Potentials for regression in defenses in children at times of stress are now a traditional element of the psychiatric literature. Less well-remarked is the truism that divorce should be expected to evoke regressions in children because of its stressful nature. Many otherwise sophisticated parents are genuinely surprised that the children react "so strongly." Some slippages in developmental staging of defenses (or adaptational maneuvers) in children include:
Potentials for such increased primitivity or regression in instinct and/or defensive structure in children leads to the likelihood of some variety of regressed behavior for a greater or lesser time. Examples of such regression include:
In all of the potentialities listed above for children, the basic theme is that a child faced with domestic turmoil is thrown into acute (or chronic) severe stress which creates a ripe setting for regressed psychic function and/or behavior by the child. In other words, the child may misinterpret the actions of grownups (toward each other or toward the child him/herself); or the child may affirmatively act out some of the child's own anxiety in ambiguous but worrisome fashion (e.g., the child who masturbates after visits with a non-custodial father). These regressions are sometimes, but not always, more obvious in younger children.
It is entirely possible for otherwise ambiguous activities then to be elaborated by the child. (14) or other reporters into genuine, truthful, but nonvalid perceptions of abuse. A poignant emotional reality is that children in such situations are not "lying" but are not "telling the truth" either in the customary or testimonial sense. The child may have sufficient abstract concepts of right/wrong or truth/falsehood to qualify as a competent witness in general, but in the particular matter at hand the child may well be incapable of distinguishing an "objective" truth from inevitable subjective interpretations.
Lying is a separate and later developmental capability of children which involves knowing use of mistruths with the intent to deceive. It often appears in the late latency age range. This may have been the situation in case 3, which involved the oldest alleged victim in this series.
In early latency years, discerning the difference between "make-believe," and a "lie," and a child's genuine belief that happens to be inaccurate (including some wishes by the child) is extremely difficult. The emotional stress caused by domestic relations problems makes such distinctions even more difficult in children caught up in domestic turmoil.
The psychiatric point of view (15) aims to discern and clarify motives, and then to explain them, not just to report. This should take into account the phenomenon that a child may serve as a relatively passive screen for projectional fantasies by adults who are regression-prone under the influence of domestic stress at first, but that the child may later on become an active protagonist on his/her own in the drama. As noted above, the child may be a producer of an ambiguous report which then gets magnified and projected back onto the child in a "positive feedback loop" which increases the ultimate distortions. The children in this series were not thought by any investigator to have been consciously, deliberately "brainwashed," and with the possible exception of the teenager in case 3 they were consistently perceived by everyone as sincere.
Additional sources of potential regression in domestic relations litigation are to be found in attorneys and in the adversary system itself. On occasion, attorneys become over-involved in cases and supply some of their own interpretations and motivations for litigation. Such was the case with the X family described above. It is understandably difficult for everyone involved in domestic relations cases to remain "passionately detached" at times when potentially lurid matters are discussed. There are fine lines to be drawn between representing a client (including the State as client for prosecutors), attending to the rights of children who are not clients; trying to serve the ends of an abstract concept of "justice," and being manipulated.
Finally, the adversary system itself has inherent limitations when the task at hand requires evaluation of family situations which contain a network of conflicting loyalties. Often there are no clean-cut adversaries and parties cannot meaningfully be distinguished on one "side" of a case or another; sometimes the same party has two conflicting interests in the same case. This is often true of children caught up in incestuous families.
The adversary system tends naturally to generate "part-investigations" with the hope that a modified trial by combat will reveal the most truthful party. Often, there is little discerning revelation or evaluation of the mixed motives of a reporter; or if there is concern about such motives, full examination may be impossible. In case 7 above, it was impossible to uncover all of the mixed motivations of the seven-year old girl who testified against her father at his rape trial, though most of the trial participants sensed that there was more to the story than the criminal court was presented with. Rules of evidence do not always do full justice to human entanglements in civil litigation either.
Five clear-cut recommendations emerge from the discussion above: