Most parents cannot even imagine doing anything to harm their own children, and in fact go to great lengths to ensure that their children are as healthy and happy as possible. There is however, an entirely different breed of parents who abuse their children in unspeakable and unfathomable ways.
The media and the scholarly literature are laden with examples and attempted explanations of physical, sexual and emotional child abuse. While all of these actions are inexplicable to most people, one derivative that is especially perplexing is the syndrome known as Munchausen(‘s) Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP).
MSBP is a form of child abuse that is beyond most people’s comprehension, not only because of the inherent cruelty of inducing or fabricating a child’s illness, but also because of the illogical nature of the syndrome. Although most people would never succumb to, for example, the urge to hit a child to get them to stop screaming, they can understand on some level where a less controlled parent might inflict physical abuse in the heat of anger.
However the calculated and diabolical nature of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, which leads the Proxy (the mother) to subject her child to the physical and emotional trauma of being chronically under medical care, seems to have no logic behind it. Most of us who have heard stories on the news about traditional physical abuse cases cannot help but ask ourselves “How could mother do that?” Yet in the case of MSBP, the foremost question becomes “Why would a mother do that?”
The reasons behind Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy are in many ways difficult to understand. However the majority of research literature seems to agree that the driving factor on the part of the mother is a desperate and insatiable need for attention. Therefore while Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy centers on medical conditions, it is ultimately a mental condition.
Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is most often found in mothers who induce disease in their children or who falsely report symptoms that result in medical evaluations. In a 1994 clinical study, of 117 cases of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, 98% of the perpetrators were the mothers of the children. Nine percent of the children died.
The prevalence of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy is high enough to be recognized as a health hazard to children, and has been defined as a form of child abuse. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases have been reported to date. A wide variety of diseases have been produced or simulated in children, usually in those under the age of five, since that is when they are least able to verbalize the truth. Methods of inducing symptoms may include smothering to the point of apnea; placing toxic substances in the mouths of infants, such as ipecac (which leads to vomiting) or phenolphthalein (which induces diarrhea);or falsely reporting symptoms such as seizures.
Once the child/victim has been hospitalized, the mother plays the role of the concerned, loving parent, always there, helpful and cooperative with the nurses. It has been proposed that by playing the role of the concerned mother of a sick child, the perpetrator becomes a central part of the drama and, as a result, receives support and care from others.
Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy is a complex psychological disorder that is often misdiagnosed, despite its well-documented history in the medical literature. Victims of Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy will induce a wide range of illnesses in their dependent victims. At times, these illnesses are psychological; however, most often they are very real, and frequently they are life threatening.
MSBP sufferers who attack their children are often trying to communicate their own anxiety, depression, extreme need for attention, and inability to care for their children. They are crying out for help and may be attempting to compensate for traumatic losses in their own early life.
It is not uncommon to learn that individuals who suffer from Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy have experienced a childhood dominated by discord, domestic violence, and abuse. Unfortunately, these victims later become the perpetrators of violence against their own children; violence that is unremitting and often fatal.