind control, drugging, even torture, there is no reference to a larger cause or belief system. And for the most part, it is abuse committed by an individual who gains control over one or more persons. Long-term sexual abuse between family members could possibly be – but may not be – ritualized sexual abuse – because there are other facets to that kind of relationship. But the kidnapping of a girl(s) and keeping them personally as “sex slaves” is always ritualized sexual abuse.

 

The last few years have seen headline grabbing cases such as the Elizabeth Smart abduction, the Ariel Castro kidnappings, and more recently, the Santa Ana girl rescued after 10 years of enslavement by her mother’s former boyfriend. How do we understand the “monsters” that are capable of such acts? Do we simply write them off as the sex addicts they claim to be, or as insane individuals who can neither be identified nor predicted? What drives an individual to create and then maintain this kind of sadistic and illusory world?

 

“The Collector”, a John Fowles novel and subsequent film of the early 1960’s, told the story of a man who took a young woman he was obsessed with, hostage. Because rape, if it occurred, was not the focus of the story, the reader was given the opportunity to probe the complex psychological machinery that drove the young man’s compulsion. While sexual desire was a factor, it was part of a much larger pastiche of forces that drove him. A sense of powerlessness and an outsider status in a society that felt hostile and unfair. A social structure that not only banished him to its lower rungs but made him feel both unseen and ridiculed at the same time. By “collecting” this young innocent creature (adding her to an already existing butterfly collection), he was embellishing himself and gaining a semblance of power over a rejecting environment. The world in this young woman’s eyes would have to take him seriously now. He would be obeyed and honored. He would be seen, as well as feared. He could control and manipulate and make someone else feel the pain and isolation that he felt. He was no longer a victim, because he made someone else the victim – someone who would pay for his sins, but more importantly, pay for society’s sins.

 

We live in a world that even youngsters recognize is not fair. The unfairness grows as we do. Some learn how to successfully navigate an unfair society. Others learn how to accept it and find a semblance of happiness. And the rest cope by acting out via an array of anti-social activities. The men (and women) behind these horrific ritualized sexual abuse cases are re-enacting the loss of their own innocence in a cruel world. They are not to be forgiven. But they are a manifestation of a collective disorder. We are not born evil; it is bred into us. The environment shapes, for better or worse, even those born with a disposition toward mental illness based on an inherited genetic defect.

 

Is this type of mental disorder on the rise? Probably not. It has always existed. But we are more aware now because we live in a very transparent world. And when “religious” (terrorist) groups like Boco Hara, receive international attention for kidnapping young women with impunity, those who might only fantasize about such horrific acts, can now imagine a call to action in their own distorted minds. What can we do? Our country has abandoned a construct for dealing with mental illness. Therefore, there is no place to go and no way to enforce mental health treatment for the vast majority who need it. So the first step is to advocate on both the State and Federal level for a reapplication of services for this population as well as for laws that will allow us to enforce care for those who are not able to make those decisions for themselves. And of course, be ever vigilant – never assume that this type of story couldn’t happen next door to you.

 

PARENTS WITH PERSONALITY DISORDERS Aka: Growing Up With Crazy

March 1, 2014

How would you know if you were the only sane person in an insane asylum?  Now imagine yourself as a child with no prior knowledge of what is sane or normal.  How would a child know if they were a sane person in a family with disturbed parents?

A significant part of the trauma of growing up in an abusive environment is that children do not understand what is happening to them or why.  They understand that life feels unfair, but they don’t understand why things are so terribly wrong.  And because children rely on their parents for understanding and survival, it is far more terrifying to think that the adults around them are unsafe or evil than to think that they must be bad or evil themselves. 

That said, there is a significant difference between parents who are sometimes moody, depressed, anxious or inattentive from parents who have enduring emotional problems and a history of behavioral and relationship difficulties. The former are well intentioned but challenged parents who may even have a mild mood disorder, the latter are adults with Axis II Personality Disorders.  Axis II or Cluster B Personality Disorders include Borderline P.D., Narcissistic P.D., Antisocial P.D., and Histrionic P.D.

“Personality Disorders are present in 10 to 15 percent of the adult population, with Cluster B accounting for approximately 9 percent based on research.” (Counseling Resource, Mental Health Library, pg.1).  So we are not talking about some minute substrata of the adult population; several million families could be affected.  And yet, there is no common denominator that distinguishes a family with a parent who has a Personality Disorder.  If there was, we might be able to help children who grow up in this kind of environment.  The reality is that the child doesn’t understand what is happening, and while the outside world might recognize that one or both of the parents are emotionally unstable, there is no legal way to make the leap that a child in the house is being emotionally abused and is unsafe, and then help them.

About the only thing we can do as clinicians or concerned citizens is familiarize ourselves and others with what Cluster B Personality Disorders look like and how they can negatively impact children.  Then if we suspect that abuse is happening, we can try and alert other family members, school personnel or anyone who might have some influence to go in and help – through empathy and education – so that the family become more self-aware.

The most serious of the Cluster B Personality Disorders is Borderline Personality Disorder.  In the case of a parent (more likely mom than dad) with this disorder, there is persistent instability in their relationships with just about everyone as well as persistent impulsive behavior, addictive behavior, and self-harming behavior.  Borderlines have no personal boundaries so they don’t respect other peoples’ boundaries.  Children of Borderlines are always at risk because they are both neglected and overwhelmed by their parents’ behavior.  They may be verbally, physically or sexually assaulted – either by the parent, or by the types of people that the parent exposes them to.  There is no consistency, no sound role modeling, very little if any nurturing, and they are in a constant state of high alert, because they never know what will happen next.  So these kids grow up with low self-esteem, lots of internalized trauma, and repressed anger that affects their ability to function effectively in the world. 

