When does families’ overprotectiveness tip over into psychological abuse?

Blair McPherson says social workers must be given the time to support adults assert their rights to self-determination in the face of familial overprotectiveness

Social worker and person with learning disabilities
Photo: John Birsdall/Rex

By Blair McPherson

A 2014 study published in the American Psychological Association’s  Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy journal said that identifying psychological abuse among children should be at the forefront of social work training because of the impact on victims. But it is also a significant issue among adults.

Those who work with adults will have come across the domineering daughter who looks after her older mum, makes her walk every day because it’s good for her arthritis despite the pain, manages her money because she can’t be trusted to pay the bills, regulates the central heating because mum has it far too high and then can’t pay the bills. Mum is a diabetic so daughter shops for her online to ensure mum eats the right things, not those chocolate biscuits she is so fond of. Online shopping is also to discourage trips to the corner shop to waste money on scratch cards.

Daughter discourages the “so-called friends” because they take advantage. Daughter accompanies mum to the doctors because she can’t rely on mum to say the right thing or be sure she will understand what she has been told. And when daughter thinks the time has come she will arrange for mum to go into a home. Is this psychological abuse?

The overprotective parent

Those who work with adults with a learning disability are familiar with the overprotective parent. Now that people with a learning disability are living longer they can expect to outlive their parents. This is a source of great anxiety to many parents. The parent is adamant their son or daughter would never be able to live independently so there is no point in travel training, or learning to cook or manage a household budget. They will live at home with their parents and when that becomes too much for them they will select a nice residential home not far away. Is this psychological abuse?
Whether or not you feel the behaviour in the examples given goes far enough to warrant the term psychological abuse, there is clearly a need for intervention. The individual’s right to a lifestyle of their choice can not be overridden simply because the daughter disapproves; an older person should not be forced into giving up their home to go into residential care just because this would make her daughter “feel better”. People have the right to independence, the right to chose their friends, and live a lifestyle of their choice.

Some people may need help and support  to exercise these rights and take on an overprotective family. Skilled intervention would help the family understand the need for independence but not withdraw completely. If social workers aren’t given the time to do this who will?

Blair McPherson is an author, blogger and former social worker and director of community services.

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