Home / Archive by category "Abuse"

Posts exploring the challenges that face our society in understanding and tackling abuse.

When we fail to be shocked

When we fail to be shocked

Omran DaqneeshIn August, I wrote a piece urging us not to buy into the language of ‘shock’ when it is used to describe images of children caught up in war.  I was trying to help us fight the dangerous pull of sentimentality, when our human emotions easily cloud our ability to look upon harsh realities.

What do we think war looks like, I asked?  Of course it looks like children dazed and covered in blood.  There is nothing shocking about that image of Omran Daqneesh.  He is a child caught up in terrible war.  Yes, the image is haunting, awful, gut-wrenching.  But it is not shocking.  It is depressingly predictable.

Haiti devastationMy theme was picked up by blogger Tim Dunwoody, writing about the devastation that has occurred in Haiti as a result of Hurricane Matthew.  He asked why the images were being described as ‘shocking’, given that Haiti is the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere.  He wondered whether those of us who don’t live in abject poverty subconsciously protect ourselves from acknowledging its reality by telling ourselves, in times of disaster, that we are shocked by what we see.  He challenges us to be real: “If we are honest with ourselves, surely we know that natural disasters always hit the poor the worst.  Do the images from Haiti really shock us?”

I found myself returning to this theme once again as I looked at another of the week’s news images.  This time, though, I wondered why we were not using the language of ‘shock’.

The answer is that we were, instead, using the language of ‘cute’.   Our laughter at all the cuteness kept us from seeing the possibility of a harsher reality: a child being objectified.

Trump holding up baby

On 10th October, US presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted one of his largest rallies yet.  Nearly 10,000 people gathered in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania to hear him speak with anger and vitriol about the current state of America and its leaders.  Approximately 45 minutes into the speech, he spotted a child dressed up to look just like him.  Lots of people had donned costumes for that rally, and the parents of this two-year-old toddler had joined in, dressing him up as a mini-Trump, complete with dark suit, red tie, voting badge and a full head of similarly combed-over hair.

When Donald spotted the child, sitting high on a set of shoulders in the crowd, he invited his security guards to bring him up onto stage.  The rapturous crowd loved it.

Crowd at Trump rally

“What’s your name?” Donald asked.

The child responded with one of the abilities common to all young children learning to talk.  He repeated the last word he heard: “Name!”  Some of the papers explicitly noted that repetitive pattern in their coverage of the story.

“Are you having a good time tonight?”


“Where’s your daddy, and your mommy?  Do you want to go back to them, or do you want to stay with Donald Trump?”


The roar of approval was deafening.  You can hear that “beautiful moment” for yourself here:

It wasn’t just the crowds who loved it.  So did the media.  ABC News declared that ‘Mini-Trump Steals the Show.”  The Toronto Sun said ‘Mini-Trump upstaged Donald Trump’.  The Daily Mail charmingly called him the ‘Doppelganger Baby’.

So what’s wrong with any of that, you might ask?  It was funny.  The kid was cute.  Nobody got hurt.  The child didn’t even cry.  If you look closely, he was smiling.  His parents were there the whole time.  What is the problem?

My problem is that our collective response was to laugh indulgently as an angry demagogue used a child for his own political purposes.

It’s not surprising.  In fact, it’s a common strategy amongst demagogues.  When they smile at children, they seem more likable.  When they get us to laugh with them, we remember ourselves as having had a good time.

Stalin & Hitler propaganda posters

And if we’re having a good time, we’re more likely to overlook the ways in which a person is being used to manipulate us.  That person (in this case, a small person) has been objectified, used as a pawn in a bigger game.

We have become pawns too.  Donald played us all brilliantly: the crowd, the newspaper editors, those of us who looked at that photo and smiled.

Let me be very clear: I’m not particularly criticising him.  He was doing what all politicians do: kiss babies.  (The Atlantic published a lovely little piece in 2011 on why this “clichéd propaganda” works so effectively.) Donald was also doing what we might expect of a politically ambitious bully under severe threat:  he was seizing an opportunity to shift the public mood.  Three days previously, most folks around the world had been outraged by the way he had objectified women.  He vaporised some of that anger instantly by getting himself photographed being sweet to a cute kid.  It’s a brilliant strategy.

Politicians & babies

I am not in any way reproaching the child’s parents, either.  Loads of parents involve their children in political struggles, using their very youth as part of the political point being made.  The follow-up interviews (and even the pre-interviews) with Hunter Tirpak’s mother made clear that, as a strong Trump supporter, her aim was to bring positivity to a negative campaign.  She is absolutely free to dress her child up as Baby Trump if she wants.

Nuclear & abortion rallies

Rather, my critique is focused on us, the public.  Why were we so easily entranced?  Why did the language of ‘shock’ not appear in any of the papers?  Why was this story dripping in froth and fluff, rather than scrutiny?


One answer is that Donald has offered us so many shocking moments during this campaign that we’ve become a bit inured to his antics.  And this moment did come just after the meltdown created by his comments about grabbing women by the pussy.  It is understandable that, in the face of such blatant objectification, we might miss the more subtle objectification involved in holding up a smiling child for public viewing.

So if you didn’t spot this interpretation, don’t feel bad.  Nobody else did either, as far as I can tell.  Donald is a very talented showman.  He’s better even than Derren Brown.

And if you disagree (perhaps vehemently) with my reading of Donald’s performance, that’s okay too.  Debate on the objectification of children would be terrific.  It would let us address my earlier question: “What’s wrong with any of this?”

Headline - long

What’s wrong is that objectification is the first step on the journey to exploitation, xenophobia and abuse.  When we are astute enough to spot objectification, we stand a better chance of preventing things from getting worse.

One other event occurred in the British media this week that highlights how ‘worse’ it can get.  Louis Theroux produced a courageous television documentary exploring how he had failed to spot the sinister depths of his predatory friend, Jimmy Saville.  What signs had he overlooked 15 years ago?