Narcissistic Personality Disorder may be most common of the Cluster B group – and in some ways the hardest to identify and therefore help the child.  Narcissists are clever.  They are great manipulators.  They can turn on the charm when they need or want to.  But there is always a self-serving goal.  They are like the plant in “The Little Shop of Horrors” – their egos need to be fed constantly.  Their children are either viewed as an extension of themselves or a punching bag for their own unrecognized insecurities and self-loathing.  Narcissists are bullies.  It’s their way or the highway.  They have no empathy for anyone – including their children.  In fact, they have been called “emotional vampires”, because they use up everyone around them. Their vanity is boundless.

While narcissistic parents can maintain long-term relationships, they usually pair up with enabling partners.  So the child has no one to turn to.  And the child is made to believe that they are the problem; they are selfish, bad children because they don’t appreciate and take care of their narcissistic parent adequately. Again, these are the hardest type of family situations to recognize and intercede.  But it is very helpful to the child to know that there are people outside of the home who recognize their reality.  That alone, might present a window of clarity to a bewildered child, and therefore hope. 

Histrionic Personality Disorder is less pervasive than Narcissistic but shares many behavioral patterns.  Like the narcissist, the histrionic personality seeks constant admiration, has no empathy for others and is consumed with entitlement, envy, and jealousy.  What is specific to the Histrionic is a pervasive pattern of attention seeking, excessive emotional lability coupled with lots of drama.  Their feelings are shallow, their behavior seductive and extremely manipulative. Their children, like everyone else in their world, are there to serve, comfort and fulfill them.  And they vacillate between engulfing their children and neglecting them.  Either way, the child’s needs are not considered.  Because they feel used and unseen, the emotional toll of being raised by a Narcissist or Histrionic can leave these children with intimacy issues, anger, anxiety and lack of trust.  

While Antisocial Personality Disorder is more obvious and identifiable to the outside world, it doesn’t make it any easier to help the child of such a parent.  These parents are usually irresponsible and have a total disregard for the rights of others.  Their behavior can fall into criminal patterns because they tend to ignore the rules of society.  And they show no remorse for their behavior.  So they don’t only mistreat their children, they mistreat everyone.  Sometimes the extremity of their behavior leads to the loss of parental rights.  That can actually be the child’s salvation.  Because a child brought up in that type of environment is not only scarred by the mistreatment they receive, they are not given any proper tools to navigate society later, so the only hope for them to learn right from wrong and also healthier ways to interact, is to be taken away at a young enough age and put into a more caring environment.

We may not yet have the laws and social constructs in place to help the children of parents with Personality Disorders, but we can become more vigilant and responsible.  It is our business to help those who cannot help themselves.  It is not a private matter.  It is a social responsibility. 

Roni Weisberg-Ross  LMFT

Facets of Personality and Dissociation

December 18, 2013

When we feel different than the person we are projecting to others, it can cause stress and sometimes shame.  Most of us have felt that way at times, and the ability to integrate again is usually fluid. But when we feel fragmented and fake most of the time, it can be extremely painful and debilitating. The desire to feel centered and authentic is a healthy longing.  For those who have either come from a background of abuse or have experienced extraordinary trauma as an adult, a fragmentation of personality may have occurred that – whether conscious or not – emotionally isolates that person.  

In the past, it was believed that in the case of extreme trauma some people would split into alternate personalities – or “alters”. The term applied to it was Multiple Personality Disorder. That diagnosis was never empirically proven, and so it evolved into the less dramatic Dissociative Personality Disorder.  Dissociating from ones feelings, and therefore acting differently than you feel, is a state of being that is more identifiable and also more conscious. And while those who dissociate shut down their feelings, they can, at a later point, recognize their behavior without totally losing a core sense of identity.  

For the rest of us there is a wider – less obvious – spectrum of “dissociation” that occurs. While it may seem as if the little girl who mentally removes herself as she is being sexually assaulted by her father is worlds apart from the adult female who tempers her personality and pretends to be confident, relaxed and engaging in a tense professional situation, they are both putting up false fronts in order to survive the circumstances they are thrust into. The more conscious and subtle the transformation, the more widespread and socially acceptable it is. But feeling fake is troubling. Feeling afraid to be, or unacceptable as you are, is painful. And it is exhausting as well. Are there people who are constantly themselves – who sit in a centered core place of emotional reality no matter what the circumstances?  Perhaps, but I personally don’t believe there is such a person among us.  Not because we are not capable of such connected and empowering behavior, but because we live in a “civilized” society, governed by a particular set of rules, which force us to regularly navigate situations that don’t necessarily feel instinctive or honest.

While each society’s rules can be slightly different, the need to conform to them in order to survive is similar.  Does that make civilized society psychologically unhealthy for human beings?  No, it is, in and of itself, a necessary structure from which the species has evolved and which remains necessary for continued survival and development.  So while not instinctive, natural, or even always emotionally healthy, we must grapple with its existence and adapt to it in ways that embellish not paralyze us.

Working predominately with trauma, many of my clients exhibit the most dramatically negative results of the impact of society on their core being. What for one person can be intermittent social anxiety, for another can be painfully paralyzing anxiety or panic, which isolates them from daily life.  Or they can immerse themselves in a false front, which is so rigidly constructed that it is always on the brink of being fractured; while sudden uncontrollable outbursts, keep others at bay. Regardless of the degree of dissociation, there is always an emotional price to be paid- an intermittent depression (exhaustion) from keeping up the front.  

What are the alternatives and how do we take charge of these different degrees of dissociation? I believe that the first step is consciousness.  Becoming aware of what you do and why you do it.  Becoming aware of how it affects you. Discerning what works for you emotionally and what doesn’t. Taking your own emotional temperature, and not shying away from your findings. Suppression has been your first line of defense; awareness becomes your first line of psychological growth. Once we look at ourselves unsparingly, we begin to take care of ourselves in a new manner, a stance that neither depletes nor distances us from others. A new way of interacting in the world that feels empowering while also appearing attractive to others.

