On prosecuting parents for emotional abuse…

boys on a mission Over the decades working as a social worker, I have worked mainly with adults, often who were suffering the consequences of a childhood in which they have been damaged almost beyond repair.

Of course there is rarely, if ever, a smoking gun. We can surmise that some of the experiences are causal, not just associations, but proving this – separating it from so-called genetic disposition, or from weakness of personality, or the consequences of all the maladaptive coping strategies that we use to get by, and then become the slave of – this is another matter entirely.

It will not surprise you then to hear that I have been more than a little interested in the recent news that the government are to introduce a new criminal offence in relation to the emotional neglect of children. Robert Buckland, the Conservative MP for Swindon South was quoted in the Guardian as follows;

Buckland said: “Current law focuses only on the physical effects of abuse, stating for example that it is an offence to ill-treat a child resulting in the ‘loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body’. Emotional neglect, by contrast, which modern science now shows can be equally as destructive to a child’s wellbeing as physical abuse, is excluded from the law.” Action for Children said that out of 41 legal systems examined around the world, only two, including England, did not criminalise emotional abuse.

It is worth remembering the rather shocking research results about the link between emotional abuse and the later development of psychotic illnesses- Oliver James in the Guardian said this;

definitive analysis of the 41 best studies into the impact of childhood adversity on the risk of psychosis (mostly schizophrenia and bipolar disorder) was published in 2012. It broke down the role of different kinds of maltreatment. Emotional abuse meant exposure to behaviour such as harshness and name-calling from parents. Emotional neglect meant lack of love and responsiveness. Overall, in order of impact, emotional abuse increased the risk of psychosis the most (by 3.4 times, physical abuse and emotional neglect did so by 2.9, sexual abuse and bullying by peers by 2.4).

That emotional abuse is more damaging than sexual and physical abuse may seem surprising, although they tend to go together. One study found that the emotionally abused were 12 times more likely to be schizophrenic than the general population (compared with six times for the physically abused and twice as likely for the sexually abused).

Another study followed adolescents for 15 years and found that over a third became schizophrenic if both parents were hostile, critical and intrusive, compared with none where only one parent was or neither were.

In his definitive book, Models of Madness, John Read, a clinical psychologist at Liverpool University, shows that in the 10 studies testing the matter, the more extreme the childhood adversity, the greater the risk of adult psychosis. The results are similar for the number of adversities.

In one large study, those subjected to five or more adversities were 193 times more likely to suffer psychosis than those with none.   Similar findings come from studies of less extreme emotional distress. In the definitive one, which followed 180 children from infancy to the age of 18, 90% of those who suffered early maltreatment qualified for a mental illness. Emotional neglect under the age of two was a critical predictor.

It is in light of this evidence that the government’s plans must be understood: the crucial role of early nurture seems to be accepted in a cross-party consensus.

Why then do I still find myself with an uneasy sense of foreboding about all this?

I think it is because child protection in this country has been characterised by such simplistic banner waving. We are desperate to find someone to blame; the reason children are abused is because of all those horrible people (who are not like us) who need to be sorted out. If only the bloody woolly liberal social workers would get out of their bloody CND meetings and do their bloody jobs.

I also know just how incredibly difficult it can be to firstly identify the damaging patterns of parenting that might be categorised as emotional neglect, or even emotional abuse. Add this to the growing awareness within child protection services of the association between parental mental illness and emotional neglect. The fear is that the perfect storm of political pressure and the desperate need to protect children might end up demonising and criminalising parents who are themselves needing help and support.

This recent Ofsted report kind of makes the same point- back in 2013, they called for a mandatory reporting system for mental health services to collect data on children whose parents or carers have mental health difficulties and report on such data nationally. What might we use such data for? My hope is that it would be to assist families. To get alongside young people and find ways of making them feel special, loved, accepted. For injecting a sense of delight and wonder into their childhoods. But this is no easy task either.