The programme made for unsettling viewing – but not because we were watching a man trying to make sense of his own guilt and gullibility.  It was unsettling because Theroux was compelling viewers to ask themselves what they too had missed, as they laughed along with Saville, during all the scenes of smiling children.  He was trying to help a nation not to get lost in a cloud of guilt and shame, but to have the strength and curiosity to ask:  what signs did we miss?

Jimmy SavilleWell, objectification is a pretty good sign.

The creepy, crazy thing about objectification is that it doesn’t have to feel bad.  It can easily feel like entertainment.

Come to think of it, maybe objectification is at its most powerful when it comes wrapped in sentimentality.  Who could possibly question laughing at innocent cuteness?



The compassion challenge posed by Jo Cox’s death

The compassion challenge posed by Jo Cox’s death

The killing of MP Jo Cox has profoundly shocked the UK.  The country has been plunged into mourning, heightened by the dedicated way she lived her values of compassion, humanitarianism, equality and public duty.

A number of deeply thoughtful articles appeared over the days after her death, situating this devastating tragedy within the dark political mood that has descended on Britain as a result of the divisive tone of the EU Referendum.  Joan Smith said:  “It should be blindingly obvious that an atmosphere rank with misanthropy, distrust and the worst kind of populism risks dehumanising decent people.”  Jonathan Freedland put it this way:  “If you inject enough poison into the political bloodstream, somebody will get sick.”

Jo Cox stood against division and poison.  Her playful, cheeky style allowed her to fight determinedly for a fairer, more just and peaceful world.

Over the same few days, the media also brought us insights about the man arrested for her murder, Thomas Mair.

So here is the very difficult challenge that Jo Cox’s death presents us with.   How do we extend the compassion for which we are esteeming her…to the man accused of killing her?

This is a profoundly uncomfortable question for most of us to contemplate.  Some readers may feel that is demeaning to Jo Cox’s memory that it is even being asked.  We are in shock from this utterly senseless loss.  How can it be respectful to offer compassion to the man accused of killing her?  Is he not, instead, deserving of condemnation?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Jun2016-JoCox2This is the dilemma that we face in celebrating Jo Cox’s life.  The bitter backbone of a philosophy of compassion is that we do not get to offer it only to the people we like.  This philosophy says it has to be offered to everyone, including people who commit actions we hate.  I understand it can feel crazy to contemplate that a person who may have caused such needless  grief — to two young children, a loving husband and a whole country – should be deserving of compassion.  Yet that is what Jo Cox’s life calls us to consider.

One of the reasons it is difficult to hear that people associated with hateful acts deserve compassion is that blame makes it easier for us to cope with our distress.  It gives us somewhere to focus our grief and anger and loss.  It makes us feel better to castigate and revile.  Such sentiments make it feel like we have solved the problem.  We know who to condemn.

Condemnation takes energy.  The energy makes it feel like we have taken action.  But our action hasn’t actually solved any problem. We have just made ourselves feel better.

When we turn to blame and shame and hate, we solve nothing.  If we want to fight violence, we have to look beyond our immediate feelings of distress.  Jo Cox knew that.

I am not negating what happened.  I am not condoning violence.  What I am saying is that it is in our gift to ourselves to choose whether we let another person’s actions drive us to more hatred.  Adam Bienkov put the same sentiments this way, in his own piece this week: “We all have choices.  Our politicians and our press…can choose to help the vulnerable, inform the public and calm fears.  Or they can choose the opposite.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Jun2016-JoCox3The only effective solution to violence lies in fighting disconnection.  It has not yet been proven that Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox.  That remains to be seen through a legal process.  Many people have read information about him already in the press, though, and the summary of that content is that he is a man who has  suffered disconnection in his life.

The press stories have documented a long history of mental health difficulties.  One of the ways he is reported to have coped with with these was through volunteering.  For some period of time, he even attended a day centre, from which he said he gained considerable support.  He is described as having lived alone for the past 20 years, following the death of his grandmother, continuing to live in the house he had shared with her since he was a child.  He has not, seemingly, had a partner for years, having once had a girlfriend, but, as his brother reported, “his mate took her off him and he said he didn’t want another one.” Some of his neighbours describe him as “a bit of a loner”, even though he regularly did the shopping for his mother.  And it is striking that while few individuals interviewed have described him as unfriendly or violent, neither were any of them apparently ever invited into his house.  Overall, a picture emerges of Thomas Mair living with a fair bit of disconnection and loss.

I know that some readers might end up thinking, if he were proved to have killed her, “Such things have happened to me and I haven’t resorted to violence.  Plus, he’s had help with his mental health difficulties.  So that’s no excuse.”

I am not trying to excuse violence.  Compassion doesn’t mean excusing actions.  It means not condemning the humanity of the person who committed them.

What I am trying to do is think about what causes violence.  I am trying to be curious about what attracts any person to neo-Nazi political parties.  I am trying to imagine what motivates any apparently mild-mannered person to extreme action.  I am trying to ask myself what physiological state any person has to be in to decide to resort to violence.  It is only curiosity about what causes hatred that gives us any chance of preventing it.

All the science that we have tells us that disconnection and trauma make people emotionally vulnerable.  It undermines their ability to regulate their own behaviour.  It makes them more subject to emotional swings and mental illness.  It makes them less resilient.  Emotional connection and resilience are essential for human well-being.

Whatever the court finds in regard to Thomas Mair’s guilt, it is sobering to realise that he has himself spoken to the theme of disconnection.  In 2010, he was interviewed by his local paper and had this to say about why he volunteered:

“I can honestly say it has done me more good than all the psychotherapy and medication in the world.  Many people who suffer from mental illness are socially isolated and disconnected from society.  All these problems are alleviated by doing voluntary work.”

