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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Moral Panics and Reactive Attachment Disorder

Some sociologists have a useful term for a kind of change in public attitude: moral panic. Moral panics are periods of agitation and concern about an issue that is not realistically of much importance (and by the way, the term has nothing to do with sexual morality, but is an old-fashioned way of saying that the panic exists for psychological reasons). Discussing these periods in a 1994 article (Goode & Ben-Yehuda, Moral panics: Culture, politics, and social construction. Annual Review of Sociology, 20,149-171), two sociologists defined moral panics as “explosions of fear and concern … about a specific perceived threat. In each case, a specific agent was felt to be responsible for the threat; in each case, a sober assessment of the evidence… forces the observer to the conclusion that the fear and concern were, in all likelihood, exaggerated or misplaced.” During moral panics, much attention is focused on the agent that is thought to cause the feared events, which incidentally need not be common and may even be nonexistent. Actions taken against the perceived agent can in themselves be far more dangerous than the feared events.

Moral panics have been common enough throughout history. The pervasive fear of witches in Europe and in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the “Red Scares” of the last century, and the more recent preoccupation with “Satanic ritual abuse” are examples. Such panics may run their courses relatively quickly, but often leave traces in folk beliefs or even in institutions like laws that were originally established to deal with them. It can be argued that moral panic is responsible for some prevailing but unrealistic concerns of modern life and for some unnecessary and potentially dangerous steps taken in the hope of escaping a perceived threat.

I would suggest that for some episodes of moral panic over the last 60 years’ the perceived threat has been the same, although the agents thought to cause the threat have been different. The perceived threat is this: our children will hurt us.

In the 1950s, the psychiatrist Frederic Wertham invoked a moral panic by claiming that comic books depicting violence caused young people to behave violently. His beliefs remain institutionalized in comic book publishers’ “codes”. Both jazz and rock-and-roll music were subjects of moral panic in episodes when these forms of music were declared to loosen inhibitions and weaken morality, including resistance to violent impulses. Presently, moral panic is visible in intense concerns about violent screen games and the impulses to aggression they are said to foster ( a connection that is not supported by research on violent behavior and screen game-playing). While moral panics focus on factors that are considered agents of the threat, in these cases the threat remains the same: our children will hurt us.

Although I am far from claiming that moral panic is the sole reason for confusion, I would like to suggest that the continual misinterpretation of the symptoms of Reactive Attachment Disorder by the media and by a small number of professional and quasi-professional authors is also facilitated by the fear that our children will hurt us. Those experiencing moral panic about this issue look for agents that they believe contribute to the perceived threat. They do not imagine that their children will hurt them because they have hurt their children, or because they have modeled aggressive behavior for their children, or because they have failed to provide their children with non-violent strategies for dealing with others. Instead, encouraged by the work of a few authors and lecturers, people look to aspects of modern life which they think are the agents that can cause their children to hurt them--- abuse by other caregivers, their mothers’ thoughts about terminating the pregnancy, experiences in the NICU, difficulties with attachment, and of course adoption. To control these “agents” is their goal, because these factors are seen as the causes of the threat that creates moral panic.

Misunderstandings and false claims about the nature of Reactive Attachment Disorder focus on the violent nature and dangerous behavior posited for affected children-- in other words, in the probability that such children will hurt someone, and the likelihood that it will be a foster or adopted parent who is hurt. This focus links Reactive Attachment Disorder with the subject of moral panic, the fear that our children will hurt us. From that moral panic and pervasive references to the fear, misinterpretation of Reactive Attachment Disorder draws the energy that maintains it in the face of all evidence and arguments to the contrary. Institutionalization of Reactive Attachment Disorder as a focus of moral panic has occurred in the form of publication of misstatements by major publishers like Wiley and Academic Press and in payment for training of social services workers in related beliefs by some states (for example, Georgia).

Why do I say fears about being hurt by our children are a matter of moral panic-- a completely disproportionate reaction to the actual occurrence of any such events? The reason is that in fact youth violence has decreased rather than increased over the years when the supposed agents encouraging aggression have stayed constant or increased. Like any form of panic, moral panic makes it difficult for us to think clearly or make reasoned decisions. Under the impetus of moral panic, we may choose actions that are in fact harmful, like accepting and promulgating mistaken views of Reactive Attachment Disorder, or using treatment methods that are assumed to be harmful by child abuse researchers. Difficult though it may be, all of us-- and the media above all—need to breathe deeply and count to 100 before we allow moral panic to work through us and cause us to do harm while trying to escape an unlikely threat. Let’s not hurt our children out of our unrealistic fear that our children will hurt us.

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