Marilyn Holm has a degree in social work. However, it was through motherhood that she first learned about emotionally abused children.
About 15 years ago, when her own children were young and she wanted to be at home with them, she volunteered to be a foster mother. She met one child after another who had problems feeling attached.For example: When the caseworker first brought 3-year-old Jenny to her door, the little girl said, "Hi Mom, where's your TV?" and breezed right past her new foster mother without looking at her. Holm's heart sank. She knew she was about to embark on the difficult task of trying to reach a child who had been emotionally wounded.
Some of the children she mothered were charming and affectionate with strangers - but not with her. Holm felt frustrated and hurt. She had no way of knowing if her efforts were going to make any difference for these children. She wondered what kind of parents they'd be when they grew up. "How much better it would be," she thought,"if this emotional abuse could be prevented in the first place."
Now Holm is a full-time social worker. She has written several articles and a book ("Shall the Circle be Unbroken?") about the cycle of emotional abuse. And a cycle it is. A child may grow up and appear to be functioning well, but in his personal relationships the legacy lives on. Holm says not all abused children grow up to become mass murders, but all mass murders were abused children.
She doesn't talk about physical or sexual abuse - except to say those are also emotionally abusive - because much has already been written about that. She has enough to say on the subject of emotional abuse.
Reading her book is awful. She writes about abandonment, about people locking their children in closets, about parents who just can't nurture the children they've been given.
For whom did she write this book? Average parents looking for ways to improve their skills might not want to wade through the depressing descriptions before they get to the positive childrearing suggestions. And terribly abusive parents aren't likely to buy it.
Holm says,"I wrote the book for a variety of people who work with children from less than ideal backgrounds. I wrote it for social workers. And teachers, too. Teachers have children in the classroom who probably a few years ago would have been in institutions."
But Holm hopes average mothers and fathers will read the book as well. She wants everyone to understand that the cycle of abuse can be broken.
The good news is this: For some reason there are children who triumph over their abuse. They are resilient.
While researchers haven't figured out precisely what makes a difference in those little lives, Holm believes other people are surely part of the story. A grandparent, a neighbor, a teacher - any caring adult who can say "You are wonderful" over and over again, can help heal a child's heart.
Holm hopes we can learn to help parents, too. As a society we can become more nurturing. "I find most of my work with emotionally abused children is nurturing the mother," she says. She wishes more could be done to help parents.
While abusive parents may not seek help from a social worker - they do talk about their frustrations. Barbers, hairdressers and bartenders are wonderful listeners. Holm says they could do even more to help by telling their customers about Parents Anonymous.
"By helping the family," she says, "we keep it together. Inside the family is the best place to help the child."