Child Abuse, Shame, Rage and Violence

by Mary Katherine Armstrong

This paper proposes that most violence has its roots in early childhood abuse and neglect. Whether it is a question of adolescent gang violence, adults fighting in a bar, wife and child abuse, or acts of terrorism, the origins of violence lie in abusing and shaming children. If we wish to live in a peaceful world where we are able to mature emotionally and relate to each other with empathy and compassion, the need to provide a safe, nurturing environment for all children should be our highest priority.

Recent brain imaging surveys and other neurobiological research show that child abuse and neglect can cause permanent damage to the neural structure and function of the still developing brain of the child (Teicher, M., 2002, pp.68-75).

In the March 2002, Scientific American, Teicher proposes that these changes In the brain are the body's attempt to adapt to a dangerous world. "Exposure to early stress generates molecular and neurobiological effects that alter neural development in an adaptive way that prepares the adult brain to survive and reproduce in a dangerous world" (p.75).

Teicher and his fellow researchers asked themselves what traits or capacities might have been beneficial for survival in the harsh conditions of primitive times? In other words, what survival adaptations might the brain have used to allow humans to survive among warring tribes, constant dangers from wild animals and the constant threat of attack?

Some of the more obvious are the potential to mobilize an intense fight-or-flight response, to react aggressively to challenge without undue hesitation, to be at heightened alert for danger and to produce robust stress responses that facilitate recovery from injury. In this sense, we can reframe the brain changes we observed as adaptations to an adverse environment.

Teicher goes on to hypothesize that:

. . .adequate nurturing and the absence of intense early stress permits our brains to develop in a manner that is less aggressive and more emotionally stable, social, empathic and hemispherically integrated. We believe that this process enhances the ability of social animals to build more complex inter­personal structures and enables humans to better realize their creative potential (p.75).

Today's children, at least in America and Europe, are rarely in danger of attack by wild animals or hostile strangers. Their stressors come from an environment which fails to provide secure attachment to a consistent nurturing figure, safety from frightening stimuli, and an absence of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

There is a particular sequence of emotions underlying most human violence. We can track it in the cycle of shame-to-rage-to-violence.

The German nation offers us a study in what can happen to people who were stressed by child rearing and world events. Germany is a nation we can look to for an understanding of the outcome of lifelong trauma, the ensuing shame and the resulting violence. (To qualify as trauma, an event must have been both intolerable and inescapable.) Most Germans suffered incredible trauma, beginning with their childhoods. Let us look at a hypothetical chronology of a German boy who is 17 years old in 2002. That means he was born in 1985.

Suppose his parents were born in 1952, seven years after the war was over and Germany was struggling to piece the nation together. His grandparents were born in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. They were children during The Second World, and no doubt witnessed inescapable and intolerable events. Their parents, the great grandparents of our 17 year old, were born around the turn of the twentieth century - the time Hitler and the National Socialists were born.

The great grandparents were children during the First World War, a time when most German children were hungry. Fathers and teachers were fighting at the front. Mothers were out working or trying to scavenge food for their children. A child's life was one of chaos.

By the time of The Second World War, these great grandparents were those adults who got swept up in the mania of National Socialism's promise of restoring Germany's pride. You can imagine how traumatized they were, once more, by the horrors of a bloody war being fought right in their own country - by the bombing raids and the death of so many of their loved ones - not to mention the horrors they had seen with their own eyes as their side perpetrated monstrous deeds of killing Jews, gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, and anyone else they wanted to get rid of. And these Germans parented the people who gave birth to the parents of our 17 year old.

On top of all this violence - or I should say, underlying all this violence-was the child abuse almost all Germans suffered, regardless of their economic or social class. German children were traditionally raised with a pedagogy which was thorough and exact in its instructions on how to raise an abused child right from babyhood. The Germans call it schwarze pedagogik, black pedagogy.

Of course, child abuse is common in every country. We certainly have our own horror stories in North America. My point is that intense shaming of children is deliberately built into the schwarze pedagogik of traditional German child rearing (Rutschky, 1983).

Let me give you an example. Dr. Daniel Gottlieb Moritz Schreber.was a prominent German doctor who set himself up as an authority on child psychology. In 1858 his books on child rearing were so popular with German parents, that some of them went through forty printings. Of course, the parents who bought the books did not even remotely suspect that they were purchasing manuals on how to expose their children to a systematic form of torture with long term effects.

Dr. Shreber's psychology started with the newborn baby who should be drilled from the very first day to obey and refrain from crying. Master the crying baby through frightening it, and "you will be master of the child forever. From then on, a glance, a word, a single threatening gesture will be sufficient to control the child" (Miller, 1990, p.10). As a result of admonitions to avoid physical demonstrations such as stroking, cuddling and kissing, all these German infants suffered from the absence of direct, loving contact with their parents. Today's extensive research into attachment theory makes clear the damage done by such unattuned parenting.

Germany was the only nation which gave precise details on how to discipline babies through frightening them. German children were reared according to detailed rules, designed to produce children who were cut off from their own ability to think things through and come to satisfactory personal decisions. Humiliation, these child rearing experts pronounced, is the key to producing adults who will always obey authority figures and never act in accordance with their own will. Alice Miller tell us that dependence on authority, plus intense shaming of children, produced the generation of Germans who obediently followed Hitler into the Second World War and found their emotional release in carrying out atrocities. She says:

Of course children in other countries have been and still are mistreated in the name of upbringing and care-giving, but hardly already as babies and hardly with the systematic thoroughness characteristic of the Prussian pedagogy. In the two generations before Hitler's rise to power, the implementation of this method was brought to a high degree of perfection in Germany (1998, p.574).

