In Memoriam: Alice Miller (continued - see Part I for introduction)

Alice Miller. For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux. 1983.

For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence continues the discussion and the premise that Dr. Miller began in Prisoners of Childhood, (see Part I in this series). In this book she presents the notion of ”poisonous pedagogy” by which she means the lessons that our parents learned from their parents and that were rooted in those parents’ own childhood experiences of psychological and emotional injuries. They are “used to condition a child at an early age not to become aware of what is really being done to him or her” (p. 9). One of the strengths of Miller’s books is the theme that runs through them in which she strongly asserts that those psychological and emotional injuries may very well be perpetrated unintentionally and perhaps even with the very best of intentions.

As she says, “to some degree we could all be numbered among the survivors of ‘poisonous pedagogy....’ We will continue to infect the next generation with the virus of ‘poisonous pedagogy’ as long as we claim that this kind of upbringing is harmless.... We can protect ourselves from a poison only if it is clearly labeled as such, not if it is mixed, as it were, with ice cream advertised as being ‘For Your Own Good.’ Our children will find themselves helpless when confronted with such labeling. When people who have been beaten or spanked [or otherwise psychologically or emotionally hurt or injured] as children attempt to play down the consequences by setting themselves up as examples, even claiming it was good for them, they are inevitably contributing to the continuation of cruelty in the world by this refusal to take their childhood tragedies seriously.... We punish our children for the arbitrary actions of our parents that we were not able to defend ourselves against.... The more we idealize the past, however, and refuse to acknowledge our childhood sufferings, the more we pass them on unconsciously to the next generation.... Courage can be just as infectious as fear. And if we are courageous enough to face the truth, the world will change, for the power of that ‘poisonous pedagogy’ which has dominated us for so long has been dependent upon our fear, our confusion, and our childish credulity; once it is exposed to the light of truth, it will inevitably disappear” (p. ix-xii).

The following quotes from that book will further explain her orientation of understanding and perspective.

Parents, even if they are highly educated and have sufficient time at their disposal,... are helpless when it comes to understanding their child so long as they must keep the sufferings of their own childhood at an emotional distance. (p. xv)

I designate the most important care giver in the child’s first year of life as the “mother.” This does not necessarily have to be the biological mother or even a woman.... An enormous amount can be done to a child in the first two years: he or she can be molded, dominated, taught good habits, scolded, and punished B without any repercussions for the person raising the child and without the child’s taking revenge. The child will overcome the serious consequences of the injustice he has suffered only if he succeeds in defending himself, i.e., if he is allowed to express his pain and anger. If he is prevented from reacting in his own way, because the parents cannot tolerate his reactions, (crying, sadness, rage) and forbid them by means of looks or other pedagogical methods, then the child will learn to be silent. This silence is a sign of the effectiveness of the pedagogical principles applied, but at the same time it is a danger signal pointing to future pathological development. If there is absolutely no possibility of reacting appropriately to hurt, humiliation, and coercion, then these experiences cannot be integrated into the personality; the feelings they evoke are repressed, and the need to articulate them remains unsatisfied, without any hope of being fulfilled. It is this lack of hope of ever being able to express repressed traumata by means of relevant feelings that most often causes severe psychological problems.... It is as though someone has had stamped on his back a mark that he will never be able to see without a mirror. One of the functions of psychotherapy is to provide the mirror..... (p. 6-7)

For as long as you’re not allowed to see something, you have no choice but to overlook it, to misunderstand it, to protect yourself against it in one way or another. (p. 9-10)

Once a child’s eyes are opened to the power game of child-rearing, there is hope that he or she will be free from the chains of “ poisonous pedagogy,” for this child will be able to remember what happened to him or her. When feelings are admitted into consciousness, the wall of silence disintegrates, and the truth can no longer being held back. (p. 76)

Once feelings have been eliminated, the submissive person functions perfectly and reliably even if he knows no one is going to check up on him. (p. 83)