We are never going to be perfectly honest creatures; we are never going to not put up a front or a slightly different personality in more challenging situations.  But we can be aware of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how it is making us more socially and personally effective communicating, building relationships and achieving intimacy.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

 

Childhood Abuse and Adult Survivors: Notes from a Seminar

October 23, 2013

Let’s begin with the statistics – and they are daunting:

Approx. 1 in 4 girls & 1 in 8 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18.   Even the most conservative estimates put it at 1 in 6 girls & 1 in 10 boys.  

 

It is estimated that as many as 40 million Americans – one in six people – experienced sexual abuse as a child.

 

Child sexual abuse is seldom a one-time occurrence – it lasts an average of 1 – 4 years.

It occurs at every socioeconomic level, across ethnic and cultural lines, within all religions and at all levels of education.

 

Only 10% of childhood abuse victims are abused by strangers.

 

Most offenders are acquainted with their victims – they’re either family members, friends of the family, babysitters or neighbors.   Abuse does run in families and the psychological repercussions of being abused by someone you know and trust are potentially much more severe.

 

PHYSICAL ABUSE:

1 in 20 children are physically abused each year.  

 

EMOTIONAL ABUSE:

There aren’t any statistics on emotional abuse but it is believed to be much greater than sexual and physical abuse combined.  (Florida State U study). And that’s because ultimately all abuse is emotional abuse.

We’ll talk more about emotional abuse later.

 

TRAUMA:

When we talk about working with abuse survivors, we are primarily talking about working with trauma and PTSD.   Abuse creates trauma and if an adult survivor is coming to see you – they are most probably still dealing with the psychological effects of childhood abuse – therefore I would say that they are still traumatized and to a lesser or greater degree they are experiencing PTSD – now the PTSD might not be in the form of what we classically think of as PTSD (flashbacks, nightmares or severe anxiety outside of their control) – But if they are experiencing continuous negative thoughts or behaviors that are getting in their way – or if they have traumatic sexual issues or deep rooted intimacy issues.  Then In the context of their lives – they are experiencing PTSD.   So we need to understand trauma as it presents here and how the mind and body deals with it.

 

“Every emotionally meaningful experience – whether joyous or painful – is stored in memory and has a lasting impact on a child’s developing nervous system. The way our world feels to us as children influences our unfolding personality, emotionality and relating styles profoundly, for the long term.”

 

This leads us to a form of neuroscience known as Neuroplasticity.  

 

Neuroplasticity is a term used to describe changes in the brain that occur in response to experience.  We used to think that this “plasticity” of the brain only occurred in the first few years of life – what we now know is that the ability of the brain and the nervous system to alter based on the environment – is ongoing. This discovery dramatically alters the nature/nurture power balance giving one’s environment added and continuous weight – both positively and negatively – throughout the life span.

 

A traumatic event such as any type of childhood abuse changes the chemistry of the brain.  What literally happens is that events reshape wiring and responses so that even a small degree of continual stress can produce an overabundance of stress hormones that in turn create anxiety and depression and PTSD – which can last indefinitely.

 

It is in an area of the brain called the amygdala – that the processing and storing of highly charged emotions, such as abuse, takes place.   The amygdala allows us to remember every emotion and physical sensation from our earliest days, even if we have no clarity about the events that took place.  These memories are referred to as implicit memories – they are unconscious and they are encoded in emotional, sensory and visceral recall.   These are the memories between infancy and 4 years of age – when children are either pre-verbal or beginning to think but can’t necessarily articulate thoughts – so any trauma that occurs during that period will be held in the body as a sensory or implicit memory which the abused child/adult will later react to but not understand.  Those types of memories are in direct contrast to explicit memories – explicit memories are what we usually mean when we use the word memory – they are conscious memories – ones which we can articulate, describe in story form and make sense of.

 

Many of the clients I see say they don’t have any memories but they know that something happened – many will never recover the exact memories because of either their age when abused or the degree of trauma surrounding the memory.   But the body knows!

And it isn’t just children who experienced abuse before the age of four who don’t remember.  As you all know, our minds have the ability to block anything from consciousness that we can’t handle, so older children can lose conscious memory as well.

 

The degree of PTSD that an abuse survivor experiences is often tied to their degree of implicit vs. explicit memory.  If it is mostly implicit memory that a survivor carries, then their brain will make associations and something that reminds them of the abuse will trigger an unexpected automatic reaction.  Because they have no idea what is happening to them or what set them off, the reaction is very traumatic.  If they begin to remember or if they always remembered it, the automatic reaction loses much of its power.

It’s important to note again that when the memories are primarily implicit, it is possible that the survivor will never remember, and therefore the trauma may be more difficult to treat.

 

WHO ABUSES, WHY, AND WHAT IS THE PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT FOR THE VICTIMS:

It is not just fathers or men who sexually abuse, and of course it is not just girls who are abused.

One of the most prominent researchers in the field of childhood sexual abuse is David Finklehor – A study he undertook with Diana Russell concluded that female perpetrators account for 25% or more of those who sexually abuse children.

Who are these women?  80% of these female offenders have been sexually or physically abused themselves as children (Fowler et al, 1893).

 

 

ABUSE BY MOTHERS

July 2000 Justice Dept. report found that women abusers victimize younger children then male abusers accounting for 4% of those who sexually abuse children under 18 years of age but about 12% of those who molest children younger than 6 yrs.   And that statistic doesn’t include such sexually abusive behaviors as sleeping with children and fondling them, bathing, touching or massaging them inappropriately, undressing and/or dressing them inappropriately, making children touch them and engaging in sexualized talk  – all of which – except for engaging in sexualized talk – is much more likely to be done by women – particularly mothers.  Because it is so underreported in general – we just have no idea how many women (mothers) sexually abuse

.

But here’s an interesting thought – If current research is correct and more female than male children are sexually abused and most abusers have themselves been abused as children – than it’s possible to conclude that more girls may grow up to be abusers, and there’s probably a much larger number of female sexual offenders than we would imagine.