It sounds very promising.  But 2010 is six years ago.  That’s a long time in anyone’s life.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 18.32.58Why am I reflecting on such details?  They matter because our society does not take emotional suffering seriously enoughOne in 10 children in the UK now have a diagnosable mental health problem.  That’s not a hidden statistic.  It was quoted in the press this week, in a story about parenting support.  The Royal College of Nursing called this week for more attention to be given the “crisis” in children’s mental health.  The Duke of Cambridge gave a Father’s Day interview to the Sunday Express, concentrating in particular on the importance of children’s mental health.  Yet no one seems, as yet, to have wondered about Thomas Mair’s mental health as a child.

We really do not take mental health seriously.  Even the Sunday Express, not known for its liberal leanings, said (pg 29, 19th June) that it would be a fitting tribute to Jo Cox’s life if mental health cuts were “reversed as soon as is possible”. But we have watched the opposite happening in this era of budget cuts. Durham have closed 12 of their 17 adult day centres this year, in a bid to save £1.5million. York’s only public adult mental health hospital closed in October 2015, with only five days’ warning, and with no replacement of the beds it contained.  Six weeks ago, South Lanarkshire announced the closure of an award-winning centre, which service users deemed a “life-life”, in a bid to save £150,000.  Yet who was it that was helping Thomas Mair to feel connected and engaged in 2010, when he gave his interview?  His local mental health support centre.

Thomas Mair was known to his neighbours and family members as a polite, reserved, non-aggressive man.  They have clearly been shocked.  This tells us that emotional disconnection is not always apparent from the outside.  We can’t know what story, what emotional burdens, what physiological vulnerabilities another person is carrying inside.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Jun2016-JoCox5What we do know, both from the science and from our own human experience, is that trauma begets trauma.  Disconnection begets disconnection.  Hatred begets hatred.  When we do not take seriously the human need for connection and respect, we bring about suffering that can rebound on us.  Jonathan Freedland extends that point to our whole society, in his piece tracing the impact of rancorous UK politics over the last few weeks:

“The veil that separates civilisation from mayhem is thin.  The tragedy is that it took the death of a devoted, admired and adored woman to teach us that lesson.”

The papers and social media have been filled during the past few days with reflections on the grief that Jo Cox’s two young children will face.  The reality that “they will never again feel their mum’s hug” stares us starkly in the face.

Yet, there are children all over the country who face a similar kind of grief:  children taken into care.  We rarely give deep thought to their pain – an oversight that was highlighted at last week’s National Youth Justice Conference. We adults may know that we have removed them from their parents’ care because it was deemed to be in their best interest.  This does not assuage their grief, though.  In fact, the disconnection creates deep emotional conflict and physiological scars for most of them.  So many live with the feeling that their parents did not/could not/would not love them enough to keep hugs reliably available.  And our care system is set up so that, having formed a bond with a foster carer, too many children are moved on to another placement, never ever again to see that person whom they had come to trust.  No one intends it, but our foster system creates bereavement.  It is easy to see why children living in that system so often unconsciously decide it is safer not to ever trust again.  It is safer to disconnect.

Our prisons are full of people who were once, or still are, traumatised children.  In England, one third of boys in custody are in care. This compares to the wider population in which only 1% of English children are in care.  Guess what the rate is for girls in custody?  Two-thirds.  Let me repeat that.  Two-thirds of girls in custody in England are emotionally traumatised.

Figures relevant to Scotland include facts such as: a disproportionately high number of people in prison come from a background of poverty. Their health is markedly worse than the general population, with key health problems including alcohol, drug use, heart disease and sexual health.  All of these factors have been linked to emotional trauma in childhood in the now famous study of Adverse Childhood Experiences.  Yet we still do not apply the seminal insights of this study in public policy or cultural attitudes.

By and large, our country does not mourn for traumatised children, even when they experience the same kind of loss as Jo Cox’s children have this week.  We think of bereavement from an adult perspective, not through the lens of the child.  Indeed, some children in care may never have been lucky enough to ever have experienced a hug from their mum.  Prison can turn out to be the safest place they have ever known.  Yet still it is common to think that harsh condemnation is a justified component of imprisonment.  The 2014 proposal to ban books from UK prisoners is a good example of such inhumanity.  The announcement this week that staff shortages in prison have led to a dramatic increase in the use of force and solitary confinement for children as young as 10 is another regrettably good example.

So what’s the best tribute we can now pay to Jo Cox?  Answer:  To walk in her path.  To look hate and disconnection in the eye and then fight like hell against it.  To refuse to let our grief fool us into thinking, in the coming weeks, that railing against Thomas Mair will offer any solution.  It is wiser, smarter, cheaper, and kinder to use our grief to prevent future violence from hurting more families.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Jun2016-JoCox6We are caught up just now in esteeming Jo Cox’s bright light.  She has been called by one politican (Jack Dromey) a “champion of all that is best in Britain.” If we really want to honour her, then we need to emulate her mindset.  Ironically, that means extending the humanity she preached to the man accused of killing her.  To do anything else is hypocritical.

In her maiden speech to Parliament, made only last year, Jo gave us such guidance herself.  “We have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”  It is our common humanity that binds us to the man who killed Jo Cox.  James McEnaney said the same uncomfortable thing last week, writing about the humanity of the man who shot dead 49 people in Orlando, Florida.  We gain nothing useful if we turn killers into evil monsters.

If we find ourselves wondering whether Jo Cox would really have agreed that her compassionate stance should be stretched this far, then we have only to turn to the statement offered by her husband, hours after her death.

“Jo would have wanted us all to unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion.  It is poisonous.”

Brendan Cox has asked us to unite against hate itself, not against the person who killed his wife. Brendan Cox is calling for compassion.  If her heart-broken husband can find the strength to walk in Jo’s footsteps, then so can we.  It’s a choice each of us faces.