These are complex issues, requiring careful thoughtful engagement. The law is part of this, but it is a blunt instrument- applied when it is actually too late. Suggesting that such a law will operate as any kind of deterrent on people who are often affected by their own complex difficulties is fanciful in the extreme.

When will politicians stand up and trumpet a the unsexy quiet work of the family link workers, paid just above minimum wage, who hold the hands of children who most of us would never give a second glance?

Personal growth and the rise to the top…


Life is for living – for drinking deep from the well of experience. That is why many of us believe that wild places are so special; they take us out of our narrow protected bubble and open up something deeper, more eternal.

A fulfilled life is a difficult thing to measure. Very soon we start to use nebulous words like ‘well being’, ‘happiness’ and ‘satisfaction’.

We may also have to acknowledge that life is a process – a journey. Some would call this journey a process of ‘maturity’, others would say ‘enlightenment’, others still would call it ‘personal growth’. All these ideas contain the idea that life, in all its joy and difficulties, should embrace transformation; movement from one state of being to another. Standing still is unlikely to be healthy and ultimately it will likely prove impossible.

For a while, many of us (particularly men) come to believe that a fulfilled life is one characterised by success. And because we are competitive creatures there has to be some means of measuring this success so we are always heading for the next achievement, the next conquest, the next acquisition.

I was reminded of this again today listening to a radio discussion about psychopathy with Jon Ronson, author of this book

The word ‘psychopath’ is one of the most overused and emotive terms employed by the media in relation to mental illness, but Ronson’s book goes far beyond the stereotype. He qualified to use the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, and became, by his own admission, something of an obsessive Psychopath spotter.

Whatever you believe about the usefulness of labels like this, the fascination with the sort of people who can commit such acts of appalling cruelty apparently guilt free is almost universal. All the more sobering then is the statistic that roughly 1% of people can be regarded as psychopathic.

Rather than getting stuck with all the high profile serial killers and despots, Ronson’s interest takes us more towards the very place of madness at the heart of our society. At the same time as vilifying psychopaths as not-human ‘others’, he argues that there is something psychopathic about our society, and that many parts of our society actually reward psychopathic tendencies.

Consider this – one of the two ‘factors’ in Hare’s checklist

Factor 1: Personality “Aggressive narcissism”

It is easy to see how an individual with these kind of characteristics could succeed in much of society. It is impossible not to start thinking of people we know, bosses we have had.

I went to hear psychologist Oliver James speak at Greenbelt Festival last year (you can download the talk here.) One of the things I remembered him saying was that in all his dealings with the rich and powerful, including several Prime Ministers, he had yet to meet many who he would regard as psychologically healthy.

However, Ronson goes further than this and suggests that the very institutions of our society can become psychopathic. Banks that loan what they know can never be repaid, therefore condemning people to financial indebtedness for the rest of their lives. Health systems that thrive on the sickness of the population. The creation of all sorts of addictions to gadgets and shiny product in order to ensure profit.

It is almost as if the process of becoming – whether we understand this as a spiritual, psychological or simply biological development – has been replaced by a process of conquest, where success at almost any cost is the only thing that matters.

But success is fickle. The journey to the top is often followed by the journey back down again.

Back to this maturity/enlightenment/personal growth thing. Most of us come to a point when we realise that success is rarely a route to any kind of lasting happiness (even if this is a legitimate aim for any of us.) A life that cuts us off from the social animal that we humans are and replaces this with narrow acquisition is a kind of madness – all the more so for the fact that it is a collective madness.

So for those of us who are climbing to the top, may we succeed. May our enterprises go from strength to strength. But may we also remember that success without ethical responsibility and without the mess of all that humanity may indeed still be success, but it may also be the cause of our own destruction – both individually and collectively.

Greenbelt 11 reflections…

Home we are, shower fresh and full of stories. I had such a great time that I am reluctant to let it go and so refused to shave this morning for work. I am going beardy for a while as a wee celebration of all things festival.

Our worship thing went well- and as we were first up, we suddenly had time to relax- a rare luxury! This meant actually going to talks and sitting down listening to music. Fancy that.