A part of the self is being attacked and persecuting here, not a real and dangerous enemy, as, for example, in situations when one’s life is actually threatened. Child-rearing is used in a great many cases to prevent those qualities that were once scorned and eradicated in oneself from coming to life in one’s children.... What [he], like so many parents, tries to stamp out in his children is what he fears in himself. (p. 90)

When children are trained, they learn how to train others in turn. Children who are lectured to, learn how to lecture; if they are admonished, they learn how to admonish; if scolded, they learn how to scold; if ridiculed, they learn how to ridicule; if humiliated, they learn how to humiliate; if their psyche is killed, they will learn how to kill B the only question is who will be killed: oneself, others, or both. (p. 98)

All this does not mean that children should be raised without any restraints. Crucial for healthy development is the respect of their care givers, tolerance for their feelings, awareness of their needs and grievances, and authenticity on the part of their parents, whose own freedom B and not pedagogical considerations B sets natural limits for children....
If parents had to learn very early in life to ignore their feelings, not to take them seriously, to scorn or ridicule them, then they will lack the sensitivity required to deal successfully with their children. As a result, they will try to substitute pedagogical principles as prostheses.
Parents who never learned as children to be aware of their own needs or to defend their own interests because this right was never granted them will be uncertain in this regard for the rest of their life and consequently will become dependent on firm pedagogical rules. This uncertainty... leads to great insecurity in the child in spite of these rules.
Since a child is often used as a substitute for one’s own parents, he or she can become the object of an endless number of contradictory wishes and expectations that cannot possibly be fulfilled.... But often the child’s feeling of helplessness leads to increasingly aggressive behavior, which in turn convinces parents and educators of the needs restrict countermeasures.
A similar situation arises when it is drilled into children... to adopt certain ways of behavior that their parents wished had once been allowed them and that they therefore considered to be universally desirable.... If children go on feeling misunderstood and manipulative like this, they will become genuinely confused and justifiably aggressive....
But an honest rejection of all forms of manipulation and of the idea of setting goals does not mean that one simply leaves children to their own devices. For children need a large measure of emotional and physical support from the adults. This support must include the following elements if they are to develop their full potential: 1. respect for the child, 2. respect for his rights, 3. tolerance for his feelings, 4. willingness to learn from his behavior: ...about the nature of the individual child, ...about the child in the parents themselves, ... about the nature of emotional life....

The child... needs free space if he or she is to find adequate self-expression.... Learning is a result of listening, which in turn leads to even better listening and attentiveness to the other person. In other words, to learn from the child, we must have empathy, and empathy grows as we learn. [For parents or educators, who would like the child to be a certain way or think they must expect him to be that way], to reach their sacred ends, they try to mold the child in their image, suppressing self-expression in the child and at the same time missing out on an opportunity to learn something. Certainly, abuse of this sort is often unintentional; it is not only directed against children, but... pervades most human relationships. (p. 98-101)

The reason why parents mistreat their children has less to do with character and temperament then with the fact that they were mistreated themselves and were not permitted to defend themselves. (p. 105) I see it as self-defense on the part of adults, as manipulation deriving from their own lack of freedom and insecurity. (p. 105)

Cruelty can take a thousand forms, and it goes undetected even today, because the damage it does to the child and the ensuing consequences are so little-known.... The individual psychological stages in the life of most people are:
1. To be hurt as a small child without anyone recognizing the situation as such.
2. To fail to react to the resulting suffering with anger.
3. To show gratitude for what are supposed to be good intentions.
4. To forget everything.
5. To discharge the stored-up anger onto others in adulthood or to direct it against oneself.)
The greatest cruelty that can be inflicted on children is to refuse to let them express their anger and suffering except at the risk of losing their parents’ love and affection. The anger stemming from early childhood is stored up in the unconscious, and since it basically represents a healthy, vital source of energy, an equal amount of energy must be expended in order to repress it. An upbringing that succeeds in sparing the parents at the expense of the child’s vitality sometimes leads to suicide or extreme drug addiction, which is a form of suicide. If drugs succeed in covering up the emptiness caused by repressed feelings and self-alienation, then the process of withdrawal brings this void back into view. When withdrawal is not accompanied by restoration of vitality, then the cure is sure to be temporary. (p. 106)

