GHOSTS IN THE NURSERY: (PART THREE) IDENTIFICATION WITH THE AGGRESSOR

GHOSTS IN THE NURSERY:

IDENTIFICATION WITH THE AGGRESSOR

 

The image of ghosts in the nursery has become a metaphor of unsurpassed power since Selma Fraiberg coined it nearly 30 years ago to describe the parents’ excruciating enactment with their small child of scenes from the parents’ own unremembered, but still painfully influential, early experiences of helplessness and fear (Fraiberg et al., 1975). The ghosts, representing the repetition of the past in the present, acquire corporeal form through punitive or neglectful caregiving practices. The parent fails to recognize the meaning of the child’s signals of need, either ignoring or misconstruing them as evidence of the child’s inherent badness and respond- ing with anger and rejection. In these instances, the immediacy of the parent’s visceral reaction takes precedence over the baby’s developmental needs. As the recipient of the parent’s negative attributions, the child progressively internalizes a sense of self as unworthy and undeserving of love that can derail the course of healthy development (Bowlby, 1980; Lieberman, 1997, 2000; Silverman & Lieberman, 1999).

In her seminal work with mental health disorders in infancy, Fraiberg (1980) attributed the havoc caused by the ghosts of the parental past not to the actual events but to the repression of the affects associated with terrifying early memories. She viewed repression and isolation of affect as providing “motive and energy” for the enactment of punitive care giving patterns that represent “identification with the betrayers and the aggressors” (pp. 134 – 135). When enacted between parent and child, identification with the aggressor is formed to protect the vulnerable ego from external attack by acquiring the feared characteristics of the attacker (A. Freud, 1936/1966; Pynoos, 1997). The abused becomes the abuser because perpetrating pain is used as a protection against feeling it.

While providing the basis for influential clinical interventions, this theoretical model leaves unaddressed the question of why many parents do not repeat with their children the patterns of abuse and neglect they were subjected to while growing up. As expressed by Fraiberg (1980), the “unresolved mystery is why, under conditions of extremity, in early childhood, some chil- dren . . . do not make the fateful alliance with the aggressor” (p. 135). In the quarter century since she posed this question, the challenge of pinpointing how individual differences account for the vast variety of responses to similarly traumatic circumstances remains a lively area of exploration. In our clinical work with children and their parents traumatized by exposure to various forms of interpersonal violence, we have observed a broad range of parental response, from anger at the traumatized child to an exquisite attunement to the child’s suffering and determination to restore the child’s emotional health. A similar range of parental responses has been reported in nonclinical settings where the plight of traumatized children is brought to the attention of the authorities such as law enforcement (Osofsky, Hammer, Freeman, & Rovaris, 2004), the child protective system (Smyke, Wajda-Johnson, & Zeanah, 2004), and the courts (Osofsky & Lederman, 2004; Van Horn & Hitchens, 2004).

Parental anger at the child in need can often be understood in light of the “ghosts in the nursery” model. But what are the influences on parents who, despite their own childhood traumas, protect their child from a repetition of the past? We hypothesized that if we were able to identify these influences, we might be able to incorporate them into the repertoire of therapeutic techniques that enable maltreating parents to find empathy with their children’s vulnerability and to discover their crucial role as the child’s protectors.

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