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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, March 12, 2015

How Would a Child Feel If Told She Was Possessed by Demons?

Continuing to read about the claims that the young sisters in the Justin Harris case were possessed by demons and required exorcism ( has made me wonder how those claims would have made the children feel, and what they would have come to believe about their actions.

It’s certainly common enough to attribute moods and behavior to natural entities other than ourselves. In Western countries, people make excuses for drunken behavior by saying, “That was the alcohol talking”, though they know full well that alcohol does not talk. When children are medicated for emotional or attentional problems, concerns are often brought up about the messages the children get from this—will they believe they cannot control their impulses without a lot of help? Will they seek drugs as ways to change their own feelings and actions? It’s easy to see how alcohol and medications can be interpreted as reasons why behavior should go in a particular direction. After all, drinkers have heard many statements about impulsiveness caused by alcohol, and children often overhear their adult discussions about their need for medication, even if adults do not tell them to their faces that medication changes them in a desirable way (and sometimes adults do tell them that).

How does all this relate to the effects of telling someone they are demon-possessed? Most of us adults would respond in ways based on our own belief in demons, or lack thereof. If we don’t believe, we would think no differently of ourselves, but might tell our informant, “You’re nuts!”. If we believe in demon possession, we would presumably comment on whether we felt that way or not, ask the other person to explain why he or she thinks so, or possibly seek help in getting rid of the demons. It’s doubtful that either believers or non-believers would change their usual behaviors  on the basis of a demon attribution.

But--  what if someone tells young children that they are demon-possessed? That age group does have a tendency to believe the stories we tell them--  Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy—and presumably demons would be believed too, especially if the adults were serious believers, as it would appear the Harrises were. If the babysitters’ story is correct, the Harrises also believed that the girls could communicate telepathically (or perhaps they thought their demons could do so?), and this belief would also have been passed on to the girls. Once the demon concept, and the likely activities of the demons, were established in the girls’ minds--  whether by direct statement or by overheard adult conversation—the girls’ interpretation and expectation of their own behavior might be dramatically altered. Whereas a child of 6 would normally know that she was the one who decided to smack her sister or to hide unwanted food under the tablecloth, one who accepted the demon-belief system presented to her might well act on any impulses, on the assumption that the demons were doing whatever it was, and she herself had no control over what happened. At her age, she has little capacity for the “spiritual warfare” that believers consider to be the only defense against demons, and if she is possessed by “spirits of violence”, she will be violent--  this she has been told, and this she may well believe and act on. Any accidental misbehavior (that guinea pig?) would simply be woven into the belief system and taken as supporting adult statements.

It’s hard to know how many comments about demonic possession might be made to or in the presence of young children. But those who believe in demons have elaborate ideas about what demons can do and how they come to possess people. A common belief is that demons are attracted by illicit sexuality; this means that adopted children who were born out of wedlock are quite likely to be possessed, and that this is especially true if the child has been sexually abused, when “demons of lust” may cause the child’s behavior to be sexualized and even to present temptation to adults. (I have no way to find out, but I do wonder whether anyone thought that the girl who was later raped had tempted her attacker.)

The book Pigs in the parlor, published in 1973 and re-issued in 2010 by Frank and Ida Mae Hammond, gives examples of how ordinary childhood behavior is interpreted to children as the results of demonic possession.  Here is one story, told by Ida Mae Hammond: A divorced father came to the Hammonds asking for help in handling his daughter Mary, who was in his custody. She was difficult, stubborn, and rebellious, and he felt he became too angry and punished her excessively. “I said, ‘Mary, your father tells me that you know there are bad spirits.’ Her eyes widened and she began to tell me very seriously how  every night she had to make sure all the doors were locked before she could go to bed. When she got up in the night to get a drink or go to the bathroom she was afraid and had to know personally that all doors were securely locked. I said, ‘Yes, that is fear, Mary. You have demons of fear in your body. They make you afraid and I want to pray for you and make them leave your body. They have gotten inside you and when I pray they will come out of your mouth and leave.’… The Holy Spirit very plainly told me to keep my voice very quiet… Also, to consider every word hereafter that came out of Mary’s mouth to be a demon speaking or to be demon inspired.”

Mrs. Hammond thus offered Mary a reinterpretation of her own anxiety and (apparently) somewhat compulsive behavior, making her actions not an expression of her own concerns, both typical of her age and related to her parents’ divorce. Instead of worries that Mary herself could master with adult support, and whose nature she could recognize, her behavior was recast as the working of an all-powerful spiritual world, with which Mary could cope only with the help of certain adults. Even Mary’s own speech was identified as demonic in origin and not representative of her real thoughts. The natural development of autonomy and the growth of what John Bowlby called goal-corrected partnership with adults  had to be abandoned in order for Mrs.Hammond to believe that she had rescued Mary from various demons.  

Nobody seems to know (and probably nobody will ever know) exactly what messages about themselves were actually communicated to the girls the Harrises so temporarily adopted. However, these demon stories, added to the evidence about Nancy Thomas parenting, raise serious questions about the impact on the girls of their experiences, and raise additional questions about assessments of adoptive parents that omit consideration of potentially dangerous beliefs.


  1. Jean, here is a laugh for you: I am going to the American Adoption Congress conference in Boston this week, and one of their offerings is "Trauma Yoga" every morning! Sound scary:-) They always had a regular yoga offering led by a nice guy, but this is a different person with a different agenda. I think I will go to the gym or pool instead. Lots of other woo too, check it out on the AAC website.

    1. Oh, do go once and see what it is! I confess I'm "traumatized" by my public failure to do some of those poses, so maybe that's it (I don't think).

    2. Pretty sure I experienced "Trauma Yoga" during the class where I let out a loud fart while twisting myself into a Resolved Side Angle pose... ;-)

    3. On a more serious note...

      You said, "(I have no way to find out, but I do wonder whether anyone thought that the girl who was later raped had tempted her attacker.)"

      While I likewise have no way to find out the Harris family's view on this, horrifically there have been some victim-blaming comments in response to the various news articles sympathizing with the rapist because of the child's (alleged) sexualized behavior. It's pretty disturbing that anyone would see that as a justification, but there has indeed been that response to the story.

    4. Hope your yoga class wasn't also traumatized!

      I'll have to try to find the comments you refer to. What a can of worms is opened up by this whole story! Incidentally, I'm told that the Russians are reading the Harris story with horror, and it is certainly not going to make it more likely that they permit adoption by U.S. parents.