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; www.psychologicalmaltreatment.org), 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.