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Emotional congruence with children: Recent developments in an old concept

Ian McPhail

In the past number of years, a few colleagues and I have embarked on a line of research examining emotional congruence with children in sexual offenders against children.  The set of psychological processes typically included within this concept highlight the perceived intimate nature of relationships males who commit sexual offences against children have with children and their understanding of these relationships.  Basically, emotional congruence with children suggests the notion that some men feel more comfortable around children than adults, think of children as their friends, are emotionally attracted to children, and may even yearn for the trappings of childhood.

Since the 1980s, sexologists and forensic researchers have been studying this form of relationships with children as psychological processes that are possible risk factors for sexual offending against children.  For clinicians and researchers, the idea that some men feel more comfortable around children than adults, think of children as their friends, and identify emotionally with children, has become a target for trying to prevent offending against children.

“Emotional congruence with children predicts re-offending against children after sexual offenders re-enter the community.”

In the past 15 years, our understanding of emotional congruence has been a touch stagnant in terms of empirical research and theory; however, there have been some developments.  In 2005, Karl Hanson and Kelly Morton-Bourgon published research showing that emotional congruence with children predicts re-offending against children after sexual offenders re-enter the community. In other words, individuals who have offended against a child and see themselves as being more child-like, long for childhood, enjoy spending time with children, and see relationships with children as reciprocally intimate are at heightened risk to offend against a child again.

An important thing to note is that this research only relates to those who have offended against children in the past.  I note this because it is important not to generalize these findings too far, since one can easily think of people in their lives that enjoy being around children and seem ‘childish’ themselves. We should not apply these kinds of findings outside of individuals who have already offended.

Building on these past findings, we (Kevin Nunes, Chantal Hermann, and I) followed-up on Hanson’s work.  In our meta-analysis, we again found the basic relationship between emotional congruence against children and re-offending.  But we delved a little further into the literature a bit further: we also showed that past research tells us that this connection between emotional congruence and re-offending only holds for individuals who offend against unrelated children, but not for those who offend against children within their family.

To try to understand why this factor may not hold true for incest offenders, we started to think that for those who have their own children, it seems intuitive that they would have to distance themselves emotionally from their child in order to be able to offend against them.  Parents, typically and hopefully, have a warm, caring attitude toward and strong emotional bond toward their children.  To sexually abuse one’s own child, we can intuit that part of the process involves a breakdown of these emotional processes.

“…these relationships and understandings of relationships with children might not happen in a vacuum, and will involve other aspects of a person’s sexuality and personality.”

On a second leg of our research on the topic, Chantal Hermann and I put our heads together and started to think about how these relationships and understandings of relationships with children might not happen in a vacuum, and will involve other aspects of a person’s sexuality and personality.  This lead to collaboration with Yolanda Fernandez, Karl Hanson, and Maaike-Leslie Helmus to start to identify some other psychological issues that might be associated with emotional congruence.  Through these conversations, we started to develop a set of ideas regarding how an individual’s understanding of children, their emotional connection to children, and their expectations of intimacy with children might be connected to other aspects of their functioning.

What we found is that emotional congruence is indeed associated with a number of important factors that are involved in people offending against children.  Namely, we found that among men convicted of sex offences who experience a pervasive sense of loneliness and lack of meaningful connection with others, experience sexual attraction to children, use sex as a means of coping with negative emotions, and are pre-occupied with sex are more likely to exhibit emotional congruence with children.  We have a second manuscript that is currently under review that replicates many of these findings in a sample of adult male sexual offenders living in the community.

Taking all this research we have been doing and considering it together, we can see a few trends that deserve highlighting:

First, emotional congruence with children is especially relevant for adult males who have offended against unrelated children.  Recently, in my own thinking regarding the role of emotional congruence in incest offending, researchers and clinicians should not discount the importance of interpersonal relationships with related children.  Additionally, incest offenders’ perceptions of children and their relationships with children are likely also important to understand.  Instead, it seems possible that the way we measure emotional congruence may not be tapping into the specific interpersonal and emotional processes at play for certain incest offenders.

“Emotional congruence with children is especially relevant for adult males who have offended against unrelated children.”

Readers interested in this point could read a case study presented in an article (p. 79) by William Marshall that illuminates how an individual might form what they see as an intimate relationship with one of their children (e.g., taking his daughter on ‘dates’ to restaurants).  This case study, I think, supports the idea that some incest offenders experience emotional and interpersonal processes akin to emotional congruence with children but that current measures of emotional congruence are not well designed to assess such processes.

Second, emotional congruence with children seems to be associated with sexual attraction to children.  In our research and in a few past studies (here or here), this seems to be a trend that emerges consistently.  This seems like a reasonable finding, since conceptions of human sexuality typically include the notion that sexual attraction is associated with emotional attraction towards a partner or partner group.  Pedophilia seems to be no different.

