July 11, 2013

Today's wave of OCD stems from yesterday's wave of childhood sexual abuse

There are certainly many pathways that lead toward OCD behaviors in adults, and I sketched out the place of OCD in the broader web of dysfunction seen during cocooning times. I traced it mostly to social isolation.

However, there is another major, separate pathway by which OCD rises during a period of falling crime and cocooning -- the effects in adulthood of sexual abuse in childhood. During a rising-crime period, such abuse becomes more common, since violent crimes track one another over time. What happens when these young victims become adults old enough to be raising children of their own? That will unfold much later, when the crime rate is in its falling rather than rising phase, and when the broader society has started to cocoon.

Here is a brief journal article on the relationships between childhood sexual abuse, obsessive-compulsive behaviors in adulthood, parenting styles, and their children's perfectionism, anxiety, and other negative emotional states. Not all of it has been mapped out, but it looks like a fair amount has been uncovered.

Adults who have a history of childhood sexual abuse are more likely to develop OCD behavior. So part of the rise of OCD over the past 20 years is due to the emergence of adulthood symptoms of childhood abuse, sustained during the epidemic of the '60s through the '80s, but particularly during the '80s.

Somehow the abused parents transmit perfectionism to their children. Other studies suggested it was through the parents' OCD, with the kids adopting a perfectionist style to comply with their parents' OCD. This one didn't find such an effect, although none of the parents here had clinical levels of OCD. Perhaps the abused parents practice more permissive or authoritarian parenting styles, which are associated with perfectionism in children. They didn't measure parenting style here, so that's just a guess.

Whatever the mechanism turns out to be, though, it's clear that childhood sexual abuse leaves its mark on the victim, who as a parent expresses adulthood symptoms, which their child responds to by becoming more anxious and perfectionist.

Generation X and Gen Y was the most susceptible to sexual abuse as children, and their children, the Millennials, are the most anxious, self-doubting, and perfectionist generation in decades. So the study results would seem to apply to long-term changes and generational dynamics at the society level.

There was an earlier epidemic of sex abuse toward children during the 1920s (also a period of rising homicide rates), making the Greatest Generation the main targets. When they became parents in the mid-century, a good number would have been expressing symptoms -- OCD behavior, permissive or authoritarian parenting styles, or whatever -- that their children, the Silent Generation, responded to by being anxious, perfectionist, etc., just like the Millennials.

So here's a separate but crucial pathway whereby falling-crime periods are marked by a rise in OCD -- the delayed effects of an epidemic of childhood sexual abuse from the earlier, rising-crime period.

The flipside of that is the Baby Boomers having had relatively safe and abuse-free childhoods during the 1950s and early '60s, and growing up to become more well-adjusted parents -- not overly permissive or authoritarian -- and whose kids were not perfectionist, in childhood anyway.

I don't think the questionnaires used to measure abuse set the threshold at forcible rape. It probably includes a lot of gray-area encounters. Not that many victims of the worst forms of child abuse would tell everybody about it as adults, let alone those who experienced the milder or murkier forms. So just because you haven't heard of too many people having had such experiences, doesn't mean they did not. Rampant OCD these days is one sign that there are more people than you'd think who had something happen to them when they were little back in the '70s or '80s.

To end with a case study for further reading, here is one mother's account of her OCD drive to keep her kids' room uncluttered and immaculate, to the point where she snapped one day and took away all of their toys. And here is her personal history, where she says that it all started with sexual abuse when she was in elementary school in the mid-to-late 1980s.

The literature review in the article tells us that this link is not a coincidence, but read through both to get a better feel for the connections that run from sexual abuse, vulnerability, and violated trust in childhood to an OCD parenting style in adulthood. That awareness, plus a sense of the timing of the sex abuse epidemic, helps to clarify why there seems to be such a paranoid and distrusting undercurrent to our culture of OCD.

It's not just the nerdy-spergy kind of OCD -- there's this palpable suspicion of the polluting and disruptive influences of strangers. That's why you have to seal your children off from their peers, from all other grown-ups, home-school them, home-church them, and so on.


