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I get along really well with my wife’s brother and his spouse. Our families spend a lot of time together at dinners and on family vacations and it’s always pleasant. The only problem is I have a very strong desire to hurt their 3-year-old son. Don’t get me wrong: I would never, ever do it and he’s a sweet kid who has never done me any wrong. However, when I see him and hold him, I feel it deep inside. I want to hurt him and sometimes I have violent fantasies about what I could do to him. It came on so strong the first time I saw him that it terrified and overwhelmed me, making me feel sick for days after. I’ve never felt this way about any other kid and generally love spending time around children. Why do I feel this way and what can I do about it?
—I Want to Hurt My Nephew
First of all, put the boy down. Of course I don’t know what’s going on, but until you explore this and get some handle on your feelings and their cause, you have to severely limit your interactions with this child. That means never being alone with him and, when you are at family events, keeping away from him as much as possible. I spoke to Sherry Hamby, research professor of psychology at Sewanee and founding editor of the journal Psychology of Violence. She said she couldn't identify your problem based on your brief letter, but observed that one possibility was that you were feeling sexual desire for your nephew, or that perhaps he sparked the remembrance of a long-buried childhood trauma of your own. Hamby said that it is extremely common for psychologically healthy people to have fleeting, violent fantasies, and most of these are not worth getting worked up over. But your description of what’s happening is strangely both deep and shallow. That is, you’re so shaken by the intensity of your reaction that you’re sickened for days. Yet you’ve given a very superficial account of what’s going on, with no self-probing beyond asserting your love of children. Hamby recommends telling someone close to you about all this. She says even though your thoughts are horrifying you, it can sometimes be a kick having such a dark secret about yourself, and voicing your fantasies may possibly deflate them. She advises you consider telling your wife that you’re concerned about your reaction to your nephew. This will be a difficult conversation, but your wife will then be alerted to what’s going on and will surely support a plan to distance yourself from your nephew, or even skip some family events. I certainly agree with Hamby when she says that seeing a therapist is in order. You need to do a lot more digging to find out what about this child is triggering such terrifying, overwhelming, and persistent thoughts. You need someone with professional training to help you make sure you keep your vow never to hurt this, or any, child.
Update, Aug. 29, 2014: Many readers, including mental health professionals, have pointed out that the letter writer's symptoms could mean he has OCD—such intrusive thoughts are one hallmark. So of course the letter writer needs to seek the help of a professional to get a diagnosis and treatment.
I’m a 56-year-old single professional woman in Manhattan who is childless by choice. I have a great job, travel a week or two a month, primarily to Europe, and love taking advantage of all the cultural opportunities New York offers. My 45-year-old sister, my only sibling, desperately wanted children. She took massive doses of hormones and has a daughter who is now 3 years old. They live in a small city in the Great Plains and I have seen my niece only twice: once at her christening and once for Christmas last year. Like Elizabeth Edwards and so many others who gave birth late (do these women truly understand the risks?), my sister developed breast cancer. She likely has only a few months to live. My sister is now begging me to adopt her child. She has a difficult personality and does not make friends easily, nor is she close to other relatives. I find children fairly irritating. Moving a 3-year-old who just lost her mother to New York and trying to fit her into my well-established life seems impossible. I think my sister should contact her church or local social services agency, maybe even the press. Once the word gets out that this (presumably) adorable little girl needs a good home, people will respond and my sister can help pick her daughter’s new parents. Do you have any other suggestions? I don’t want to seem insensitive but there’s just no way I can take on this responsibility.
—Not a Mother
I’d rather not imagine what you sound like when you do want to seem insensitive. You’ve managed to blame your sister for her breast cancer, and even though you actually flew out for a second gander at your niece last winter, you’re not willing to go on the record that she’s adorable. How odd to think that the many strangers who read your letter will have a more powerful emotional response about this soon-to-be orphaned little girl than you do. I agree with you that it would be madness, and cruelty, for someone so lacking empathy to take in this child. I also believe that relatives who for whatever reason (age, health, professional commitments, financial stress) feel unequipped to raise a relative’s child should not be shamed into doing so. But surely, given the exigencies here, you can put your cultural activities on hold and find the time to help place your niece in a loving home. Dying takes up a great deal of bandwidth, so your sister desperately needs someone to oversee this agonizing process. You can start by reading this guide to private adoptions. Then you should contact a reputable adoption attorney or adoption agency in your sister’s state to get the process going. Take some vacation and fly out to help your dying sister vet the potential parents. If you open your heart even for this short time, you will feel a sense of satisfaction and comfort knowing that though your sister won’t be able to raise her little girl, you helped find your niece a home where she is loved and cherished.