 

Lets make a distinction between mothers abusing sons and mothers abusing daughters – it’s not about sexual preference – In fact, most child sexual abuse is not about sex

 

MOTHER/SON ABUSE:

Most times, the Son becomes a substitute for the father or another male

This boy is the only male in this woman’s or mother’s life that she can control and she directs her anger, her rage, her stress and her fears on him.  

Son/boy feels protective of mom/woman

And because it is usually not violent or even overly coercive, it is confusing for both the victim and society at large

Boys don’t tell – the degree of shame is greater than with girls.  But the degree it affects their self-esteem, sense of selves and ability to engage in intimate relationships later on is the same.

As adults these boys/men either become hyper-masculine and angry or they become passive caretakers.  Even the passive ones can be hyper vigilant.

 

MOTHER/DAUGHTER ABUSE:

The least understood of all types of sexual abuse

Needs to be brought out of the shadows – it is minimized and marginalized.  

Can be very subtle but most of the time it is extreme (pornography, sodomy, enemas, performing or watching others, three-ways, etc.) and it usually co-occurs with physical abuse.   

Mothers and daughters are just a few heartbeats away from being the same person.  They shared the same body.  

And perhaps that helps to justify the abuse to the abuser.  They are “loving” or “abusing” themselves.

For the daughters, it is psychologically so devastating because their mother is the person who teaches them how to be a woman in the world, how to identify and feel about themselves, and of course, gives them their primary sense of self worth.  For daughters, her core relational self, her self-structure has been denied because there is no safe, loving other to model.

There is a complete lack of boundaries in these mothers. No consideration of the daughter except as an extension of herself.

Many of these mothers are substance abusers.  But substance abuse isn’t the reason they abuse – it simply acts as a disinhibitor for them.

The sex isn’t about sex; more often, it is a generational handing down of abusive/incestuous relationships.  

And the stereotype of the mentally insane woman who does this is mostly inaccurate.  While Female abusers can run the gamut from promiscuous Borderlines to introverted, socially awkward women – just like with men, some of the most respectable appearing women are preying on their children behind closed doors.

 

 

For more information about mother/son abuse and mother/daughter abuse  – look at my articles

 

ABUSE BY FATHERS:

Father/daughter or stepfather/daughter is what comes to mind first when we think of childhood sexual abuse – but it is not the most common form of abuse – and despite the fantasy that it is about men lusting after young female flesh, it is – once again – more about power than it is about sex.  Oftentimes it is repressed rage and usually a current stressor sets it off.  However when it is the biological father it is more likely that the victim is the unintentional consequence, not the target, of these repressed forces.  

 

Father/son abuse carries specific psychological/emotional baggage.  Not only do the victims grow up exhibiting the same problems as female victims – low self esteem, anxiety, guilt, relationship difficulties, sexual difficulties, self destructive and addictive behavior, they can also develop sexual identity concerns.  Masculinity is an ideal for men and it is difficult to perceive yourself as both a victim and masculine.  Just as there was more shame experienced by boys abused by their mothers. There is more profound shame attached to same sex abuse with boys than with girls.    Girls who are abused by their mothers don’t necessarily grow up thinking or concerned by the possibility of being Lesbians – boys, however, are concerned they might be Gay or if they are Gay, they wonder if the abuse made them that way.

 

Over the past few years there has been a spotlight on priests who have abused young boys – some of these priests have been identified as homosexual so I don’t want to minimize or misrepresent what is going on in that particular community, but it doesn’t alter the research.  And that is – that even when there is abuse of boys by men other than their fathers, it’s more about power and control than it is about sex and the abusers aren’t necessarily Gay

 

Some of research findings:

Virtually all male abusers of boys consider themselves heterosexual  (Gartner, 1999).   

Only 65% of child abusers meet the criteria for pedophilia  (Mayo Clinic).

 

So the notion that this is a way for homosexual men to get sex is slanderous, it’s homophobic and it doesn’t hold up statistically. Just as most heterosexual men who like younger women don’t go around abusing underage girls, most Gay men who like younger men don’t go around abusing underage boys.

 

 

 

SIBLING ABUSE:

Sibling Abuse may be as common or more common than other types of incest.  Any where from 57%( Goldman & Goldman) to 90% (Finkelhor) of nuclear family incest involves siblings.  And that doesn’t even include physical and emotional abuse!  But it may be the most ignored – if not accepted – form of abuse in families.  Why is it minimized?  Many times it is swept under the rug as sibling rivalry – no parent really wants to believe that there’s a more serious problem going on.  Furthermore, parents never report because they don’t want to get their children in trouble with the law.

Additionally, sometimes it’s in the parent’s interest not to notice because they need to leave siblings alone to take care of each other.  

But brother-sister incest may be five times as common as father-daughter incest”.     (Hart & Brassard – A Major Threat to Children’s Mental Health).

 And there is evidence that parents are aware of sexual abuse 18% of the time; emotional abuse 69% of the time and physical abuse 71% of the time.

 

What causes one sibling to abuse another?

Acting out anger – at parents or another sibling who is hurting them

Mirroring parents behavior

Inappropriate expectations of the abuser by the parents – too much responsibility

 

Long-term effects of sibling abuse:

Lower self esteem and overly insecure

Trouble with relationships

Sexual functioning problems

Self blame and/or anger

 

Trauma Shapes Sexuality – (write on board)

Often we are dealing with not only the sexual abuse of the past but also the sexual behavior of the client as an adult.   

 

Finklehor & Browne – “theory of sexual traumatization” – through a variety of means, childhood abuse – primarily childhood sexual abuse shapes sexuality creating unusual emotional associations to sexual activities and a repertoire of sexualized behaviors that seem inappropriate or disturbing to many others.  These behaviors may have been learned during the period of abuse or in some manner are associated with the abuse and are now used as a strategy for manipulating others or to self stimulate.