A fund has been set up in Jo Cox’s honour, which has, at the time of writing, raised £950,000 to support three key causes she worked for: helping Syrian families; fighting extremism and hate; and combatting loneliness.  You can donate to the fund through this GoFundMe page:  https://www.gofundme.com/jocox

How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

Donald Trump has done it. He’s won the Republican nomination, having convinced enough Americans that he has the qualities needed to be a Presidential candidate. The rest of the world is looking on with disbelief, confusion, terror and derision.

Many commentators are firmly of the view that, given the statistics, Trump has no chance of actually being elected Presidentcome November 2016. But in many ways, that’s irrelevant now. Trump has already changed America. He has unleashed extremity, humiliation, suspicion and blame. He has done that with a personal style that is abrasive, rude, narcissistic, belligerent, untruthful and ludicrous. Yet he has drawn support from across the USA.

How can that be explained?

Some analysts have put his appeal down to the economic struggles facing many AmericansOthers have attributed it to educational divides. Statistician Nate Silver has highlighted Trump’s ability to manipulate the media. Journalists for the magazine The Week ascribe his success, alternatively, to conservative Republicans’ willingness to abandon traditional norms of governing and also to liberal Democrats’ intolerance of views that they find objectionableThe commentator Steven Poole even jokingly (or maybe not jokingly?) put it down to linguistics: Trump loves to punctuate his dazzlingly vague speeches with the thrillingly seductive morpheme ‘so’. “Together”, he says, “we are going to win so much and you are going to be so happy.” Presumably his supporters are so so happy now.

I want to add another explanation to this mix. Attachment theory can go a long way toward helping us make sense of Trump’s popularity.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump2I think we will need such an analysis in the coming months and years – regardless of whether or not Trump wins the election. The American political system is in meltdown. So are other political systems. The UK will shortly hold a referendum on withdrawing from the European Union. The outcome of that could well prompt a second Scottish referendum on separating from the UK. The refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe is prompting the return of very real, razor-wire boundaries between countries. Political distrust holds consequences that matter for the whole of our globe. Political distrust is driven by fear. And that’s what’s driving Trump’s success. Fear.

So what is attachment theory? It’s an explanation of why humans (and all other mammals) seek out a sense of safety. Attachment theory helps us realise that this search is a biological drive. We humans have a physiological need to feel safe – not simply to be safe, but to feel safe. Our brains don’t believe we are safe until we feel safe.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump3Attachment theory first emerged in the 1950s, led by paediatrician and psychologist John Bowlby. Since then, the core tenets of attachment theory have been repeatedly affirmed. Particularly helpful has been the development of technologies that allow neuroscientists to track brain development. This new evidence confirms what Bowlby and his colleagues suspected: early life leaves a long legacy. Our experiences as babies and toddlers lay down neural pathways in our brains that determine how safe versus how risky the world seems. Those pathways are obstinately robust.

Thus, fear starts early in life. If the environment often feels scary to you as a baby, then it’s very likely to feel scary to you as an adult. That continuation happens because your brain and body became wired with enough fear sensors to keep you trapped within the physiological emotional framework your brain set up as an infant. Your brain sees no reason to question that framework. Why question reality?

How, then, does attachment theory help to explain Trump’s success?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump4The answer lies in appreciating the extent to which fear is driving Trump supporters. Last September, a political scientist named Matthew McWilliams gathered some striking data while completing his PhD. His findings are drawing considerable attention across social media. He found that the factor most predictive of support for Trump is authoritarianism. The surprise was that this factor cuts across conventional demographic boundaries: education, income, religiosity, age, class, region. McWilliams argues that what binds such diversity together is authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is a type of personality profile. It characterises someone who has a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. Authoritarians look for a strong leader who promises to take action to combat the threats they fear.

In short, authoritarians are seeking a sense of safety. Their political choices are driven by an attachment need. Trump makes his supporters feel safe.

That’s why Trump supporters can hold views that can sound scarily extreme to others.  Muslims should be banned. Mexico should pay to build a wall. Gays and lesbians should be prevented from marrying. In fact, let’s ban them from the country too! And while we’re at it, why not critique Abraham Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves?

McWilliams’ data are compelling because they have proven so predictive. He has conducted several large polls, and the factor that keeps coming up as most predictive of Trump support is authoritarianism. Here, for example, is the graph showing his data from the South Carolina primary. The higher a person’s score on the Authoritarian Scale, the more likely they said they were to vote for Trump. The slope of that line is so steady it’s unnerving. Little wonder, then, that Trump has won 26 primaries so farThat’s half the states in the USA.


McWilliams isn’t the only one to have highlighted the importance of authoritarianism. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler reached similar conclusions in their 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarisation in American Politics. They argued that the Republicans, as the self-proclaimed party of law and order and traditional values, would inevitably prove attractive to large numbers of Americans with authoritarian tendencies. They just hadn’t predicted it would happen as quickly as 2016. But what’s happening completely fits their predicition: “Trump embodies the classic authoritarianism leadership style: simple, powerful and punitive.”

How is authoritarianism measured? It’s astoundingly simple. You just ask four straightforward questions:

  1. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

These four questions were devised by political scientist Stanley Feldman in the 1990s. The responses that emphasise behaviour, as opposed to internal qualities, are associated with authoritarianism. Feldman’s studies showed that these four questions turned out to be so reliable in assessing authoritarian tendencies that they now form the field’s ‘industry standard’ and are regularly incorporated into all sorts of political surveys.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump6It was, though, earlier research that had provided the platform for Feldman’s thinking. Psychologist Diana Baumrind carried out ground-breaking work in the 1960s that identified three main parenting styles in America. Her findings have stood the test of time.