  1. How many people really suffered child abuse, compared to the universal experience of the 90s boom in 'child abuse awareness' agitprop: McMartin preschool false accusations, divorced moms screwing their ex false accusations, a very special episode of Blossom fustian on the one hand.
    On the other hand, higher bastardy rates are bound to expose higher rates of kids growing up seeing one horny strange guy after another pass through their homes.

  2. And on the other hand, in the '70s and '80s there was the Catholic Church and other religious institutions, the Boy Scouts, etc. Way bigger than some podunk preschool, and the abuse was real.

    People take away the wrong message from the McMartin preschool thing. They make it seem like that was typical, vs. the documented abuse epidemic in the far larger institutions like the churches, Boy Scouts, and so on.

    It makes it sound like the "moral panic" had no basis. It did, though when you minimize false negatives, you'll get some false positives.

  3. But getting back to the point of the post -- the effect that childhood abuse would have on parenting style in adulthood, and how that may affect their own children.

    It might not require something serious like forcible rape or some creep giving a little girl a kiss right on the mouth, to trigger this chain of effects that led to OCD and permissive or authoritarian parenting styles, and OCD-like behavior in their children.

    Milder forms of unwanted physical attention could lead to OCD, if they were uncomfortable enough for the kid to seek out perfectionist coping strategies.

    That milder / murkier / gray-area stuff was way more common than the far extreme of rape, which was just the tip of the iceberg.

  4. I'm not buying this theory. I'd need to see data there was this shift in abuse (or quasi-abuse, whatever) rates, and that portion of people affected would be high enough for observable aggregate effects. Additionally, most child abuse is by relatives. So restricting interactions to kin wouldn't help much.

    Finally, like Steve Pinker & Chip Smith, I suspect Judith Levine is closer to the truth than the conventional wisdom. See also the Rind et al. controversy.

  5. http://www.unh.edu/ccrc/pdf/CV137J.pdf

    Why Have Child Maltreatment and Child Victimization Declined?

    "and that portion of people affected would be high enough for observable aggregate effects."

    Remember that I said this was a separate pathway, not the main one to OCD, which has to do with social isolation.

    "Additionally, most child abuse is by relatives. So restricting interactions to kin wouldn't help much."

    Right, "relatives" like mommy's new boyfriend.

    "Judith Levine"

    What does she have to do with this? You imagined an argument saying that victims of sex abuse as kids had these extreme emo problems. But what I wrote was that it leads to OCD type behavior, and the lit review in the article I linked to bears that out.

    Most people don't consider OCD, perfectionism, or permissive / authoritarian parenting styles to be crippling psychological scars, which is what Judith Levine is talking about. Totally different.

    Don't fire off comments when you're on a sugar rush. It's sloppy and annoying.

  6. Wouldn't the kids born in the late 80s and early 90s also have suffered disproportionately high levels of child abuse?


  7. They were infants or toddlers during the peak, so probably not. Usually physical abuse hits kids who are in elementary school or older.

  8. The Finkelhor & Jones paper is quite convincing. It notes that the increase in single-parent families would predict more of the "mommy's boyfriend" problem, in contrast to the observed decrease in abuse. Has there been a change in cohabitation rates among single mothers?

    The point about Judith Levine is similar to the one made by Judith Harris, basically piggybacking off Trivers' theory of genetic conflict. Children have evolved to be robust rather than permanently impacted by childhood history. Is there an evolutionary reason why it would be beneficial to develop adult OCD as a result of childhood abuse?

    "Don't fire off comments when you're on a sugar rush"
    Actually, I hadn't eaten for hours when I last commented.

  9. There was an earlier epidemic of sex abuse toward children during the 1920s (also a period of rising homicide rates), making the Greatest Generation the main targets.

    Is this across the whole 00s - 20s period? If it's just the 20s, then it would seem like it would affect, the tail end of the Greatest Generation. Someone who was 10 in '25 would have kids when they were around 20 themself, in around '35, and the Baby Boomers began in around '42.

    It seems like the Greatest as parents would be split between being parents to the Silents and the Baby Boomers - the articles you've linked to earlier identified the Flamers (Flaming Youth) as the parents of the Silent Gen didn't they?


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