At puberty, adolescents are often taken totally by surprise by the intensity of their true feelings, after having succeeded in keeping them at a distance during the latency period. With the spurt of biological growth, these feelings (rage, anger, rebelliousness, falling in love, sexual desire, enthusiasm, joy, enchantment, sadness) seek full expression, but in many cases this would endanger the parents’ psychic balance.... The consequences of having strong, intense feelings are rejection, isolation, ostracism, and the threat of death, i.e., self-destruction.... But the real predicament, the conflict between [one’s] search for [one’s] true self and the necessity of adapting to the needs of [one’s] parents, cannot be recognized as long be as [one] continues to protect [one’s] parents from self-reproach. (p. 107-109)

Such lack of empathy for the suffering of one’s own childhood can result in an astonishing lack of sensitivity to other children’s suffering. When what was done to me was done for my own good, then I am expected to accept this treatment as an essential part of life and not question it.
This kind of insensitivity thus has its roots in the abuse a person suffered as a child. He or she may be able to remember what happened, but in most cases the emotional content of the whole experience of being beaten [or otherwise psychologically or emotionally injured] and humiliated has been completely repressed....
The self has not yet sufficiently developed for a child to retain the memory of it or of the feelings it arouses. The knowledge that you were beaten [or otherwise psychologically or emotionally injured] and that this, as your parents tell you, was for your own good may well be retained (although not always), but the suffering caused by the way you were mistreated will remain unconscious and will later prevent you from emphasizing with others. (p. 115)

The abused child... is alone with her suffering, not only within the family, but also within her self. And because she cannot share her pain with anyone, she is also unable to create a place in our own soul, where she could “ cry her heart out...” “ Keep a stiff upper lip and be brave” is the watchword. Defenselessness and helplessness find no haven in the self of the child, who later, identifying with the aggressor, persecutes these qualities wherever they appear.
A person who from the beginning was forced, whether subjected to corporal punishment or not, to stifle, i.e., to condemn, split off, and persecute, the vital child within himself will spend his whole life preventing this inner danger that he associates with spontaneous feelings from recurring. (p. 117)

A child conditioned to be well-behaved must not notice what she is feelings, but asks herself what she ought to feel. (p. 121)

Christiane was forced to learn at an early age that love and acceptance can be bought only by denying one’s own needs, impulses, and feelings (such as hate, disgust, and aversion) B at the high price of surrender of self. She now directs all of her efforts toward attaining this loss of self, i.e., to being cool. (p. 121)

All absurd behavior has its roots in early childhood, but the cause will not be detected as long as the adult’s manipulation of the child’s psychic and physical needs is interpreted as an essential technique of child-rearing instead of as the cruelty it really is.... To prevent absurd, self-destructive behavior..., parents... need only refrain from manipulating their child for their own needs, from abusing him by undermining his vegetative balance, and then the child will find the best defense against inappropriate demands in his own body. He will be familiar from the beginning with the language of his body and with his body signals. (p. 132)

The way we were treated as small children is the way we treat ourselves the rest of our life. And we often impose our most agonizing suffering upon ourselves. We can never escape the tormentor within us.... Cruel enslavement of the body and exploitation of the will are the result. (p. 133)

Children are made anxious by secretiveness, by their parents hushing things up, by whatever touches upon their parents’ feelings of shame, guilt, or fear. (p. 134)

The collective form of absurd behavior is no doubt the most dangerous because the absurdity is no longer apparent and because it is sanctioned as “normal.” (p. 139)

Empathy, [is] the attempts to identify with the perspective of the child himself and not to judge him through the adult eyes.... We must... address the question of what takes place in a child who is humiliated and demeaned by his parents on the one hand and on the other is commanded to respect and love those who treat him in this fashion and under no circumstances to give expression to his suffering. Although something so absurd would scarcely be expected of an adult..., this is exactly what parents expect of their children in most cases, and in previous generations they were rarely disappointed. In the earliest stage of life, it is possible for a child to forget about the extreme acts of cruelty he or she has endured and to idealized their perpetrator. But the nature of the subsequent enactment reveals that the whole history of early persecution was stored up somewhere.... In the reenactment, the child who was once persecuted now becomes the persecutor.... The early debasement, mistreatment, and psychological rape of a child expresses itself throughout later life.... (p. 142-146)

