When Children Are Beaten, The Aftermath

The psychoanalyst, W.R.D. Fairbairn, once said, "Children would rather be sinners in heaven than saints in hell." What he meant was that children believe that their parents are loving and caring people who do no wrong. The child believes that he was bad and deserving of punishment, no matter how harsh. Put simply, the child wants desperately to be loved even if that means accepting blame for everything. A parent will beat a child and the child will still say, "Mommy, or, Daddy, I love you, please love me."

As a consequence, abused children report that they provoked their parents into using corporal punishment. When these children become adults they continue to cling to the myth that they were bad and the parents good.


Hypothetical Case Study:

"An attractive young woman consulted me for psychotherapy because she felt very depressed. What was striking was that she could not explain any reasons for her feelings. She reported that her parents and siblings were wonderful and her childhood uneventful and happy. Closer inspection through the joint venture of psychotherapy revealed a very different picture.

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What gradually emerged was the picture of an alcoholic and violent family system in which all of the children were terrorized by the parents, neither of whom came to the rescue.

At first, the patient was angrily defensive of her parents despite the clear and unambiguous evidence. Clearly, she was not ready to recognize the truth. Only slow and exhausting work, whereby we built a mutually trusting relationship in which she felt safe, was she able to recognize how intimidating and cruel her parents were. Once this recognition took place, she was on the road to recovery."

I have experienced several such cases in which people were so convinced of their innate evil that they were sure they were "bad seed." This malignant self concept held despite being able to admit that one or both parents were cruel. Now, the belief was that they expressed fear that they must have inherited the genes for evil from their parents.

Being Beaten Equals Love: 

Freud laid the foundation for Fairbairn's formulation in his essay, "A Child Is Being Beaten." In it Freud delineates the beginnings of masochism. He describes how the child comes to think of his punishment as a demonstration of love. With this type of background, too many people confuse abuse with love. That is part of the reason why these same individuals find and remain in abusive relationships.In fact, without psychotherapy, they remain unaware that they are unconsciously choosing abusive partners. The thinking goes something like this, "Of course I remain with her. We argue a lot and she becomes abusive but that is only because she really loves me. After all, no one else would be able to put up with me."

There is plenty of research that demonstrates the devastating impact of abuse on mental health. People who survived abuse during their childhood, emerge with low self esteem, lack of self confidence, over whelming anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and achievement far below their native abilities.

Recovery from a childhood filled with abuse does not mean that life have to mean permanent damage. The first task on the way to recovering mental health is to face the facts of the parents having been unloving and brutal. This is easier said than done. Just go back to Fairbairn's description of the child's preferred way of thinking. Even as a adult, it is difficult to admit that a parent was unloving.


One of the mistakes that many survivors of child abuse attempt in their adulthood is to try and get their parents to admit to their wrong doing. The reason for this is that, in their minds, the survivor believes that such an admission will free themselves of feeling that they were bad or difficult and therefore, no longer feel guilty. The strategy never works because, years later, parents deny that any of the events really happened or justify it with the repeated conviction that the child was truly deserving of punishment. In those rare instance where a parent does own up to what happened, the adult survivor feels no better than they did before.

Ultimately, the past cannot be changed, regardless of whether or not a parent admits to having been abusive. Adulthood means taking responsibility for ones life in the present. That means that, whatever obstacles to mental health existed in the past, can now be achieved in the present, including being productive and living a full life without masochistic or sadistic behaviors.

In my experience, psychotherapy is enormously helpful for those who emerge traumatized from abusive childhood experiences. The capacity of human beings to grow and learn is unlimited. Do not hesitate to find the right therapist and enter psychotherapy if you had this type of past.

Your comments and questions are strongly encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD