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James, O. (2014). Emotional Child Abuse Has to Be Banned—The Science Backs up Our Instincts. Att: New Dir. in Psychother. Relat. Psychoanal., 8(2):vii-x.

(2014). Attachment: New Directions in Psychotherapy and Relational Psychoanalysis, 8(2):vii-x


Emotional Child Abuse Has to Be Banned—The Science Backs up Our Instincts

Oliver James

We cannot be blamed for feeling sceptical when this government talks of criminalising emotional abuse—parental harshness, hostility, and lack of love. These are the Uber-Thatcherites who talk up the “Big Society” but blame the individual. A wheeze for dumping their failure to support parents back on to them would be no surprise.

However, in proposing to make emotional abuse a crime, I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Many estimable campaigning groups, like Action for Children, have advocated such legislation.

The case for it comes from the nature as well as the nurture side of the debate. In a remarkably frank admission in a February edition of The Guardian newspaper this year, Robert Plomin, the country's leading genetic psychologist, admitted of the Human Genome Project's quest for genes for psychological traits of all kinds that “I've been looking for these genes for 15 years and I don't have any” (Wilby, 2014). It is an accepted fact that the latest evidence shows that specific genes, or groups thereof, explain only tiny amounts of variance (1%) for any psychological traits (psychopathology, personality, cognition). The implication of this finding was summarised in the heading of an editorial in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry: “It's the environment, stupid!” (Sonuga-Barke, 2010).

On the other side of the equation, the evidence for the role of maltreatment in causing emotional distress, in general (James, 2005), and emotional abuse in particular, has become overwhelming. Tellingly, this applies as much to the extreme of psychosis (Read & Dillon, 2013), as to the commoner problems, like depression and anxiety.

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