 

What I have noticed is that their particular sexualized behaviors may or may not shame them, but what usually does shame the survivor is the idea that their young bodies may have responded to the sex in a way that was antithetical to how their minds were processing it.  I have had more than one client who has confessed that the only person she ever had an orgasm with was her abuser!     While I won’t get into this subject further today, you can read my article ” Sexual Abuse & Sexuality” which is here on the table along with other articles

I have written on some of the topics we have covered.

 

Finally, I want to return briefly to emotional abuse:

It’s impact and pervasiveness cannot be emphasized enough

 

Emotional abuse is the most common form of abuse, and perhaps the least clearly understood.  That’s because emotional abuse is not a single or quantifiable act.  It is difficult to chronicle or identify.  

Because it is not a reportable crime and there are no hard statistics, there is very little research on the psychological repercussions and in general it is minimized.  But we do know that emotional abuse has been shown to produce 1.6 x as many symptoms of depression and anxiety among adults as those not abused.  And those adults were also twice as likely to have suffered a mood or anxiety D/O.  (FSU).   Why? – Because survivors of emotional abuse have internalized years of negative messages without any filter and they now believe it.  Adults who have been emotionally abused as children are among the most self critical – hence the high degree of depression and anxiety found among this population.

And it is the emotional aspect of sexual abuse that can be the most devastating.  I have had clients – fondled by their fathers – who were much more severely traumatized than those who had been sexually penetrated.  How can that be when penetration is so much more physically traumatic?

Because emotional trauma lives on after physical trauma fades away.   

And because it depends on the emotional impact that that particular abuser had on this particular survivor

And it depends on whether or not the rest of the family compounded the trauma by their denial or reaction to the abuse.  

In the end – All abuse is emotional abuse.

 

 

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

http://www.roniweisbergross.com

Child Molester or Pedophile – Is There A Difference & What Drives Them

February 14, 2013

Sexual abuse of children is not a new problem, nor have the statistics changed. “1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before the age of 14; 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before the age of 16.” (Hopper, J. (1998). Child Sexual Abuse: Statistics, Research, & Resources. Boston, MA Boston University School of Medicine.) This issue is as old as time, but we are finally paying attention to it in a new way. Whether it is in the church, sports, boys clubs, schools or families, there have always been environmental pockets in society that foster these deviants. Whether it is about sex or power, children have always been the most vulnerable segment of the population, and their rights need to be more conscientiously protected.

Pedophilia is a psychological disorder that is thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors and may run in families. That latter fact may be the result of genetic defects or because pedophiles often were victims of sexual abuse themselves as children and then became perpetrators later on in a victim to perpetrator cycle of abuse. What is known about pedophiles is that they are driven early on by strong urges and fantasies to connect emotionally and sexually with children. Whether they are driven by social, sexual anxiety, brain trauma, poor impulse control, or even psychosis, these individuals feel an emotional congruence with children that translates into sexual desire. Sometimes pedophiles are looking to dominate, or just use children, as a substitute for an adult relationship. But usually, they are more comfortable with children and seek ways to be around them.

Child Molesters are opportunists who sporadically use children to gratify a sexual urge, but who are capable of adult relationships as well. Additionally, child molesters are driven by power rather than by sex. They don’t feel compelled to be with children, they simply use them. These individuals are criminals and should be treated as such.  While Pedophiles need psychotherapy and medication as well as punishment if there is any hope of altering their behavior.

“True pedophiles are responsible for only a small percentage of child sexual molestations. Half of child sexual abusers are the parents of the victims; other relatives commit an additional 18%of the offenses. And while active pedophiles are generally single men between the ages of 16 and 35, child molesters are generally married men, of any age, who are primarily drawn to their own children and/or step children.” (Pedophilia and Child Sexual Molestation -sponsored by PSC Crisis Connection site -Internet)

Pedophiles are drawn to pre-pubescent children and rationalize their behavior, believing that they love the child, want a relationship with them and are not harming them. Child Molesters are manipulators who strictly overpower their victim by means of sexual degradation in order to control them. And they may continue to molest the same victim for years because they are not fixated on a certain age, as are most pedophiles. Accessibility and convenience play a bigger role for the child molester.

Both pedophiles and child molesters are primarily male and primarily heterosexual. There are a small percentage of female child molesters, but female pedophiles are extremely rare. While we are finally recognizing and dealing with the pervasiveness of this problem across certain institutions, most molestation occurs in the home, behind closed doors, among family members. The U.S. Department of Justice (1997) and Finkelhor & Ormond (2001) claim, “More than 90% of all sexual abuse victims know their perpetrator. Almost 50% of the offenders are household members and 38% are already acquaintances of the victims.” Unfortunately, as a society, we are only scratching the surface of this problem. Victims are too young, too afraid and too psychologically manipulated to come forward. Other family members are in denial. And we are held back by either respect for privacy or ignorance from recognizing what might be taking place literally next door

The time has come for a National discourse on this issue. Every day I meet young women and men who have not only had to live through childhood sexual abuse but are continually re-traumatized by shame, confusion and self-hatred. Even as adults they don’t know how to stand up for themselves, because they have been led to believe that somehow they were responsible for what happened and have been ruined forever. Children need to be supported in the understanding that whether it is a friend of the family, a family member, or even their parent, they must look for help. And we adults have to be more available to listen and to help them.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

GENDER AND IDENTITY

November 13, 2012

Inspired by the life of Lana Wachowski:

Gender is defined as a set of characteristics – masculine, feminine or neuter, while Gender Identity is a person’s sense of and private experience of their own gender. Transgender suggests that the state of one’s gender identity does not match one’s assigned sexual gender, usually based on physical characteristics – anatomy.

