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Woods, J. (2016). The making of an abuser. J. Child Psychother., 42(3):318-327.

(2016). Journal of Child Psychotherapy, 42(3):318-327

The making of an abuser

John Woods

This paper investigates how it is that a child has become an abuser, and by what means that process may be deconstructed. We know that abusers generally have a childhood history of abuse, though not necessarily sexual. Since not all children who have been traumatised repeat those patterns, and inflict abuse on others, then something must have happened for these particular children in response to their abuse. The author elaborates the view that there is no such thing, to paraphrase Winnicott, as ‘an abused child’ – no such child, that is, separate from the world of the relationships that formed him. He draws on the conceptualisation by Bentovim of an interlocking set of roles described as a ‘trauma organised system’; this notion reflects the fact that the child is a product not just of his specifically traumatic experiences but of a milieu in which power and control is exerted by someone who has typically succeeded in neutralising any caring function in a family in order to bring about the exploitation of a child. Clinical material is presented from the intensive psychotherapy of a nine-year-old boy, who happened also to be a refugee, for whom abusive family dynamics dominated his internal world. He was found to have identified with the abuser, his own father, in order to escape the pain of his victim self and was threatening to act this out in the treatment, making the therapist into a victim. Management of the treatment setting by the inclusion of a benign parental figure enabled the acting out to be contained. Symbolisation of the child’s inner conflicts became possible through play. As the abuser self was contained so the child’s victim experiences could be processed. The conclusion is drawn that engaging therapeutically with the residues of trauma from the beginning of treatment is essential in working with young people who have abused.

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