  • Authoritarian parents tend to be rigid and controlling, focusing on external behaviour rather than internal experience. They expect a lot from their children, but without offering warmth or being responsive to their emotional needs. Children are expected to do as they are told, without questioning. The data showed that children raised in environments where they have such little control over their own lives tend to be unsure of themselves, don’t trust easily and have difficulty completing tasks. Baumrind emphasized that parents might adopt such a style due not only to their own personality but because they were trying to protect their child from a dangerous environment.
  • Permissive parents offer lots of warmth. However, they don’t set limits or impose expectations. These children often grow up impulsive and frustrated, with difficulty in adjusting their own desires to meet those of the wider society or relationship partners. It is harder for them to adapt to the restrictions of adult life.
  • Authoritative parents have high expectations of their children, like authoritarian parents. However, they also offer warmth, like permissive parents. They are responsive to their children’s emotional needs; they are flexible; they listen. Children’s internal experiences and emotional needs matter to them.   These children tend to become self-reliant and independent, with high self-esteem and respect for others. They function pretty well in the adult world.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump7While three descriptive categories absolutely do not explain the whole of a person’s character, Baumrind’s account provides a starting point for making sense of adult behaviour that can, at first, seem bewildering. It helps us to see how a parent’s style of relating to their child intersects with that child’s attachment needs, resulting in a mindset for the child as to how risky or safe the world is.

Except its more than a ‘mind’-set. It is actually a biological orientation to the world. It is a reflection of the child’s early emotional experiences, which may bear absolutely no relation to the present, but which is now woven into their very physiology. Their brain is stuck in the past, filtering the way they perceive and react to the present.

What’s really sobering is that Baumrind’s research with the children started when they were 3-year-olds. Children were already of an age that “rendered them unlikely to alter their genuine, instinctive reactions.” That sounds unbelievably early to most people who are new to the science of the early years. Yet, the age of 3 years is commonly identified by neuroscientists and by attachment theorists as marking a shift in children’s developmental trajectories.

This all explains why it does not matter to Trump’s supporters whether he grasps international affairs, diplomacy or honesty. What matters is that he makes them feel safe.

And guess what? That’s exactly the approach that Hitler took too.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump8Hitler made Germans of the 1930s feel safe. No, not all of them. Far from all of them. Many resisted his vision, including his fellow politicians. But Hitler made enough of his citizens feel safe. His message resonated with enough Germans to to allow the Nazi Party to prosper.

The problem wasn’t Hitler. The problem was support for Hitler.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump9I hope that, at this point, you might have taken a deep breath. It is very clear that I have just compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I am not, of course, the first to do that. The Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, has done so, as has Holocaust survivor Zeev Hod. Commentator Adam Brown carried out a detailed policy analysis of that comparison in October 2015, and the Philadelphia Daily News made the same comparison on the front page of their paper in December 2015. The historians Robert Paxton and Fedja Buric have taken such uncomfortable debates to a new level by seriously discussing whether a comparison to the fascist Mussolini might be more accurate. The NY Daily News chucked Stalin into the mix.

But even with such illustrious company, you might wonder if I haven’t taken things a step too far. It is not a bit far-fetched to compare Donald Trump to Hitler? Is it not just a bit too insulting or too unimaginable? Is it not according him slightly too much power – especially as he hasn’t yet been elected President and many think he hasn’t got a hope in hell of that anyway.

No, its not. Because, as I said, the problem wasn’t Hitler. And the problem isn’t Trump. The problem is support for Trump.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump10In his brilliant book Parenting for a Peaceful World, published in 2005, psychologist Robin Grille carried out a psycho-historical analysis of 1930s Germany. He traces the parenting advice popular at the end of the 19th century, just at the time when many Nazi supporters would have been young children. His review shows that the most popular childcare experts were promoting an authoritarian parenting style. They recommended ignoring and even crushing children’s emotional needs, in order to raise well-behaved, obedient adults.

It doesn’t take much to start crushing children’s capacity for connection – especially if experts are encouraging you down a harsh, unwavering path of relating. You can make a pretty good start by the age of 3. By then you’ve had a lasting impact on a child’s brain. And you don’t have to be a parent to achieve that change. Institutions charged with caring for young children, including childcare, social work, orphanages and hospitals can do a lot to damage children. It’s easy. You don’t even have to intend to. Just create policies that prevent staff from meeting children’s emotional needs, make the staff ratios so high there’s too little opportunity to meet them anyway, and be sure to humiliate, exclude and punish bad behaviour.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump11Adults who had been raised in authoritarian settings were just what Hitler and the Nazis needed — adults who would dispense with compassion in order to have safety. Adults who could feel so good about themselves in the process.

Robin Grille makes the point that such political success didn’t require all German parents of the early 20th century to follow expert authoritarian advice. He has no doubt that many German parents were highly empathic. Indeed, when comparing autobiographical accounts of Nazi sympathisers versus Nazi resisters, he is able to identify distinct differences in the way their parents treated them during childhood.

So  a country – whether that’s Germany or America or anywhere else — doesn’t need all, or even a majority, of its adult citizens to adopt an authoritarian parenting style in order to wreak widespread cultural havoc. All that’s needed is enough of them. As Robin Grille puts it (pg. 120): “Only a critical mass of harsh, authoritarian upbringing is needed to skew a nation towards dictatorship and war.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump12The articles currently circulating on the web that explore this issue tend to focus on ‘American authoritarianism’. And its certainly true that there’s plenty of that about. For example, Daniel Kolman (@kolman) recently tweeted that he was shocked to discover that 19 US states still allow corporal punishment in schools.  I have myself previously written about the book No Greater Joypopular amongst the Christian Right community in the USA, which advocates training babies’ behaviour by regularly beating them with a 12-inch piece of lawn-strimming cord. After the age of 1 year, the authors recommend upgrading to plumber’s supply line, which is thicker and which you can find at any hardware store, in a variety of colours for you to choose from. The book gets plenty of five-star ratings on Amazon.

A petition in 2011 tried (and failed) to ban Amazon from selling the book. A member of the UK Parliament tried to at least get its sale banned in the UK. But Amazon is global, isn’t it? Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries.