Perhaps most of all, time with family and friends- I laughed so much at times that I ached. Several of the kids of my long time friends were there too- Sam, Caleb, Sarah, Nathan, Gail and Andrew- it was such a privilege to spend time with such great young people (not to mention my own kids!)  It was great also to meet up again with a growing network of creative folk from around the UK, many of whom are involved with ‘Tautoko’.

The meet up in Gloucester Cathedral was great- we managed to get down in time this year.

As for music- The Unthanks and Martin Joseph on mainstage were both really great. Billy Bragg was at his polemical best.

Gungor redefined worship music with intelligence and musicality.

In terms of speakers, I began slightly skeptical of the celebrity headliners- but Brian McLaren inspired me, and made me cry. He also sat down and spent half an hour speaking to one of our young people, Sarah. If you were to download just one talk from GB this year- go for this one. I also enjoyed hearing a couple of my longer term heros speak- Christian social worker/activist Bob Holman and Psychologist Oliver James.

This year I even saw some comedy- not usually something I bother with- Jo Enright was hilarious, and Mark Thomas (swearing like a Gatling gun) managed a two hour romp about his walk around the Palestinian wall.

Michaela has always rather tolerated Greenbelt through gritted teeth- it has always been much more my thing. She goes because it is important to me, and has other practical benefits. However, this year seems to have been a real change for her- she too had a great time. Michaela is happy when she has made connections, and this year she had some quality time with lots of friends too- including Yvonne Lyon (copies of whose new album sold out almost immediately on the strength of another lovely tender performance, despite a bad cold.)

Finally, one other performer deserves a mention- Sam Hill. Sam used to go to the same church as us near Preston, and despite all the music I have seen performed, I reckon that one of his gigs was the best I ever saw live. He is a hugely talented songwriter and performer. Our mate Andy played backing guitar for him at his last GB performance 9 years ago, since when he has hardly performed. Now he is back!

There was probably so much more that I have not immediately remembered, but that is festivals for you…

I took very few photos this year- I was relying on Andy ‘5 cameras’ Prosser. Here are a few however, mostly from Michaela’s camera.

In which I find myself reacting against positive thinking…

…there is no kind of problem or obstacle for which positive thinking or a positive attitude has not been proposed as a cure. Having trouble finding a mate? Nothing is more attractive to potential suitors than a positive attitude, or more repellent than a negative one. Need money? Wealth is one of the principal goals of positive thinking. There are hundreds of self-help books expounding on how positive thinking can “attract” money – a method supposedly so reliable that you are encouraged to begin spending it now. Practical problems such as low wages and unemployment are mentioned only as potential “excuses”. The real obstacle lies in your mind.

I read this today in an article in the weekend Guardian by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of a new book entitled ‘Smile or die, how positive thinking fooled America and the world‘, and ‘Bright Sided, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America ‘. I have read neither books, but they appear to be part of an increasingly vocal critique of a certain kind of ‘positive-speak’ found in so much self-help material, life coaching and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT.)

Positive-thinking is a dominant idea that has spread far beyond pyramid selling schemes or Oprah-like self help. It has persisted in cancer treatment, despite contrary research and is force fed to employees at almost every team meeting. It has also found it’s way into our churches, and mingled with fundamentalism to create a kind of unassailable world view that pushes up more than one mega church.

It is something I have been thinking about recently- for several reasons. Firstly, I have practised as a CBT therapist, and so know a lot about the strengths and limitations of ‘positivity’. CBT has a strong wind behind it at the moment in almost every sphere of human activity. In my field (psychiatry) it has more or less replaced all other forms of talking treatments.

However the second reason for my interest and pre-occupation comes from my own introspection. Like most people who are of a sensitive, somewhat artistic, creative bent, I can be somewhat mercurial. More than this, it could perhaps be said that I tend towards the melancholic. It is who I am. At times, I struggle with the consequences of this, but after many years of counselling (on both sides of the ‘couch’,) I know myself well enough to understand where this comes from, and to understand something of the strengths and weaknesses that I am skewed towards. It is the engine for much that is good, including my creativity, and ability to see the need in others.

