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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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I just learned about the "Cinderella Phenomenon," I lived through it as the center of of my mother's hate. She would tell me almost daily that she hated me, wished I was never born, ruined her life, etc. She didn't want to hear as a kid that my step brother was molesting me. She could care less that I was being hurt. She would turn on the water to where it was scalding, and as a 2nd grader, she'd beat me with a belt across my face, back, legs, chest, back, if I wouldn't sit in the scalding hot water. She was abused as well, and I was the youngest child and the only child from the second marriage she didn't want. All the way up to her death, she made sure everyone knew that she hated me.

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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