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  • Amy J.L. Baker

What does acceptance mean to you? For Emi Nietfeld it meant being "accepted" into Harvard -- a triumph of epic proportions given the adversity she experienced throughout her childhood. In her harrowing new memoir, "acceptance" also meant coming to terms with a traumatic childhood in which she was removed from home and placed in a series of alternative living arrangements, including a residential treatment center for children. Each step of the way, Emi is given the message that she must exhibit "acceptance" that she is the cause of her difficulties. During weekly therapy sessions she was instructed to focus on her own contributions to the problems that led to her removal from home. She was condemned for challenging this lie. The truth was that Emi’s removal was primarily due to her mother's refusal to address her own extreme, dangerous, and literally toxic hoarding which forced Emi to sleep in an unheated mold- and rodent-infested home resulting in her being chronically exhausted and often unable to breathe. Because her mother was charming and savvy enough to evade detection (home visits were never made), Emi was viewed by the mental health system as the cause of her own problems rather than a victim of circumstances. Making matters worse, to stay in the heated mold-free environment of the residential treatment center, Emi had to “accept” that her behavior was bad and subject herself to erroneous diagnoses and treatment. Additionally, throughout her childhood Emi was expected to exhibit grit and resilience, resulting in her traumatized condition being interpreted as a reflection of her personal failure. The "gospel of grit" was used to exonerate the systems that failed her, leaving her to absorb the impact of the trauma so that society did not have to address the underlying causes (such as poverty and untreated mental health issues of parents). The "song and dance of resilience" chipped away at her humanity as it expected her to singlehandedly fix what was wrong. More than anything, she wished that someone had told her and the those in her world that she was removed from home because her mother had a problem rather than treating her removal as her failure to be a good enough daughter. Emi was also expected to "accept" that her life would be limited by her circumstances, that she should give up her dreams of going to Harvard, reading poetry, pursuing material success. Thankfully, her native intelligence, curiosity, and inner spirit, combined with her mother's unfailing confidence in her, yes – we’re all a mixed bag, led Emi to achieve all that she aimed for.

For the professionals at the Psychological Maltreatment Alliance, there are many lessons one can draw from this beautifully written book, chiefly among them is the lifelong impact of the psychological maltreatment perpetrated against Emi by her mother. More than the physical neglect she suffered, the emotional neglect (a form of psychological maltreatment) from her mother was by far the most damaging to her sense of reality and her very soul. Despite her obvious love for her daughter, Emi's mother was unwilling and/or unable to get help for herself, resulting in her inability to attend to Emi's basic needs for a safe and nurturing home environment. Emi's pervasive childhood experience was the denial of the reality that her home was disgusting and unsafe. There was chronic gas-lighting in which Emi was made to feel that there was something wrong with her for wanting to live in a clean and safe home.

Another important message that we at the PMA take from this book is the importance of adults listening to children rather than simply assuming that their caretakers have their best interests at heart. Most of the adults minimized Emi's concerns, assuming that she was exaggerating or just being difficult. If just one person had given her the benefit of the doubt and visited her home, she would have been believed and felt understood. A third lesson is that achieving markers of success (higher education, respected career, and so forth) does not automatically make up for feeling chronically misunderstood, unsafe, and unloved as a child. At the core of Emi's life journey is the ultimate acceptance that her mother would not be able to acknowledge her daughter's suffering and her own contribution to it. Like so many psychologically maltreated children, Emi will probably always have some degree of unseen scars in her psyche. It is our mission at the PMA to help prevent such harm to the next generation of Emi's by ensuring that all mental health professionals have access to adequate information about what psychological maltreatment is and how to respectfully and supportively intervene when -- for whatever reason – parents are not able to provide a safe, loving, and nurturing home for their children.

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Jenette McCurdy's blockbuster memoir, "I'm glad my mother died" is flying off the proverbial shelves. It has sold millions of copies since it burst onto the scene a few months ago. What the book offers -- other than a juicy insider perspective into the exploitive business of child acting -- is a window into a pretty miserable childhood. As Jenny explains, she was not physically abused, the family had money (eventually), and she did not lack for attention. Yet, Jenny barely survived her childhood. Although the term "psychological maltreatment" is never even whispered anywhere in its over 300 pages, the book is about nothing more than about that. As Jenny describes her relationship with her mother, it is abundantly clear that her mother engaged in "a repeated patter or extreme incidents of caretaker behavior that thwarts the child's basic psychological needs (safety, socialization, emotional and social support, cognitive stimulation) and convey that a child is worthless, defective, damaged goods, unloved, unwanted, endangered, primarily useful in meeting another's needs, and/or is expendable." This is the widely accepted definition of psychological maltreatment endorsed by the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children (APSAC). Virtually every aspect of the mother's problematic behavior falls into one of the psychological maltreatment subtypes. Moreover, the essence of the relationship was that the mother needed Jenny to sacrifice her own basic human needs, as well as desires, preferences, interests – in fact, her very self -- in order to meet the corrupted, selfish needs of her mother.