Our society delineates gender as a sexual binary system.  You are either male or female.  And we have assigned a set of characteristics to these two genders – masculine and feminine characteristics that have altered somewhat over the past century but still look similar to those characteristics that have existed for hundreds of years. Transgender identity is considered an outlier – an extreme condition that society still does not fully understand or accept.  Actual gender transition via surgery is rare.  However transgender transition is not the end of the story.  The spectrum of gender identification – the subtleties of transgender identity – are much more complex, nuanced and widespread than we as a society have been able to acknowledge and tolerate.

Let’s start with children.  We acknowledge that not all little girls are “girly” and not all little boys are the rough and tumble types.  Names have been assigned to those who fall outside the norm – tomboy or sporty for a girl, sensitive or shy for a boy.

Little children may not discriminate, but their own parents oftentimes do.  How many of you have encountered an exasperated father whose boy didn’t participate in sports or act like “the son I always wanted” and therefore dad emotionally punishes him?  I worked with one father – a thoughtful man, who while not abusive, was distraught because his four-year-old boy preferred pushing a vacuum around the house rather than play ball outside.  None of these kinds of preferences, by the way, is indicative of impending homosexuality.  But is that the reason that these men are so threatened by their sons’ behaviors?

In adolescence, being different becomes more difficult and painful.  Even today, taunting and bullying accompanied by slurs and innuendos are still prevalent.  Girls begin to feel pressure to look a certain way that is in line with current beauty trends, and boys are pressured to behave a certain way – bigger versions of those sons that those distraught fathers wanted.  New labels emerge for the boys who don’t fit in – nerds, geeks, fags or weirdos.  Eating Disorders, depression, self-mutilation, sexual acting out, drinking and drugs are common coping methods for many of these kids who don’t fit in.  While we as a society have predominantly focused on bad parenting, physical deficiencies, I.Q., and homosexuality as some of the causes, we have not paid enough attention to the gender spectrum and how more subtle differences in gender identity can play a part as well.

We live in a society that celebrates individuality without really allowing people to be truly individual.  If we look at gender as a spectrum starting with feminine at one point and concluding with masculine at the other end, and we assigned 50 people places on that spectrum, we would see that most everyone of those people would fall on their own particular spot with hardly any of them falling on exactly the same spot.  These differences are partially chemical (estrogen, androgen, testosterone, white matter ratios, etc.), partially temperament (behavioral characteristics that are gender identified), and partly socialization (childhood experiences). Whatever the particular formula, people are not simply reflections of their anatomical parts.  And Transgenders are not just individuals who want to transition to the opposite sex or want to be in a radically different sexual role.

The time has come to be more aware and accepting of the way that people feel inside – how they identify themselves on the gender spectrum – rather than simply labeling them by how they look or who they want to have sex with.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

www.roniweisbergross.com

Attachment Issues In Couples Therapy

September 14, 2012

I have always enjoyed therapy with couples.  It is stimulating, interactive work and can create dramatic change quickly.  By strengthening a couples’ communication pattern, you not only help them to improve their relationship, but help them to learn more about themselves and what drives their behavior. And as with individual therapy, if the clients are motivated to change, they will.  But after years of doing the work, I still marvel at the difficulty of creating lasting change when dealing with a co-dependent relationship based on negative attachment issues.

Because I work a lot with Abuse and Trauma Survivors, many couples who come to see me have that in one or both of their backgrounds. Childhood abuse can create long-term trauma and attachment issues, even personality disorders. And people are oftentimes attracted to others whose ability to attach and interactional style are complementary.

For example, it is quite common for adults from alcoholic families to become attracted to other adult children of alcoholics, even if neither of them is an alcoholic. They are attracted not just because they have similar backgrounds, but also because their communication style and ability to be intimate is probably similar. They both are used to living with people who had secrets and who were likely to be passive aggressive in their communication styles. They may be used to care taking, and to boundaries that were breached, especially when a parent was abusing substances. They may also have been traumatized by physical and/or sexual abuse. When two people are drawn to each other, they don’t have to know all the details of their respective backgrounds to feel a kinship. By the time they come into therapy they know each other’s vulnerabilities and how to push each other’s buttons, but they may not be equally prepared to change the interactional pattern they have established between them.

A while back, I worked with a couple* who had both experienced abuse in their childhoods. They had been together for 9 years, married 4 of them.  He was the one who called and wanted couples therapy, claiming that their relationship was unhealthy. He said he was angry a lot because she was cold and he didn’t feel taken care of or loved by her. He thought that her abusive background had damaged her sexuality and her ability to love. And that made him scared to bring children into the mix – something she was pushing for.

When I met with them the first time, she seemed emotionless and impervious to his complaints, but willing to go along with his wishes to be in therapy. But as the weeks went by, it became evident that she was the one doing all the work to change, while he used a debater’s skill and keen intellect to keep her on the defensive. She wasn’t nurturing and attentive enough. She wasn’t social enough. She wasn’t professionally ambitious, but she also worked too much. What I recognized was that she was actually a pleaser, but also passive aggressive. That combination of traits is not uncommon. The pleaser is usually stuffing their own feelings, so their resentment builds and manifests in other ways. While he could be insightful, he didn’t seem to notice all the attempts she made. More importantly, he didn’t seem to believe that he needed to change as well. When I tried to bring that up, he seemed wounded and implied that we were ganging up on him.

I asked each of them to come in for an individual session. I sometimes do this with couples when I feel that one or both are withholding in the room. He encouraged her to come in first. Now, alone with me, she proceeded to point out everything that I had been noticing. Additionally, she was aware that she was jumping through hoops, but it didn’t seem to matter. She talked about his insecurities and dark moods and how he took everything out on her. Clearly frustrated, she said, “I’m still very physically attracted to him, and we do have an active sex life, but how can I be warm and tender when I am constantly being put down?”

I asked if she could imagine standing up for herself in the relationship. Could she help him understand that she wasn’t responsible for making him feel better about himself?  The look of recognition on her face seemed to confirm that she could. When the session was over, she grabbed my hand and thanked me.

I later mused about how common it was for one partner to come in seeking change, identifying the other as the problem, only to discover how much more complicated the situation was and how both parties were responsible for the friction between them.

A few days later I received an anxious call from her. She said an opportunity had presented itself, and in the gentlest manner possible, she pointed out how he sometimes took his frustrations out on her rather than on the people or situations they should be directed at. “He went ballistic and walked out. You know, he doesn’t want to hear that anything is wrong with him.” I suggested that she give him some time to think about what she said. He wasn’t used to being confronted, it may have been difficult to take in.

There was a long silence and then she stated emphatically, “No I am going to apologize and try harder. He needs to feel more loved by me.”  “But isn’t that what you have been doing all along? How is it going to be any different this time?”  Her reply, “Well, we’ve managed to remain together this long, so I guess I know how to make it work.”

Clients make their own choices – rightly so. And only they know what they are ready to do. These clients were both intelligent and insightful. But change is hard. And sometimes things do get worse before they get better. So it may seem easier to fall back into what is familiar, whether or not it is truly satisfying.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

http://www.roniweisbergross.com

* Certain identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality.

The Sexual Predator’s Partner in Crime

July 6, 2012

Two recent stories raised my ire – once again – about the culpability of those who enable sexual predators. By enabler, I am referring primarily to the predator’s spouse, partner or parent. I sit here and wonder why citizens aren’t held legally responsible for notifying authorities if they become aware of an adult molesting a minor. If you watch someone being murdered and do nothing, or you help a murderer not get caught, you are an accessory to that crime. Molestation murders a child’s soul. The child may live, but their life will never be the same.

While everyone was riveted by the allegations against Jerry Sandusky and a corrupt system that allowed him to continue hurting young boys, I was focused on Dorothy Sandusky, the dutiful, religious wife who turned a deaf ear to the victims who called for help, and a blind eye to the provocative scenes she witnessed. Of course, at this point, I believe that Mrs. Sandusky had to be in total denial about the crimes she never tried to stop. But what led her down this path? When did she consciously or unconsciously decide to ignore the truth in order to preserve the reality she wanted?

Partners of Predators aren’t necessarily mentally unbalanced or amoral people. Nor are they driven by uncontrollable impulses, like the Predators themselves. They may be kind and loving and decent in every other respect – as Mrs. Sandusky supposedly was. Is it loyalty, denial, weakness, fear that forces their hand? Perhaps. But that doesn’t let them off the hook. In fact, I personally find the partners of predators even more accountable, because the predators themselves don’t believe they are doing something wrong. Their actions are criminal, but they truly believe otherwise. Meanwhile, the partner is allowing crimes to be committed in order to hold on to a life they know, a life they may not want to disrupt. Chuck Williams, a professor at Drexel University, and an expert on dealing with child abuse, when speaking recently about the spouses of child abusers said, “they often sense that something is wrong but rationalize that the cost of taking action might be greater than turning a blind eye.” And it doesn’t stop there.

It was reported that when Dorothy Sandusky first heard about the sexual abuse charges leveled against her husband, instead of expressing either horror or sympathy for the victims, she said, “for all Jerry’s done for these kids all these years, how could a few of them turn their stories around and make him seem so bad”. And after Victim #4 movingly testified about his sexual abuse, Dorothy took the stand and coldly alluded to what a manipulative child he had been. Which brings me to the other story I referred to at the beginning of this article. This story hasn’t been in the headlines, and like thousands of others, will never get the public’s attention. But it’s just as heart wrenching.

The following is a post I received from a reader of an article I wrote entitled “Sibling Abuse – Children Abusing Other Children”:

“I was abused by my brother who was 6 years my senior.  I remember when I was only 5 or 6 years old, I went to my mom and told her that my brother (who was 12) was making me touch him down there. She called me a liar and told me to go away. It didn’t stop with sexual abuse. He abused me verbally, physically and emotionally. My mom saw it; she had to. But she always ignored what he did wrong. The abuse continued for years, way past the point when he should have known better. And to this day, she makes excuses for him. This has affected my whole life. I have been in a series of abusive relationships as an adult and have just recently realized why. Yet I am the one who has been pushed aside and ignored. Since starting therapy I have tried to talk to my mother about this. Her response was that if it was so bad when I was little, why didn’t I call social services? She is still blaming me!  My therapist says that I shouldn’t waste any more energy on my mother.  She will never acknowledge her part in my abuse let alone apologize for it.”

The time has come for those who do nothing to be held accountable.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

Http://www.LosAngelessexualabusetherapist.com

Helping Adults Abused as Children (Sexual Abuse, Emotional Abuse, Physical Abuse)

May 30, 2012

When I began working as a psychotherapist many years ago, I was told that if I hadn’t already picked a specialization, it would pick me.  And that is exactly what happened.

I worked in a non-profit clinic where we had big caseloads, having to see many more people each week than one would ordinarily see in private practice.  Within weeks I realized that a significant number of the people I met with had been abused as children.  When I probed deeper with other clients, more of them revealed they had been abused – if not sexually, than emotionally or physically.  I was drawn to these people.  They felt like kindred spirits, because I too had come from an abusive past.  And so, it became a logical decision to follow this path, and to make childhood abuse a specialized focus of my practice.

None of us come from perfect backgrounds.  And children adapt to their circumstances – no matter how brutal.  The difference is, that children who adapt to abuse, have to turn inward and create their own reality in order to survive.  And that reality emotionally separates them from the world as they grow up.  Children in abusive environments are like houseplants that bend towards windows with light.  They reach out for sustenance and lose their natural shape.  Children who don’t feel safe tend to deny their own needs and desires in order to please those around them.  They turn their anger inward.  They feel that they must be doing something bad or wrong, because to think that its not them, that it is the adults around them doing something bad, is just too frightening to imagine.