This shame/rage/violence cycle clearly played itself out when Germans who had been traumatized in childhood took out their rage on Jews and others who reminded them of themselves when they were helpless children. They projected onto others all their own "bad" qualities which they had never been able to accept in themselves. Jews became dirty, greedy schemers, plotting to overthrow the rightful authorities. Concentration camp guards had the perfect opportunity to restage their own childhood raumas. Prisoners were helpless to defend themselves or to escape.

Their captors, urged on by the state, indulged in humiliating defenceless Jews. In fact, every German's repetition compulsion seems to have found place in the hierarchy of terror which characterized the Nazi period. Men who had once been shamed as children now had the opportunity to demand of others the cadaver-like obedience their fathers had exacted. They, in turn, gave automatic, unthinking obedience to their masters in the Third Reich's hierarchy of command.

In their book Emotions and Violence, Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger provide a dramatic portrait of Hitler as a prime example of a beaten, shamed child who vividly plays out the shame/rage/violence sequence. Hitler was brutally beaten by his father to the point that he was finally able not to feel the beatings. Nor, it seems, was he able to feel his shame. Hitler is known for his rages - not about the abuse he'd suffered at the hands of his father - but about the "shame of Versailles", the harsh reparations imposed on Germany by the victors after the First World War. During his imprisonment in 1932 (for trying to overthrow the government of Bavaria), Hitler wrote Mein Kampf (My Struggle) his famous book.

Particularly our German people which today lies broken and defenceless, exposed to the kicks of all the world, needs that suggestive force that lies in self­confidence. This self-confidence must be inculcated in the young national comrade from childhood on. His whole education and training must be so ordered as to give him the conviction that he is absolutely superior to others (Scheff and Retzinger p.154).

In the light of what followed, the world witnessed Hitler's cure for the pain of being shamed. As an adult, he was constantly fearful he would appear ridiculous. He never allowed anyone to see him relaxing and playing with his dogs. His anxieties about appearing ridiculous, weak, vulnerable, incompetent, or in any way inferior are indications of this endless battle with shame. Hitler was often described by those around him as shy and avoiding eye contact, suggesting a pervasive state of shame (pp.151-152).

His anger served as a disguise for hidden shame, projecting onto the outside world the feelings of shame that were unacknowledged within. Persons who are in a state of chronic shame often avoid and deny their emotional pain by obsessive preoccupation. Hitler's obsession, the "Jewish problem" was based on his notion that the "Aryan race" was the superior one and the Jewish people were inferior. His many obsessions with superiority-inferiority, racial purity, pollution, and contamination are typical ways of bypassing feelings of shame (pp. 152-153).

Only in a nation of traumatized people could Hitler's fury have:

produced a program responsive to the craving of his public for a sense of community and pride rather than alienation and shame. Since neither their alienation nor their pride was acknowledged, both Hitler and his public were trapped in a never-ending cycle of humiliation, rage, and vengeful aggression (p.141).

Schwarze Pedagogik produced a nation of people who longed for a sense of belonging and the ability to form meaningful bonds. National Socialism appeared to meet this need. Even after he became the adored leader of millions of people, Hitler apparently had no secure bond with anyone(p.146). Clearly, he shared his sense of isolation and shame with the huge numbers of Germans who were seduced by Hitler's promise of solidarity and pride.

In 1934, Theodore Abel went to Germany under the auspices of Columbia University. He offered a prize to members of the Nazi party for the best autobiographical essays. The answers are moving and reveal the essayists' longing for the ideology contained in Hitler's slogan: "Gemeinnutz vor Eigennutz". Abel explains that the term "combines the meaning of 'unity', 'devotion to the community', mutual aid, brotherly love, and kindred social values (Abel, p.137).

Just suppose someone had stopped the father from brutally beating his son? What if Hitler had somehow faced the rage he felt, instead of playing it out in the world? What if he had acknowledged his shame, instead of launching into his compulsive schemes for wiping out others? As humans, we restage our childhood stories out in the world. In Germany where the rule of the father was absolute, where you had to love your father no matter how he humiliated you, the results stand clear to be seen by us all.

When it comes to child rearing, we reap what we sow.


Abel, Theodore. (1938). Why Hitler Came Into Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Miller, Alice. (1990). For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Toronto: Harper Collins Canada.
Miller, Alice. "The Political Consequences of Child Abuse" in The Journal of Psychohistory, Volume 26 (2), Fall 1998.
Rutschky, Katarina. (1983). Deutsche Kinder Chronik. Cologne: Verlag, Kiepenheuer and Witsch.
Scheff, Thomas and Retzinger, Suzanne. (1991). Emotions and Violence: Shame and Rage in Destructive Conflicts. Toronto: Lexington Books.
Teicher, Martin H. "Scars That Won't Heal: The Neurobiology Of Child Abuse" in Scientific American, pp. 68-7 5, March 2002.

Mary Katherine Armstrong is a social work psychotherapist in private practice in Toronto, Canada. She specializes in treating adults and children suffering from childhood trauma. She teaches and presents her work in Canada, the United States and Europe.

This article originally appeared in the Summer, 2003 issue of
The Journal of Psychohistory

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