The problem with analysing children’s behaviours


This blog contains quotes from a psychological assessment that I had undertaken while still living in my abusive home. I was six years old and my birth-mum and step-dad had previously given me a lesson on ‘pretending to be a happy family’. Before this assessment my birth-mum had completely rejected me and I had gone into respite care on a voluntary basis over Christmas. She blamed me for her miscarriage and made me out to be the devils child! She put me into foster care as a punishment for being naughty and didn’t even bother to ring me on Christmas day. (I will write about that foster placement in another blog – I could not rate the foster parents highly enough! They were incredible and I owe them a massive thank you…… for showing me what a real family looks like). I have had lots of foster carers but they really stand out to me, even now.

I just want to make it clear that I am not writing this to place blame on anyone! I just want to highlight the complexities around analysing child behaviour. From my experience, abusers are incredibly clever and manipulative! I believe that ‘abuse’ is a mental condition in itself. How can anyone even think about harming his or her child? Let alone plan when and how they are going to do it?

Apparently this was my perception of my family:

“On the Bene-Anthony Family Relations Test, Aine’s step-father appeared to be her main source and object of love. This was confirmed by my observations of their interaction, where Aine made a lot of physical contact with him and enjoyed teasing him in a playful manner. Aine’s mother was her second main source and object of love and Aine’s interaction with her during the session was positive. Aine also attributed positive feelings to her relationships with her sisters. When I asked her to draw a picture of her family, everyone was depicted smiling and Aine explained they were all happy.”

“However, it was striking to note that, on the Bene-Anthony Family Relations Test, Aine did not acknowledge any negative or hostile feelings either towards her family members, or from her family members towards her. This is very unusual and unlikely, and can therefore be interpreted as that Aine needs to deny such feelings as they are currently too threatening to acknowledge.”

This was a key clue to what was going on. I had been threatened by my birth-mum and step-dad before the assessment. They had told me that if I said that I didn’t like or love them then I would be punished when we got home. This was usually in the form of whipping the soles of my feet – because according to my birth parents no one would ever look at the bottom of my feet; it was also incredibly painful.

Later on in the assessment I was given free time, to play – without my birth parents being in the room. I remember thinking that it was the perfect opportunity to try and let the psychologist know what was going on at home. My birth-mum had said I would be punished if I talked about my abuse but she had never said anything about acting it out…

“Aine was given some unstructured free play time with the dolls house in which she, first of all, depicted a scene where the father and a child went shopping whilst mother and the other two siblings stayed at home. Father brought a lot of shopping back home which pleased the family. But then the eldest sibling pinched the baby and was subsequently beaten up by every member of the family and thrown down the stairs. Following this, she was sent to her bed as an additional punishment. The beating up of the eldest sibling was repeated before she was forgiven and could re-join the family. The second eldest sibling was later taken sick with chickenpox and was nursed by mother, whilst father went out to obtain medication for the sick child.“

“During her play, Aine made only a few references to her own family and was not keen to draw any parallels between the interaction of the dolls house family and her own family. However, it could be hypothesised that the eldest sibling in the play represented Aine and was acting out some of her negative feelings towards the youngest sibling, like Aine had done in the autumn of 1993, which was followed by some form of punishment which had united the family against her, leaving her isolated. The fact that Aine did not wish to discuss the meaning of her play with me reinforces the earlier interpretation that these negative feelings are too threatening to acknowledge on a conscious level.”

I think psychologists need to be very careful about over-analyzing some behaviours. I had acted out actual events that had happened at home but I could not talk about them (because I was too scared to say it out loud). My birth-mum, as manipulative as she was, had told me that she could hear everything that I said, even if she was not with me. I certainly couldn’t risk her hearing what I wanted to say – after all I had no idea whether telling someone about my abuse would even help me. I had previously been sent back to my birth parents despite trying to indicate to my foster parents that I was not happy to go back and nobody had ever explained what would happen to me if I did tell them that I was being abused at home.

This is supposedly my birth-mum and step-dad’s perception of our family:

“[Birth-mum and step-dad] described Aine as “very sensitive, easily upset, bubbly, very affectionate and having a good memory”. They acknowledged that their family had been through a stressful time in the autumn last year as they got married, had a miscarriage and found it difficult to deal with Aine’s escalating behavior problems. They had therefore turned to Social Services for help, requesting Aine to be accommodated for a little while so that they could get “their act together”. During this break, the parents gave Aine a separate bedroom and enrolled her in a different school. [Birth-mum and step-dad] stated that they had assumed that Social Services would no longer be involved once the Foster arrangement had ended, and they were angry this had not been the case. When Aine was told of her new school she seemed very relieved and confided that she had been bullied at her previous school. According to her parents, the new school has “turned her around” and she has re-gained her interest in school again. In addition, Aine’s behavior problems have not returned and also her eating has improved. [Birth-mum] explained Aine used to be “funny” with her food and ate like a “vegetarian” but that she now often asks for a second helping.”

This is a typical example of why I believe that abuse is a mental illness. I had not been bullied at school – my birth parents were just trying to hide the real reason behind my withdrawal. My birth-mum had also said that I had issues with food as a means to explain why I was underweight and malnourished. I certainly wasn’t a vegetarian… I loved meat, and that was obvious in the report written by my previous foster parent’s. My birth-mum has never acknowledged what she did to me as a child. I can only assume that this is her way of protecting herself emotionally. I tried to ask her about my childhood later on in life and she point-blank refused to acknowledge that she had ever done anything wrong. All I’ve ever wanted to know is ‘why’?! But I guess if we knew why, we would be able to prevent abuse in the first place.

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