So these children bend, like those sun starved plants.  And they grow up believing that they are bad – different – something is inherently wrong with them.  At the same time, they are not taught healthy interactive behaviors or tools to use in society.  So when they go out in the world, not only do they have trouble engaging in relationships, but when they do, they are apt to repeat the unhealthy behaviors that they were taught.  If your primary role models in life were unhealthy adults, then how are you supposed to grow up and suddenly become a healthy adult yourself?  You may have been born with good instincts.  But you were forced not to listen to those instincts and just do whatever you had to do to survive.

 

That is where psychotherapy comes in.  Therapy provides a safe place to explore the past and the present.  To take a clear look at our lives and figure out how we can make it better, make ourselves happier.  If we don’t feel this way when we walk in the door, we do come to discover that we can no longer blame others for our inner turmoil.  Yes people have hurt us– and adults who have survived childhood abuse, have been hurt and betrayed in the worst possible way.  But we can’t change the past.  And we can’t change others.

 

Human beings are meant to grow and change.  Being stuck is not a natural instinct.  Therapy helps us to gain a perspective on how we behave, where those behaviors originated, and how they are hurting or hindering us now.  People usually don’t enter therapy unless they have run through all of their other coping devices.  Their back is against a wall, and there is nowhere left to go but to change from within.  Addictions no longer work.  And by addictions, I don’t just mean substance abuse, but any behavior that is repetitive and feels shameful or secret.  Whether it is sex, food, spending money, self-abusing or abusing others, it is a coping devise, and it is addictive.

Trust is a huge issue with survivors of childhood abuse.  And it is a central aspect of the work that I do with my clients.  I take this issue very seriously.  We work, first and foremost, to build a trusting, safe relationship.  That alone is curative.  We also identify emotional and external goals.  And we explore their life – past and present – to make them conscious of what they do.  To consider what has worked and what hasn’t worked, in order to nurture inner resilience.  Most importantly, to allow self-love, which may have eluded them in the past, to come to light now.

We must never lose our belief in the possibility of change.  In the end, that is all we have.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

http:www.roniweisbergross.com

 

Couples Therapy With Trauma and Abuse Survivors

April 30, 2012

We all come into relationships with past issues. Trust, ability to be intimate, anger management, mental and physical health limitations and childhood trauma are among the most common. Each issue colors, although in a different way, how we deal with current stressors and disagreements. This article will look at how having a partner who has survived childhood abuse (sexual, emotional, physical) can affect the relationship.

First let me say that I believe that people are unconsciously attracted to those whose psychological challenges fit together with their own. Their backgrounds may be entirely different, but a couple’s strengths and deficits interconnect in a way that feels familiar – feels “like home”. So I never look at a couple, where one of them has experienced childhood trauma, and think that that particular person has a problem and the other doesn’t. Yet, I often receive calls from partners of childhood abuse survivors saying, ” We are having problems – can you fix him/her?”  My answer is always the same:  “I can’t fix anybody, but I can look at how you two interact and hopefully help you both modify your behaviors”. If the person I am speaking with is not prepared to take any responsibility, I never hear back from them.

That said, if childhood trauma is not acknowledged and dealt with soon after it occurs, there are lingering negative effects that can hinder adult relationships and hinder the ability to be emotionally and sometimes sexually intimate. The desire to be in a safe and loving relationship can be undermined by the survivor’s past experience of betrayal and cruelty by loved ones. Each person deals with trauma in a different way depending on their particular circumstances and their temperament. But all unhealed trauma causes emotional dysregulation and low self-esteem. Trauma survivors expend more energy than others managing anxiety, depression and anger. Those who have repressed memories experience unexplained emotional triggers, nightmares, and/or intrusive negative thoughts.

Children whose trauma was either never acknowledged or purposely invalidated, had to find their own way of surviving the incident(s). If they were betrayed by loved ones they either disassociated from their feelings, compartmentalized – there was the good daddy and the bad daddy – or they turned against themselves and adopted the story that they were to blame for everything that happened. As adults, that means of survival turns into self-loathing.

People who are attracted to unhealed trauma survivors are often caretakers or controlling types. They often come from homes where boundaries were not respected (i.e. emotionally fused families, alcoholic families, families with emotional abuse). They are drawn to their partner’s wounds and emotional fragility. That connection can create even more emotional dysregulation in the relationship, or it can be used to heal.

When working with couples where one partner has been identified as an abuse survivor, I first look to create safety – safety with me, safety with their partner, and safety within themselves. “In situations like this, people often feel unsafe in their bodies and confused in their thinking. Feeling safe in your primary relationship is a crucial place to begin to rebuild trust and safety in your world.” (Phillips and Kane, “Healing Together”, 2008, p. 20).

The survivor may have told their partner the story of their past – perhaps many times. Even so, revisiting the trauma in a psychological setting can confirm and validate their feelings in a manner that creates a deeper connection between them. And connection is what the survivor needs most. Because one of the most insidious effects of abuse is that it disconnects the child leaving him/her feeling isolated, ashamed and unlovable. That sense of isolation and feeling different and unlovable is carried into adulthood. The most innocent behavior by their mate can trigger traumatic memories and defensive reactions in an abuse survivor. The therapist needs to help the couple jointly process how the past influences the present.

The next step is to help the partners find new ways of interacting. Clear communication and active listening promotes emotional regulation for the abuse survivor and mutual respect in the relationship. This in turn creates safety and stabilizes the relationship so that more nuanced problem solving of current issues can take place.

Mindfulness of your own behavior and how it impacts your partner is an important part of couples work. When you are dealing with a person with past trauma it is even more important. Together the couple needs to explore the emotional triggers that derail them. As with revisiting the story of an abusive past, exploring emotional triggers in a safe setting with your partner, helps the survivor feel seen, loved and supported. The result is a positive reconnection for the survivor and hope for the couple.

Roni Weisberg-Ross LMFT

http://www.roniweisbergross.com

2012


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