Case Study

Case Study

Rewriting the Story: Entering the World of the Abused Child

By Dan Hughes

January/February 2014

Sadly, children who’ve suffered abuse and neglect at the hands of their parents are often convinced that their mistreatment was justified. As a result, they typically grow up with a pervasive sense of shame, struggling with emotional regulation, cognitive and reflective functioning, and the inability to experience positive emotions. It isn’t surprising, then, that these children are often unlikely to be cooperative participants in therapy or easily engaged with new parents and teachers.

Therapists must therefore work to discover the children under the symptoms—those who lived before the abuse, who survived in the face of it, and who can begin to emerge after being accepted and embraced by those who’ve come to love them. To have a positive impact on these children, caretakers and therapists must offer them a different felt experience of who they are. As Daniel Stern, Colwyn Trevarthen, and other child psychologists have shown us over the past 30 years, the most powerful means of achieving this is through congruently communicating, both verbally and nonverbally, how they see these children and mirroring the children’s emotional experiences. That process is called intersubjectivity, and it’s the primary way that children develop a stable representation of self. For example, parents who communicate anger and indifference raise children who experience themselves as bad and unlovable. If those children are to change their primary experience of themselves, they need…

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