And that’s my real point in this piece. Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries. It isn’t present just in America. It is present in all cultures where humiliation, shame or violence is used to control children. It is present in all institutions where adults become more concerned about managing children’s behaviour than responding to their feelings. It is present in many of the homes in your community where parents are simply trying to do their best to raise their kids.

Donald Trump is dangerous NOT because he is now the Republican nominee.

Donald Trump is dangerous because he legitimises fear.

Leftover baby fears are oh so powerful, lurking in the dark of our neural pathways. That’s the point of attachment theory.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump13If you’re worried about this election, whatever country you live in, don’t fight Trump. Fight fear.

If you’re worried about world events beyond the American election, do the same thing. Fight fear.



How the Oxfordshire Serious Case Review helps us understand professionals’ repression of feelings


Earlier this week, I wrote a piece on professionals’ repression. Not repression of facts, but repression of feelings. I was exploring how well-meaning professionals can make decisions that other people find exasperating, inconceivable, inhumane.

I received a flood of responses to that piece. I was told repeatedly that I had made people cry. Good. That means that telling stories about real lives offers us a path back to our humanity.

We need that humanity. It helps us find a way through horrendous situations. A good example is the Oxfordshire Serious Case Review, which has received so much attention in the UK media this week. This is a case of seven men grooming nearly 400 girls over 16 years for sexual exploitation and brutalisation. This is also a case of professional repression.

Here’s part of one story, as told by the mother of one of those brutalized girls, interviewed on on BBC Woman’s Hour this week:

“When things started to go badly wrong, after I had adopted her and she’d been with me about a year, aged 12, I went to social services, and said I’m really concerned…my daughter clearly needs help and support. I was totally amazed. They flatly refused to even talk to me, saying that it was nothing to do with them, because she was adopted from another area…

 In the end, they said, with ill-grace, that the only thing we can do is send her to the other end of the country for an assessment. In my desperation, I agreed. Over a period of 8 months, she went to three different children’s homes…She kept going missing…At one point I was combing the streets of London looking for her.

 Things had really started going wrong when my daughter started to be excluded from school at a moment’s notice, during that year when she was 12. Before I could get to school to pick her up, she was already on the streets of Oxford, cadging cigarettes from all sorts of undesirables. By the end of Year 8, she was permanently excluded from school and had almost no education at all for the next three years.

My feelings about the police are different than for social services. Almost all of the police we dealt with when I reported her missing, sometimes 3-4 times a week, responded to us as human beings. They were concerned, empathetic. They were completely out of their depth in being able to realise what was going on, but they did try. And once the Review process was underway, the police did apologise.

[But it was different from Social Services.] Neither Social Services nor Education apologised. My daughter had a very arrogant and dismissive letter from the Director of Children’s Services after the trial. It wasn’t an apology, though….

Just before the Review Report came out, two days ago, we did receive a letter from an Assistant Director in Social Services, apologizing for their failures. That might have given us some comfort or satisfaction, if it wasn’t for the fact it was so close to the Review coming out. And the letter was a photocopy. Even the signature was a photocopy. They couldn’t even spare the time to personally sign their letters of apology.”

 Refusal to take responsibility for a child in your service area? Police who could manage empathy, but social services who couldn’t? Three children’s homes in eight months for a vulnerable child? Exclusion from school at a moment’s notice? Photocopied letters? Toleration of the knowledge that pre-teens were having sex with adults? Describing children who have been raped as ‘difficult’? I know all those actions sound cold, callous, inexcusable. That’s my point. That’s repression. Harsh indifference is exactly what repression looks like.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Repression2Fifty years ago, James and Joyce Robertson, leading attachment theorists of their day, explained professionals’ emotional distance as repression. The Robertsons began the work by focusing on nurses in children’s wards, but they extended their analysis to all staff who work with children. How could nurses think it would help children to keep parents away for days or weeks at a time? How could residential staff leave babies languishing in their cots for hours a day? To our eyes today, such actions look callous.

The talent of the Robertsons was that they made such inhumanity comprehensible.   It was, they said, a result of asking staff to deal constantly with distress – distress that they had no real way of resolving. They didn’t have enough time to hang out with each of the lonely children. They didn’t have enough arms to hug all the sad children. They didn’t have the power to stop the crying of the children. A ward full of lonely, sad, crying children is chaotic and depressing. So it was better to nip the crying in the bud from the outset, if you could.

Constant distress drains you. It corrupts your ability to feel. You get skilled at defending yourself against overwhelm. The danger is that once you are defended, you unwittingly start inflicting damage on others. Here’s how the Robertsons described the process, in their 1970 lecture:

“In the everyday handling of children…the rank and file [practitioners] develop defensive attitudes to distress and deterioration, similar to those in the higher levels of the professions, pressed upon them by work situations that deny them adequate involvement with the children.”

What if we saw social work scandals like the one in Oxfordshire as arising not from poor staff, but from poor jobs? 21ST century society asks social workers to deal with the mess that we are making of relationships. And there really is a mess. Look at the deep aversion that is being expressed about the ‘horrific events’ in Oxfordshire. When Jane Garvey, of Woman’s Hour, introduced the radio interview I’ve quoted above, she prefaced it with this statement: “I should warn listeners that what this young woman has to say is disturbing.”

Listeners are about to be distressed by hearing a story? But the young women and their families lived that distressing story! We asked social workers and police to step into that story and live it too! Someone said to me afterward about that interview: “It’s just too awful to imagine, isn’t it?” Precisely. A horror too awful to imagine. So we repress the image.

I know that the professional response in Oxfordshire was abysmal, that the care provided was derisive. Terrible damage has been done to those children and their families. The damage will be more than lifelong. It has every chance of becoming inter-generational and affecting relationships with those children’s children.

It is precisely because of such terrible damage that I want to add: social workers and police officers are human beings too. They do not have the luxury of turning off their imaginations, as we listeners do. Their job is to deal directly with the horror. They have to go back to the office. They have to get back in the patrol car. They have to return to visit upset families once again. It is repression that enables professionals to be able to keep doing these things.

