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Apportioning blame won't heal abuse

There has been much recent discussion about the Westminster government's proposal to criminalise parents' emotional neglect of children. The hope is that such legislation will enable us to take emotional abuse as seriously as we now take physical and sexual abuse. That is a laudable aim.

My worry is that we will seduce ourselves into believing that such legislation solves the problem. It doesn't. Children's pain remains even if their parent is behind bars.

We need to be careful that criminalisation doesn't end up simply telling us who to blame. This doesn't heal children's pain. They are left to carry the rage, confusion and grief caused by abuse. To solve neglect, we must be more interested in healing than in blaming.

Neuroscience tells us that feeling ignored, humiliated, scared and unloved during your childhood warps brain development. Those feelings become knitted into your neural pathways. The real solution to emotional abuse lies in adults' willingness to listen to children's pain. Figures from the Scottish Human Rights Commission show that 80 per cent of people incarcerated in the country's prisons for violent offences were once in the care system. These are not "evil" adults. They were children who once went unheard. Unresolved pain begets more pain.

It isn't just "vulnerable children" who are affected. Mark Cousins' brilliant new documentary, A Story of Children and Film, reveals the many worlds of children that we adults are too busy to notice. Emotional abuse can best be solved by more adults becoming willing to listen to children's pain.

Dr Suzanne Zeedyk

Developmental psychologist and honorary fellow at the University of Dundee

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