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The Cinderella Phenomenon: When One Child Is the Target of Abuse

 

Photo credit Unsplash.com/๐Ÿ‡ธ๐Ÿ‡ฎ Janko Ferliฤ

 (The article below is an excerpt from my book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids. I have used a pseudonym to protect the privacy of family members.)

               As a child, I lived in dread that something would set my mother off and sheโ€™d fly into a violent rage, unleashing a torrent of physical abuse. There never was any reason for the abuse. There didnโ€™t have to be. Something would invariably infuriate my mother.

          I donโ€™t know why my mother singled me outโ€”why she only hit me and not my siblings.

          Research shows there can be a link between parental mental illness and abuse. As noted by the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, โ€œThrough reduced caregiving capacities, the co-occurrence of child neglect or abuse, and exposure to other sources of fear and stress, parental mental health conditions have direct consequences for the health and well-being of their children [children of parents with mental illness].โ€ In my case, my mother was mentally ill.

          Sometimes, abusive parents are indiscriminate in their violence, but sometimes not. Researchers say itโ€™s not uncommon for an abusive parent to single out one child as the target of physical violence. This has been called: the โ€œCinderella Phenomenon.โ€ Another term is โ€œtarget-child selection.โ€

          I never wore glass slippers, but I fit the definition of a Cinderella. In my case, it wasnโ€™t an evil step-mother heaping abuse on me; it was my biological mother. And I wasnโ€™t living in a fairy tale world. No fairy godmother was going to say โ€œbibbidi-bobbidi-booโ€ and magically transform my life. No prince would whisk me away.

          The rage my mother directed at me was inescapably real.

          Why would a parent single out one child for abuse? Byron Egeland, an expert in child maltreatment at the Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota, says, โ€œReasons for the abuse are highly varied, and there is no consistent pattern across maltreatment cases.โ€

          Accumulated research shows the Cinderella Phenomenon often involves redirection of anger that an abusive parent feels toward someone elseโ€”perhaps an absent spouse or former partner. The targeted child may remind the parent of a trauma he or she experienced, such as rape, or as Egeland noted, their own abuse. โ€œThe abuser is likely to have a history of abuse,โ€ he says.

          Sometimes, parents target a child for abuse because the child is hyperactive, has a disability, or displays personality traits the parent doesnโ€™t like.

              More likely than not, though, Egeland says, there is no logical explanation.

              While all siblings in my family were subjected to psychological abuse, I was the only one who suffered physical abuse at the hands of my mother. Iโ€™ve often thought that my mother targeted her rage against me because I looked like her. I remember examining a picture of my mother when she was about eight. It was as if I was staring back at myself at the same age. But what disturbed her about the mirror image I will never know.

             There have been many studies on the characteristics of abusive parents. Studies show they tend to have: low self-esteem, poor impulse control, low frustration tolerance, inappropriate expression of anger, impaired parenting skills, depression and other mental health problems, and as mentioned previously, a history of being abused.

            In my motherโ€™s case, I could put a check mark next to virtually all of these descriptors except history of abuse. I know nothing about her childhood.

 (My book, Crazy Was All I Ever Knew: The Impact of Maternal Mental Illness on Kids, is available on Amazon. You can reach me at www.Alicekenny.com)

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Hi Alice,

Although I've not heard the term "Cinderella Phenomenon," I'm very familiar with this pattern of abuse: I - the middle daughter of three - was also singled out for cruelty, maltreatment and verbal/psychological abuse. Some instances of physical abuse / enforced and oppressive behaviour. For decades, those reasons eluded me. But with a lot of work - and many hours of 'interviewing' my perpetrator/mother, I've come up with some theories that parallel yours; that something about my personality triggered her; that my very close relationship with my father from a young age brought out her rage towards me - instead of towards my dad / the source of her anger; and that she too was the child of abuse (from her militaristic father)  = intergenerational trauma. You say that you know nothing about her childhood; I wonder if she's still alive, and if so, whether you might also try to ask her questions about her own life and upbringing.

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