Without the luxury of repression, staff would get totally overwhelmed by the horror, the distress, the pain of messy lives. They would stay home and pull the covers over their head. They would go off sick with stress. In fact, they are staying home and going off sick – in record numbers. In some areas of the country, the rate of sick leave for social workers is 3.5 times the national average for all industries.  This has led some commentators to declare there is an ‘epidemic of stress’ underway within social work. Anxiety, depression, and overwork are the major drivers.

If social workers do their job badly, it is because our society unintentionally but callously asks too much of them.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Repression3In 1969, James and Joyce Robertson released the latest in their film series about separation and the young child. Entitled John, the film showed the emotional deterioration of a little boy aged 17 months, who had been placed in a residential nursery for a mere nine days, when he had to be separated from his parents. For him though, it wasn’t a ‘mere’ nine days. It was such a traumatic nine days for him that viewers had trouble watching the film. Here’s one of the incidents that the Robertsons recall of the film’s 1969 reception, in their book Separation and the Very Young:

A university tutor wrote that she would not use the film series again for teaching, because it had been too upsetting for her social work students. [We] replied that if she could not help her students to learn from this piece of reality in the classroom, how would they fare when they entered the field and were exposed to situations which could set up defences?” (p. 92)

The university tutor’s comments are based on the same emotional state as was Jane Garvey’s preface on Woman’s Hour, when she warned listeners that they were about to hear content so disturbing they might want to turn way.

It is ironic: our solution to children’s distress is rather like that of knowing the football scores before you’ve seen the match. “If you don’t want to know, look away now.”   (Yes, that’s a moment of dark humour on my part. Equating children’s brutalisation with a football game. Dark humour saves us from despair.)

So what do we do? Here are Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk’s Top Tips for Dealing with Horror.

  1. SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Repression4Let’s stop looking for someone to blame. David Cameron has decided, as a result of the Oxfordshire Case Review, that if we threaten more people with punishment, if we put more public servants in jail, that will solve the problem. He’s wrong. It won’t. He’s misleading us by making us hope that punishment might just be enough to stop horror.

(As an aside, if we wanted to exercise more dark humour, or perhaps more curiosity, we could ask how David Cameron’s childhood experience of being sent away to boarding school at the age of 7 years might be shaping the way he is dealing with the Oxfordshire Case Review. George Monbiot is currently describing such childhoods as ‘privileged abandonment’. Bravely, outrageously, he describes boarding school as the ordinary abuse unwittingly inflicted on upper class kids by their parents. George Monbiot speaks from personal experience. His childhood was spent in boarding school.

  1. Let’s stop DOing and start LISTENing. Let’s listen to stories. I know they are stories of pain and distress, but let’s listen anyway. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh argues that the point of listening isn’t to burst into action, but to reduce suffering.

When we sit beside someone in the midst of their pain, it nurtures trust. Trust is not just a state of mind, but is also a state of the body. Trust creates a physiological transformation, boosting hormones like oxytocin. Yes, the ‘Cuddle Chemical’ oxytocin helps us cope with horror! In fact, we begin to realise that often the thing that most needs to be DONE is to offer more cuddles.

  1. Let’s stop treating social workers like robots and start treating them like human beings. Here’s one more story. It was shared by a participant at the Kinship Carer Event hosted by Children 1st in , at which I spoke in February.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Repression5 It comes from a retired social worker. He recalled that when he was a social worker in the 1970s, if you’d been out dealing with a terrible situation for a family, you could come back to your desk. The desk was a safe haven, covered in photographs of your own family and stacks of paperwork that, because they were ordered, gave a sense of order to your workload. You could sit with your head in your hands while colleagues on your team offered to make a cup of coffee. Together, you could sit down and talk about what might be done for that family.

Unfortunately, he said, that’s not the working situation for social workers today. Many teams ‘hot desk’, meaning you have no photos and no ordered piles of paper and nowhere safe to come back to after you’ve been out dealing with horror. And in an office where there is hot-desking, there may well be no colleagues and no cuppas, because the point of hot-desking is that teams don’t have a permanent base to work from.

How very ironic. We will threaten to give social workers a prison cell but we won’t give them their own desk.

When children’s trauma leads to terrorism

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Terrorism1Like millions of others across the world, I sat yesterday watching France reject fear.  It was inspiring to hear tens upon tens of people speak into television cameras saying, “I choose not to be afraid.  We stand together.  Je suis Charlie.  Je suis Ahmed.  Je suis Juif.”

Of course, one march does not begin to solve France’s problems, even if that march was attended by nearly 4 million people across the country – more people turned out on the day than for celebrations when the Allies liberated France in World War II.  France has plenty of deep social problems.  Emigration, racism, poverty, anti-semitism, pessimism.

But to have any chance of solving problems, you have to start somewhere.  Yesterday France chose to start with unity.  There was a resounding lack of blame in the comments of those tens upon tens of people I watched being interviewed.  They were not uniting against a terrorist enemy.  Instead, they were uniting against fear. Yesterday the choice of the French people was to remain open and curious in the midst of threat.  Speaking to the cameras, they asked how it was that young French men and women could be recruited to the extremist cause.  They described the poverty and the blatant hunger rampaging the suburbs of Paris.  They acknowledged the exclusion of Muslim communities, of growing Jewish anxiety.  Even in their grief, their mindset was remarkably focused on finding solutions, rather than on defensiveness and outrage.

Chérif and Saïd Kouachi

Here, then, is a solution to terrorism that hasn’t yet emerged in the media: let’s pay attention to children’s trauma.  Of the three men who committed last week’s atrocities, two were orphaned children.  The brothers Chérif and Saïd Kouachi were abandoned by their Algerian parents and raised in the French care system.  Chérif’s defence lawyer described him, in 2005, as “an apprentice loser…a clueless kid who didn’t know what to do with his life and, overnight, met people who gave him the feeling of being important.”    This is a description that applies to so many young people who leave care.  Lost, angry, wanting to matter to someone. Chérif was luckier than many.  His lawyer said that within radical Islam he “seemed to have found a kind of family, a cause in life.”