The way a murder is committed can provide clues for understanding the soul murder that occurred in the childhood. The earlier this soul murder took place, the more difficult it will be for the affected person to grasp and the less it can be validated by memories and words. If he wants to communicate, his only recourse is acting out. For this reason, if I want to understand the underlying roots of delinquent behavior [or any other behavior], I must direct my attention to the child’s earliest experiences. (p. 231-232)

Sometimes it is very difficult for us to bear an overly painful truth, and therefore we ward it off with the aid of illusions. A frequent form of resistance is that of temporal and spatial displacement. Thus, for example, it is easier for us to imagine that children were mistreated in previous centuries or are so in distant countries than to recognize the truth about our own country, here and now. (p. 234)

When a person cannot talk about the cruelty endured as a child because it was experienced so early that it is beyond the reach of memory, then he or she must demonstrate cruelty. (p. 242)

[As children], we could not grasp why we were being humiliated, brushed aside, intimidated, laughed at, treated like an object, played with like a doll or brutally beaten (or both). What is more, we were not even allowed to be aware that all this was happening to us, for any mistreatment was held up to us as being necessary for our own good. Even the most clever child cannot see through such a lie if it comes from the mouths of his beloved parents, who after all show him other, loving sides as well. He has to believe that the way he is being treated is truly right and good for him, and he will not hold it against his parents. But then as an adult he will act the same way toward his own children in an attempt to prove to himself that his parents behaved correctly toward him.... The child’s intense anger at the parents, being strictly forbidden, is simply deflected onto other people and onto himself, but not done away with. Instead, because it is permissible to discharge this anger onto one’s own children, it spreads over the entire world like a plague. (p. 247-248)

Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on. If I can feel outrage at the injustice I have suffered, can recognize my persecution as such, and can acknowledge and hate my persecutor for what he or she has done, only then will the way to forgiveness be open to me. Only if the history of abuse [or other mistreatment] in earliest childhood can be uncovered will the repressed anger, rage, and hatred cease to be perpetuated. Instead, they will be transformed into sorrow and pain at the fact that things had to be that way. As a result of this pain, they will give way to genuine understanding, the understanding of an adult who now has gained insight into his or her parents’ childhood and finally, liberated from his own hatred, can experience genuine, mature sympathy. Such forgiveness cannot be coerced by rules and commandments; it is experienced as a form of grace and appears spontaneously when a repressed (because forbidden) hatred no longer poisons the soul....

If an adult has been fortunate enough to get back to the sources of the specific injustice he suffered in his childhood and experience it on a conscious level, then in time he will realize on his own B preferably without the aid of any pedagogical or religious exhortations B that in most cases his parents did not torment or abuse him for their own pleasure or out of sheer strength and vitality but because they could not help it, since they were once victims themselves and thus believed in traditional methods of child-rearing .... Every persecutor was once a victim. Yet it should be very obvious that someone who was allowed to feel free and strong from childhood does not have the need to humiliate another person. (p. 248-249)

