Term Paper: Physical Abuse

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¶ … Hunting

At twenty years old, Will (Matt Damon) is a mathematical genius stuck between his abusive past and opportunity for greatness. Booked on assault charges, Will is allowed to leave prison on two conditions that he undergo psychotherapy and that he take math classes with a professor who happens to recognize his untapped brilliance. While complex algebraic concepts and exponential calculus come easy to him, love and trust does not. With the help of his therapist (Robin Williams), Will begins to deal with his issues in the realm of low self-esteem, fear of intimacy, and the long-term consequences of physical abuse earlier in his life. Eventually, Will improves sufficiently to apply his intelligence to pursue Skylar (Minnie Driver), a woman who comes to love him unconditionally, giving him reason to proclaim that his life is worth living after all.

Relevance of Developmental Stages in the Life of the Main Character

While the film does not specify exactly when Will first began to endure the abuses to which he was subjected, the available information seems to suggest that much of the abuse occurred during middle childhood and early adolescence, both of which are particularly crucial periods of psychological development. Statistically, American children appear to be most susceptible to nonfatal physical abuse between the ages of 6 to 12. In that regard, "Children who experience abuse have been found to report more unhappiness and troublesome behavior than children who only witness abuse" (Sternberg et al., 1993).

That is especially unfortunate from the perspective of psychological development and self-esteem, because "the most widely recognized developmental task of this period is the acquisition of feelings of self-competence" (Charlesworth, 2008). During this period, children search for opportunities to demonstrate personal skills, abilities and achievement. Within healthy families, parents, siblings, and members of the extended family play a very critical role in supporting development of self-esteem and of a positive self-image. Will never had the benefit of the healthy family support network necessary for successfully negotiating this period of psychological development. Consequently, he failed to develop a sense of personal competence or the necessary self-esteem to establish his place or role healthily within the network of relationships in his surroundings.

Classic Psychological Issues and Behavioral Manifestations of the Main Character

Abandonment appears to have been a key psychological issue for the main character. Will never met his biological parents, growing up as an orphan after being abandoned by his natural parents. A past history of physical abuse also appears to have had profound influences on his psychological development. In principal, abused children often exhibit specific behavioral indicators of their abuse. Typically, these behavioral indicators of abuse can be readily observed by physicians in the clinical setting. In Will's particular case, he exhibited one of the classic hallmarks of the effects of physical abuse in childhood: extreme lack of self-esteem and confidence in his abilities.

Will suffered from physical and psychological abused during his childhood. He was removed from several foster homes; moreover, the specific reason for his removal was the severe abuse that he suffered. Among other horrors that he endured as a child, Will was burned with cigarettes, stabbed with a knife, and whipped with a leather belt. Essentially, he spent his childhood being abused in one foster home after another until he reached the age where he was finally old enough to live on his own. In one foster home, his foster parents forced him to choose between being whipped with a leather belt or a branch, placing them both on a table side by side. This particular element of this otherwise cruel act may have affected Will in connection with his developing control issues later, by virtue of his being able to exercise minimal control over his abusive situation. More generally, however, Will felt guilty for being smarter than he was supposed to be and believed that his punishment was deserved. Will also exhibited another classic psychological consequence of traumatic abuse in childhood: obsession with perfectionism. In principle, to the extent the child believes that the abuse was deserved because it was his fault, he may develop a perfectionism obsession as a means of avoiding any basis for criticism in the future.

The effects of traumatic abuse, especially in childhood, actually cause identifiable alteration in brain chemistry in a manner very similar to the way that soldiers develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from combat exposure (Perry, 1997; 2006). Among other things, those changes dramatically increase the possibility of their developing mental health difficulties as well as their likelihood of becoming either perpetrators of violence or perpetual victims of future abuse. As is so often the case with children who are abused, Will was came to believe that the world is unpredictable and violent. One of the results of this consequence of abuse is the extinguishment of the natural curiosity of childhood and the desire to explore social environments and relationships with others. Often, these responses persist through the long-term, particularly when they are never addressed in psychotherapy. As is typical of adult victims of childhood abuse, Will pushed people away before they could discover what he believed were his flaws and abandon him. This is a common defense mechanism designed (unconsciously) to protect victims of abuse from being hurt again by being abandoned by others to whom they have allowed themselves to become close. Will had simply stopped indulging in any activity that could have brought him any satisfaction of any kind, largely to avoid the trauma of losing that source of satisfaction.

As is typical of many children who are victimized by abuse, Will resorted to withdrawal as a defense mechanism to avoid further punishment. Will demonstrates this through his oppositional behavior that is incorrectly interpreted as general aggression and hostility for others. To be fair, abused children do often harbor a high level of suppressed anger over their circumstances and their inability to control the circumstances of their lives. Similarly, whether or not they experience violence directly at the hands of their parents or merely witness their parents acting out violently toward others (or on one another), when they are exposed to parental violence as a means of responding to or handling problems, they tend to develop aggressive tendencies of their own. The other principal consequence of childhood abuse relates to the inability to develop trust of others (Morrison, Frank, Holland, & Kates, 1999). In that regard, children who are abused or neglected by caretakers do not form secure attachments to them and experience profound difficulty establishing trusting relationships with others later in life whether with peers or adults and other caretakers prior to adulthood (Morrison, Frank, Holland, & Kates, 1999).

Initially, when Will had to select a therapist, he resorted to making fun of them as a means of constructing a barrier to protect him from having to acknowledge and actually talk about his issues, purposely trying to make them look stupid. By the time he first spoke to John, he had succeeded in alienating and making it impossible for five therapists to help him. Because of his experiences, it was impossible for Will to trust anybody whom he considered outside of the group that he considered his "family." In his case, a group of friends became his only family capable of being trusted.

Will also exhibited the classic forms of juvenile delinquency and adult criminality that are so often linked empirically to abuse in childhood (Widom & Maxfield, 2001). According to one National Institute of Justice (NIJ) study, suffering abuse or neglect in childhood increased the likelihood of juvenile arrest by 59%. By the time the abused child reaches adulthood, a history of abuse and neglect in childhood increased the likelihood of adult criminal behavior by 28% and violent crime by 30% (Widom & Maxfield, 2001).… [END OF PREVIEW]

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