Amedy Coulibaly

What about the third gunman, Amedy Coulibaly, who held hostages in a kosher grocery shop?  He has been reported as having a ‘happy childhood, the only boy in a family of 10’.    That can be seen as an argument against the claim that trauma fuels a young man’s budding terrorist tendencies.  Yet Coulibably, who reportedly “changed at around the age of 17 because of the people he became involved with” (that is, during adolescence, when the brain is rewiring), was described in one psychiatric court report as having an “immature and psychopathic personality…with poor powers of introspection.”  His “motivation for his actions had a rudimentary nature”, and his sense of morality was described as “lacking, with a wish to be all powerful.”    I read this as the description of a traumatised young man, a young man who hasn’t been able to acquire the empathy that comes naturally during the toddler years, as long as one receives enough loving attention from somebody.

That marks out 100% of the perpetrators of last week’s violence as victims of childhood trauma.

I keep asking myself: why do we find it hard to feel empathy for these young men?  I am laughing wryly as I type that, because I realise it is likely to sound naive.  “Are you serious, Dr. Zeedyk?  You want me to be empathic, to be curious about the experiences of vicious murderers who mow down innocent people simply because they are angry at our way of life?”  Yes, I do.

I want us to wonder about the experiences of people we don’t like, about the people who do things that we disapprove of, about the people who hurt us.  I want this because until we become more curious about the men and women who become terrorists, we will never solve the problem of terrorism.

One of the more unusual comments I read this week involved the term ‘grooming’.  The commentator said that it is vulnerability that leads to radicalisation, that what we have seen this week is “grooming with a different hat”.  The thing about language is that it gives us a window onto what feels like reality, yet as soon as a different term is employed, what we see changes.

What happens when we replace the word ‘radicalised’ with the word ‘groomed’?  Does that generate any possibility of seeing these lonely young men through the same sympathetic lens that we now use to understand the actions of lonely young women who become prey to sexual predators?  Both groups of young people want to be loved, want to belong, want to matter to someone.

It is entirely understandable that it is harder for us to extend sympathy to people who explicitly wish to hurt us.  Finding this level of compassion can seem a big step, compared to ‘feeling sorry’ for young women whose lives have been shattered by tormentors.  But, then, we don’t feel threatened by the girls’ behaviour.  We do feel threatened by young men who want to kill us.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Terrorism6Except that it isn’t only a sense of immediate threat that keeps us from curiosity.  A sense of judgement is sufficient on its own.  My local paper, Dundee’s Courier, has carried several stories about the activities of our near-by open prison: Castle Huntly.  When the staff organised a 3-course Christmas meal for the prisoners, critics argued this was not a fair use of taxpayers’ money,  given that so many citizens are living in poverty.  When the staff recently organized a day’s fishing trip, as the culmination of a Youth Development Course on fishing, critics argued that such outings were “appalling”.

Prisons are warehouses of traumatised people; 40% of prisoners under 21 have spent time in the care system,  which compares to 2% in the general population.  The likelihood is that the majority of the eight men who earned the right to go on that fishing trip, by proudly completing the course and paying the £13 fee from their own funds, had never been taken on a fishing trip as a child.  Had someone done that with them earlier in their lives, perhaps they would not have been in prison today.  Perhaps taxpayers would not be paying the bill for their enforced accommodation.

It’s kind of a shocking idea – that something as simple and cheap as childhood fishing trips could prevent imprisonment.  Or terrorism.  Except that this is precisely what the science is telling us.  It is the reassuring knowledge that you matter to somebody that prevents trauma.  When we take for granted the human need for emotional safety, then we put not only our children at risk, we put ourselves at risk.  Trauma warps the brain.  The abused become abusers.  The disconnected become dangerous.

Not always.  Traumatised children can be stunningly resilient.  But way often enough that we need to take compassion seriously.

For when you have a large enough proportion of children within a country experiencing trauma, a cultural shift ensues.  The Independent ran a story this week with the headline ‘Paris attack brothers’ campaign of terror can be traced back to Algeria in 1954.   The post-colonial relations between France and Algeria are agonized.  The journalist Robert Fisk urges us to remember that, in making sense of this week’s atrocities: “Nothing — absolutely zilch – happens without a past.” He offers that reflection as a context for political analysis:

“The killers cannot call on history to justify their crimes.  But there’s an important context that somehow got left out of the story this week, the ‘history corner’ that many Frenchmen as well as Algerians prefer to ignore: the bloody 1954-62 struggle of an entire people for freedom against a brutal imperial regime, a prolonged war which remains the foundational quarrel of Arabs and French to this day.”

Taking account of the ghosts of the past can equally be read as psychological analysis.  The internationally respected psychotherapist Robin Grille expresses his own historical reflection in this way:  “War follows from collective child abuse, as night follows day.”

“This psycho-historical finding [of the relationship between child trauma and war] is so consistent, so well explained by neuro-psychological, developmental and social sciences, that child abuse and war should almost always be mentioned in the same sentence…. The hope for world peace is grounded in realism — when we see the efficacy of interventions that assure emotionally healthy beginnings for children, and when we compassionately address the post-traumatic emotional wounds of warmongers.  In today’s globalized reality, every child is our child. When a boy is beaten in Balochistan, his pain will, with chilling velocity, impact our personal lives in the West.”

We will stop terrorism when we get to grips with the disastrous effects of disconnection.

We will stop terrorism when we stop taking for granted the importance of connection.

We will stop terrorism when we follow where the people of France have led this weekend.  If we want to be safe, we need to pay less attention to our own trauma and more attention to that of our children.