As seasoned professionals in the field and members of the Psychological Maltreatment Alliance (PMA;, we are saddened but not at all shocked that the core problem of Jenny's childhood is never even identified by name. Of the major three major types of childhood maltreatment, physical, sexual and psychological, the last is the most prevalent and destructive (except for outright killing) and yet also the least understood, recognized or treated. This is partly because there is no bright line between poor parenting and actual psychological maltreatment. Many parents engage in related behaviors (yelling, being distracted and inattentive, expecting too much or too little) so there is a resistance to labeling everyday poor parenting practices as maltreating. At the PMA we are working to help parents avoid such behaviors through encouragement of positive, respectful, caring parenting – which is a “win-win” for all involved. We are also working with professionals to recognize the fine line between poor parenting and maltreatment requiring societal intervention to protect children. However, there are also situations in which a child -- such as Jenny McCurdy -- experiences outright indisputable psychological maltreatment and still it is not recognized or treated. When this happens, the effects can be devastating as they obviously were for Jenny McCurdy. We appreciate that she was brave enough to share her story and we will be rooting for her in her journey of recovery. Moreover, we will continue to shine a light on this insidious form of maltreatment -- which so often goes unnamed – and to seek the assistance of all who share this concern.

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Across the United States, summer is coming to an end and children everywhere are returning to school. They are experiencing the normal combination of trepidation and excitement that accompanies this Fall ritual. They wonder about who their teachers will be and worry that their friends might not be in their classes. They may be excited about their new lunchbox, backpack, and fun school supplies purchased for the occasion. Mixed in with these feelings, however, is something darker that has also become part of the back-to-school rite of passage for children as well as their parents: the worry that they will become victims of a school shooting. Shockingly, we are no longer shocked by mass shootings – even those that take place inside a school building and involve the senseless loss of life of young children. Adding to the national trauma, are some of the measures designed in response such as active shooter drills. According to Peterson and Densley’s work for The Violence Project, “More than half of American teenagers worry about a shooting at their school, and a lifetime of active shooter drills, locker searches, and locked school doors, has engendered in them an overwhelming fear of imminent death” (page 6). In their (2021) book, The Violence Project, Peterson and Densley unpack some of the myths and facts regarding who perpetrates mass shootings and the impact of this terrible blight on our society. According to their extensive research, four factors are present in all individuals who become a mass shooter. The first is exposure to violence and unaddressed childhood trauma. In fact, they argue that, “The worse the crime, the worse the story.” Second, an identifiable crisis point is reached in which pain and suffering overwhelm the individual. The third is access to a script or model from previous mass shootings that can be applied to achieve revenge against the humiliation of life and the persons believed to be the cause of such misery. The fourth is the opportunity to carry out the shooting, including access to weapons and victims. Based on their research, they conclude that, “Mass shootings are not an inevitable fact of American life; they’re preventable” (page 17).

Amid the horror of school shootings, there is cause to hope for a future in which these terrible events are prevented. This does not involve even more “hardening” of schools, which has clearly not worked. At the Psychological Maltreatment Alliance we endorse Peterson and Densley’s more personal and human approach. Like them, we envision a world in which the red flags that someone is in trouble are routinely assessed and acted upon before the damage is done. They describe several “off ramps” along the road to mass shootings. One such off-ramp involves individuals stepping up to act when someone is in trouble, detecting the signs and providing the nurturance and support the individual needs to get them off the terrible path they are on, a path that led to an end to the individual’s pain only through the infliction of tremendous suffering to others. A second off-ramp involves more systematic ways of checking in on people who enter schools through routine trauma screenings, to see if someone is suffering before their pain becomes intolerable. Third, are societal means of acknowledging and addressing gun laws that currently make it far too easy for troubled people to access the means to conduct a mass shooting. A final prevention approach involves teaching children how to avoid the social contagion of violence and hatred in person and especially on-line.

The work of The Violence Project resonates with our work at the Psychological Maltreatment Alliance because at the root of all school shootings is the unaddressed early childhood trauma of the shooter. The effect of early trauma is largely psychological in nature, with impacts that are not yet fully appreciated, limiting opportunities for promising interventions. As noted by Peterson and Densley, “early resolution largely resolves issues.” At the Alliance our mission is to educate and inform a wide range of professionals on the types of harm that come to children from an often misunderstood form of childhood maltreatment. Not as visible as physical abuse, sexual abuse, or physical neglect, psychological maltreatment is an insidious and highly impactful form of maltreatment that is associated with a range of harm for individuals, and was common in the backgrounds of the school shooters. For this reason, we applaud and support their recommendations and we will continue to provide those who work with families with the information and tools they need to take better care of our nation’s schoolchildren.

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