Monday, June 18, 2012

Why the Silence about Sexual Abuse?

Joel Achenbach, writing in the Washington Post today, noted a pattern of suspicion followed by silence among those who knew something about Sandusky's behavior with young boys.  Those who work with survivors (a term I prefer to victims) of child sexual abuse know this pattern all too well and are often angered by it.  How do we explain the reluctance of people to talk about their suspicions openly so that something might be done to stop these atrocities?

One of the explanations suggested is that the abuser is a person of power or status who could use that power to punish anyone who dared talk about what they suspected or knew.  Though there is some truth to this, especially in the minds of the young person who has been manipulated and sometimes threatened into silence, I think there is a more basic explanation that comes clear in an understanding of the nature of shame and our responses to behavior that evokes shame.

Shame is one of the powerful survival emotions with which we are all hardwired.  It is the emotion that compels us to surrender and try to hide when we are faced with an overwhelming threat or defeated in competition.  It can save our lives in a primitive battle over status, and it has a complex function in forming our consciences and guiding our moral awareness.  But although we use the word in a way that has many complex connotations, it is a fundamental and powerful basic emotion, and shares some characteristics with other survival emotions.

1. Shame compels an immediate behavioral response.  Fear compels us to freeze first, then run.  Anger compels us to attack. And shame compels us to surrender and withdraw, averting our gaze and trying to hide.  We want to become invisible, and anything that draws attention to us makes the shame stronger.   So when someone tells an inappropriate joke at a party, everyone wants to crawl under the table.  And when someone in your group is behaving badly, no one wants to be the first to call attention to the problem.  "For some people," notes Achenbach, "the subject is literally unspeakable."

2.  Shame is contagious.  Like the panic triggered in a crowded theater when someone shouts fire, or the rage evoked in a mob when it is focused on a target, shame over someone's exposure evokes an emotional response in all of us.  Depending on our relationship to the person shamed, the emotional response can be one of shame or anger, but if the person is a member of your family, tribe, or a group with which you identify, the shame will come first.  When Dad is drunk and making a fool of himself, everyone in the family wants to leave the scene.  A secondary reaction of anger may set in soon, but the initial response is shared shame.  If our political leader makes a gaffe, we all groan inside before we go into defensive action.

3. Shame is followed by anger.  Take my word for it (or read my book about it) shame almost always leads to anger.  But the anger may be expressed toward almost anyone.  After feeling the sting of shame, we may be angry at ourselves, we may be angry at the world, we may be angry at the easiest person to be angry at - which may be the victim of the abuse - or we may fear the anger of others that we know is likely to emerge if we make a lot of noise about the shameful situation.  So family members enable the alcoholic rather than confront, institutions shield and hide the abusers in their midst rather than share the shame of exposure, and people with suspicions of others, particularly leading members of the group with which they identify, keep their mouths shut and their heads down (the classic posture of shame).  The fear of angry reprisals can extend to fear of legal action against the institution involved.  But underlying this fear is the naive wish that it will all just go away if we can cover it up or keep quiet about it.

Understanding the nature of our powerful survival emotions, how they compel us to freeze, run, attack, or hide, can help us resist the self defeating behavioral responses that can arise in response to emotionally loaded situations and help us solve problems sooner.  Wishing the problems and the feelings would just go away only prolongs the damaging situation.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Assertiveness For Families

I like to define assertiveness as the art of asking for what you want in a way that makes it easy for the other person to give it to you.   If you think of it as a skill that can be learned by anyone, and can be learned easily by children at an early age when they are learning all kinds of communications skills, I can explain how it is preferable to the other ways of getting what you want.

The other ways of getting what you want that are available even to small children are: crying or whining, demanding, and suffering silently or pouting.  We were all born knowing how to cry and whine to alert the big people that we are unhappy and something needs to change.  Crying or whining works for babies and very small children who can’t communicate their needs very specifically.  It is irritating or distressing, so it gets our attention and motivates us to do something to stop the crying.  When parents respond appropriately and the baby is comforted, she stops crying and parents feel better. 

Demanding attention with an aggressive tone is also possible, even for very small children.  Like whining, it is irritating, but it can be effective because the squeaky wheel often does get the grease.  But it can also generate resistance because of a sense of a power struggle, and sometimes parents begin to say no automatically to a lot of requests when they feel that they are burdensome demands. 

Quite a few young children learn that they can make others uncomfortable in a quiet way by pouting or suffering silently without making a noisy fuss.   This works in some relationships, but also tends to generate irritation or resistance.

By contrast to these behaviors, asking clearly for what you want is more effective.  It is respectful of the other because it gives them a choice to say yes or no, where as whining or demanding or pouting are manipulative.  Asking politely generates less resistance because it is less irritating or aggressive.  When the assertive individual is specific and clear about what he is asking for, it does not force the other to guess what is needed.  Crying or pouting often leaves it up to the other to guess how to resolve the problem.  Finally, asking gives the other a chance to feel good when they grant your request and you thank them for it.

Assertive asking is an Emotional Intelligence skill that toddlers can learn and it can benefit them greatly later in life as well as making family life for parents much more pleasant.  Unfortunately, many of us never master this skill.  You don't have to look very far to find bosses who only know how to demand and criticize or friends who only seem to know how to manipulate, coerce, pout, or threaten to get what they want.   

Parents can teach assertive asking in two simple ways:

1)      Simply ask your toddler, calmly and persistently, to rephrase their whiny demand as an assertive request.   When they do it, reward them as often as practical by granting their request.   When you have to say no, first praise them for their assertiveness then cushion your denial with some offer of an alternative.

2)      Demonstrate assertive asking in communications between adults and between adults and older children in the family.  Enlist older siblings in teaching assertiveness.  Calm persistence and repetition are just as effective in teaching the skill of assertiveness as they are in teaching language skills and other social skills. 

The hardest thing about assertiveness lies in knowing what you need so that you can ask for it clearly.  The request must be specific, and realistic.  Sometimes this requires some problem solving skills that young children don’t yet have, and parents can help by making some suggestions about what they might ask for.  “Do you think you are tired and need someone to read you a story?”  “Can you ask for that?”

The next most important thing in assertiveness is timing, which requires some empathy for the other person so that your request can be heard.  Children shouldn’t have to be too sensitive to their parents’ needs, though they often are acutely aware and can be quite naturally empathic.  Parents can help the child develop this skill by coaching them:  “I can’t read you a story right now, because I am fixing dinner, but if you remind me after dinner, I would be happy to.”

The final key to effective assertiveness is persistence.  Children rarely have difficulty with this, but adults often give up after asking once and not getting what they want.  You have to know that lots of people respond negatively at first, but will be able to hear your request and respond positively if you are persistent.  And when their positive response is rewarded with your gratitude, mutual cooperation is enhanced.

Children stop asking and revert to whining, demanding, pouting, or sneaking if they are intimidated or denied too often and too harshly.  They need to know that asking is alright and that it works.  This undermines the shame and anger that can develop in an environment where it is not ok to ask. 

For more on Emotional Intelligence Skills go to Change-for-Good.ORG