By means of our mourning, we can set our children free.... Mourning is the opposite of feeling guilt; it is an expression of pain that things happened as they did and that there is no way to change the past. We can share this pain with our children without having to feel ashamed; guilt feelings are something we try to repress or shift to our children or both.
Since sorrow reactivates numbed feelings, it can enable young people to realize what their parents once inflicted on them in the well-meaning attempt to train them to be obedient from an early age. This can lead to an eruption of justifiable anger and to the painful recognition that one’s own parents, who are already over fifty, are still defending their old principles, are unable to understand the anger of their grown child, and are hurt and wounded by reproaches....
The mere admission of this feeling to consciousness can lead out of the dead end of self-alienation. Then at long last, the true child, the healthy child, can live, the child who finds it impossible to understand why his parents are hurting him and at the same time forbidding him to cry, weep, or even speak in his pain.... But he has to pay for this pseudo-understanding with his feelings and his sensitivity to his own needs, i.e., with his authentic self. This is why access to the normal, angry, uncomprehending, and rebellious child he once was had previously been blocked off. When this child within the adult is liberated, he will discover his vital roots and strength.
To be free to express resentment dating back to early childhood does not mean that one now becomes a resentful person, but rather the exact opposite. For the very reason that one is permitted to experience these feelings that were directed against the parents, one does not have to use surrogate figures for purposes of abreaction [release of feelings]. Only hatred felt for surrogates is insatiable... because on a conscious level the feeling is separated from the person against whom it was originally directed.
For these reasons, I believe that the free expression of resentment against one’s parents represents a great opportunity. It provides access to one’s true self, reactivates numb feelings, opens the way for morning and B with luck B reconciliation. In any case, it is an essential part of the process of psychic healing. (p. 250-251)

Even the best mother cannot satisfy all her child’s wishes and needs. It is not the suffering caused by frustration, however, that leads to emotional illness but rather the fact that the child is forbidden by the parents to experience and articulate the suffering, the pain felt at being wounded; usually the purpose of this prohibition is to protect the parents’ defense mechanisms. (p. 254)

Many parents... desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child’s behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child B well behaved and dutiful B of one’s own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy, if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me....
Frequently, parents will not be aware of their child’s narcissistic wounds; they do not notice them because they learned, from the time they were little, not to take them seriously in themselves. It may be the case that they are aware of them but believe it is better for the child not to become aware. They will try to talk her out of out of many of her early perceptions and make her forget her earliest experiences, all in the belief that this is for the child’s own good, for they think that she could not bear to know the truth and would fall ill as a result. That it is just the other way around, that the child suffers precisely because the truth is concealed, they do not see.
The malleability of a sensitive child is nearly boundless, permitting all these parental demands to be absorbed by the psyche. The child can adapt perfectly to them, and yet something remains, which we might call body knowledge, that allows the truth to manifest itself in physical illnesses or sensations, and sometimes also in dreams....
It is not the trauma itself that is the source of illness but the unconscious, repressed, hopeless despair over not being allowed to give expression to what one has suffered and the fact that one is not allowed to show and is unable to experience feelings of rage, anger, humiliation, despair, helplessness, and sadness.... It was not suffering per se that made their child ill but its repression, which was essential for the sake of the parents.... Pain over the frustration one has suffered is nothing to be ashamed of, nor is it harmful. It is a natural, human reaction. However, if it is verbally or nonverbally forbidden or even stamped out by force and by beatings, as it is in “poisonous pedagogy,” then natural development is impeded and the conditions for pathological developments are created. (p. 257-259)

Children who are taken seriously, respected, and supported [when they express their feelings] can experience themselves in the world on their own terms and do not need adult coercion.... “If parents are also able to give their child the same respect and tolerance they have for their own parents, they will surely be providing him with the best possible foundation for his entire or later life.” (p. 276)

Author's Bio: 

Psychologist in private practice since 1981, specializing in relationships, depression, anxiety, trauma, addictions (substances and behaviors), sexual orientation, and the mind-body integration.

I have taught, trained, and supervised other mental health professionals.

I have published articles in professional journals and presented at international conferences in this area. I have a diplomate from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and was Chairman of the Victim Treatment Committee of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association for many years.

I have the American Psychological Association's Certificate of Proficiency in the Treatment of Alcohol and Other Psychoactive Substance Use Disorders.

I am a Supervisor and Certified Bioenergetic Therapist, integrating Bioenergetic Analysis, contemporary psychoanalytic psychotherapy, and other psychotherapeutic modalities since 1974.

Special study has been in the area of issues relating to gay, lesbian, and bisexual life, growth, development, coming out, being out, relationships, and homophobia.

I served several terms on the Boards of the Los Angeles Society of Clinical Psychologists and the Los Angeles Chapter of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists.

Carl H. Shubs, Ph. D.
321 S. Beverly Dr., Suite "L"
Beverly Hills, CA 90212-4303
(310) 772-0520

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