Sunday 20 January 2019

Child abusers have dark thoughts first - that's when to intervene

We can protect youngsters if we concentrate on stopping ideas being turned into action, writes Paula Lawlor

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)

Paula Lawlor

Child sexual abuse and paedophilia are abhorrent to most people. They cause untold damage to victims who have lost their innocence and their childhood. The emotional and psychological scars run deep and are not easily healed.

Much effort has been expended in trying to find out why people prey on and abuse young people. Is it in their biochemistry or brain make-up, their upbringing or early sexual experiences, or have they been abused themselves?

The list of questions and possibilities is long. Many have worked tirelessly to develop and implement ways of working with those who have been convicted of such crimes to reduce the likelihood that they will offend again. Some of these approaches have been proven to be effective in some but not all cases. The reality is that this is an extremely complex issue with no single cause and no single solution.

Everything we do as human beings we do for a reason. These reasons, while they may not make sense to others, make sense to us at the time. We are rational beings and all of our actions and behaviours are influenced by our thinking.

Many people will have thoughts of harming or hurting others, but most don't act on those thoughts. The idea that you would like to punch someone who has annoyed or frustrated you might come into your head but most people don't turn these thoughts into action.

Is this some kind of internal moral compass, is it fear of reprisal or retribution, is it fear of the consequences of taking action that stops us when we have these thoughts?

No one knows for sure. It is probably a combination of all of these and others too. Research has shown that many of those who have decided to commit a crime, such as burglary for example, will not allow themselves to think about the potential consequences of their actions, and that when these thoughts occur put them out of their mind as they might distract them from following through on their plans.

I wonder if this is the case for those who plan crimes involving sexual contact with children, or who create or watch child pornography.

As human beings, when we want something badly enough we have a tendency to turn these wants/desires into demands - we move from I want X, Y or Z to I have to have it quite quickly - sometimes without even noticing that we have done it. We convince ourselves that we have to have whatever it is by finding reasons that make it so.

We minimise potential negative consequences and convince ourselves that it is right for us (and often others) so that we can have what we strongly desire. Then we go and get it.

My question is whether or not this occurs when someone thinks about having sexual contact with a child and, if so, is there a way to intervene early when these thoughts occur to prevent them being rationalised and turned into action?

We find this behaviour so abhorrent that any hint or mention that someone has such a thought is met with such an immediate reaction of fear and disgust and a need to avert action that we demonise the individual, sometimes by naming and shaming and most often by rejecting the person as someone who is evil and beyond redemption.

We make the assumption that shame or fear of punishment will deter when evidence shows that shame makes us hide away (often driving things underground in a more sinister way) and fear of punishment does not act as a deterrent (the death penalty for the crime of murder is a case in point).

We do this rather than trying to intervene to stop the thought being turned into action.

If there was a service, run by qualified and experienced people, that could create a space where people could speak about the fact that they are having these thoughts at an early stage in their occurrence without fear of being tried and convicted before they have acted on their thoughts then interventions could be made to help them prevent themselves from turning thought into action.

The knowledge that thought does not have to become action and that there are strategies that we can employ to stop ourselves from rationalising our thoughts to make action acceptable could be useful.

Having the support to put these strategies into action and to develop and implement action plans for what the individual will do when the thoughts occur, as they may, could act as a preventative measure.

Everyone knows that prevention is better than cure and the reality is that the earlier we intervene the more likely it is that the intervention will be successful.

If intervention at the earliest stage could prevent even one child from going through the pain that paedophilia and child sexual abuse causes then why would we not consider this as an option?

Paula Lawlor is a psychologist/CBT therapist

Sunday Independent

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