Along the way, I have met many people who have set themselves on a determined path of self advancement and fulfilment- often fuelled by charismatic and inspirational speaking from other shiny high achievers who exhort you to step forward into a brighter more fulfilled future, just like they did. Some of them may even have achieved this- although this often seems to require quasi-religious self delusion. Many others feel guilty and worthless because they fall short of these plastic-fantastic ideals.

What is the harm in encouraging people to think beyond their limitations and reach out for something better- more hopeful, more vitalising and fulfilling? There is good here I think…

But still, what I find myself asking, is whether the dominance of positivity can also have a negative impact on our society?

I have always felt curiously ill at ease with faced with it- recognising other people’s apparent certainty in the benefit of positive outlooks and attitudes, whilst always wanting to add a big ‘BUT….’

Others are not so reticent in their willingness to critique this dominant world view. Perhaps this is in part a political/economic critique- this from another Guardian article, entitled ‘Welcome to the bright new world of positive living’-

In an economy overseen by optimists, house prices would always go up, stock markets would never crash. Positive thinking became not just the language of the mainstream but, on both sides of the Atlantic, political dogma and economic principle too. An ideology that originated in America has fanned out across the English-speaking world, and from there to everywhere else, hand-in-hand with the doctrine of free-market economics.

It’s globalisation by any other name, according to Eric Wilson, a professor of English, who wrote a book called Against Happiness . “The self-help movement has attempted to commodify experience,” he tells me. “It’s intimately tied into capitalism. Buy this package and, almost like a technology, it will move you forward with the goal of a trouble-free life.”

The article also quotes Oliver James, psychoanalyst and author of books such as ‘Affluenza‘.

“It’s snake oil,” he says, “and I explicitly reject it. Positive psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy and the idea that anybody can be anyone are American ideas involving what’s basically a sort of magical thinking. The purest example is The Secret, which is a disgraceful book. It’s just wicked really. It doesn’t have any kind of basis whatsoever. It says: if you want something you just have to wish for it, like my four-year-old does. It’s a kind of psychology for toddlers.”

For James, the push towards positive thinking has been bound up in a certain kind of economic world view, characterised by this kind of way of living-

The quasi-religious dominance of positivity has perhaps become a distraction or worse a justification of this way of living, that borrows selectively from world religions-particularly Buddhism and Christianity- to make a new heresy that simply fits better in a fast moving corporate world.

But moving away from Macro economic forces and back to the individual level- how about those folk whose lives appear to have been genuinely transformed by the power of positive thinking?

Good luck to you I say. May your life be blessed, in order that you in turn my bless others. I would also caution these people by suggesting that not everyone is like them. Not everyone will benefit from being squeezed into their narrow mindset, which to others can easily become an oppressive mental straight jacket.

There is suffering in this world.

And pain.

And sickness.

And imperfection.

And failure.

And brokenness.

And weakness.

And depression.

And periods when nothing seems to make sense.

And finally, there  is death.

(But in the middle of all of this- there is Grace.)

I would contend that these things define our humanity. They are not things to be suppressed and denied as invalid or minor irritants. They might be things to embrace, to acknowledge or to allow to shape a different form of transformation- one based not on achievement or success, but rather based on a counter cultural world view given to us by Jesus in Matthew chapter 5. Where the weak and poor find blessing, and the first are last and the last first.

And strength is made perfect- in weakness.

There is in me, I have to acknowledge, a skew towards the poor and weak. I think this is most congruent with trying to live in the way of Jesus. I think he told us to focus on the needs we see in others all around us- and he certainly did not promise a trouble free life. But in all this, I acknowledge that we continue to hope for transformation, and healing. We need to inspire hope in those around us  for something new, and better.

But the measure of this ‘better thing’ is too often seen in a kind of ‘success’ that turns my stomach. It is far too much about ‘me’ and tends to make a commodity out of ‘you’.

Perhaps too often, it brings me to this!