Third, problems in sexual self-regulation (namely, sexual pre-occupation and using sex as a means of coping with negative emotions) seem to be associated with emotional congruence with children.  For individuals who experience a strong emotional connection with children, the risk of sexually offending against a child may be heightened if they also have difficulty controlling their sexual desires and channelling their sexual behaviour in more socially appropriate avenues.

“Conceptions of human sexuality typically include the notion that sexual attraction is associated with emotional attraction towards a partner or partner group.  Pedophilia seems to be no different.”

Fourth, I think that the recent developments in our understanding of emotional congruence with children provide a more nuanced understanding of how these affective experiences and ways of viewing relationships with children are involved in sexual offending against children.  Ultimately, I hope this research will impact practice in the field.

Last, even though we have seen these recent developments, one last thing I have noticed and want to mention before wrapping up: how we understanding, measure, and treat emotional congruence with children in sexual offenders likely needs much more direct empirical and theoretical attention.  There still exist large gaps in how we understand and approach this set of psychological processes involved in sexual offending against children and I think there are many, very fruitful avenues of inquiry available.

Suggested citation:
McPhail, I. V. (2015, June 7). Emotional congruence with children: Recent developments in an old concept [Weblog post]. Retrieved from http://wp.me/p2RS15-ad.


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2 thoughts on “Emotional congruence with children: Recent developments in an old concept”

  1. Affection, devotion, intimacy and sexuality are closely related terms. I understand emotional congruence as being part of this area. Except for rapist, i don’t think that an emotional vacuum is necessary for offending (in the widest sense). According to a study with norwegian offenders, most often the emotional needs of the offenders were not met by the spouses, hence incest offenders have sought comfort by their daughters. Also Sandfort (1984) reports of emotional connections between the adults and unrelated child lovers. Ironically, one might think that pedophiles possess too much empathy instead of too little. I think, the key in understanding pedophilia lies in the intimate connection.

    I would like to point out that the difference between intimacy and sexuality is a learned one. Small children don’t know it, they desire affection and devotion. Currently, much effort is spent on what is appropriate touching and what not. Cognitive limitations short of cognitive distortions might be important. Being brought up in a dysfunctional family might blur the difference between intimacy and sexuality. The offender might seek intimacy but turns to the well known heterosexual script of sexual romantic relation.

    The “using sex as a means of coping with negative emotions” paints the picture of the emotionless monster, which belongs to the moral panic currently going on. The emotional congruence might be the grooming pattern described in Rind-Yuill 2012, which can be found all over the world. According to modern behaviorists such a behavioral pattern must be at least 50.000 years old. If i were free to interpret this, i would say that pedophilia is not an evil change of the sexual mind, but more of an innate grooming instinct.

    On a more critical note: We already know that humans have difficulties or are unable “channelling their sexual behaviour in more socially appropriate avenues”. Currently APA opposes conversion therapies.

  2. Hi Samuel,

    Thanks for your comment and apologies for my slow reply (Ian M writing).

    There are a few things I want to re-iterate first. I think that our research to date has applicability to individuals who have committed and been convicted of sexual offences. I would hesitate to generalize the findings to individuals with a pedophilic orientation. My hesitation is due to the fact that this research has not extended to this group yet, so as a scientist, I want to avoid making these generalizations prematurely. But this is not to say that future research along these lines will not extend in this direction. I point this out because some of what I took from your comment seemed to discuss pedophilia, not strictly sexual offending against children.

    So, from this stand point, it seems that for some individuals, their offences are potentially due, in part, to this sense of attachment and affiliation with children and their perception that relationships with children are mutual and mirror adult relationships. I say this not as a value judgement regarding their perceptions or construal of relationships, I think that this intuitively makes sense that people who have these experiences, along with other psychological processes (poor sexual self-regulation, intense social isolation), may be at heightened risk of offending against children.

    Your point that it is important to understand the emotional connection individuals feel with their romantic targets, be they adult or adolescent or children, is a good one. While I don’t know if this will garner much sympathy for pedophilic individuals per se, I do think that attempting to understand these psychological processes from scientific, humanistic, and clinical perspectives will go a long way to improve how we understand pedophilic individuals. In fact, I would go a step further and say that this type of work would help us understand human sexuality, writ large.

    Finally, I will challenge a few things you said in the end of your comment. The problem of using sex as a coping mechanism to deal with negative emotions is something that we see in convicted sexual offenders. Again, I think you potentially conflated my discussion of convicted samples with pedophilic individuals. So, our research should not be read to suggest a link between pedophilic individuals having problems with sexualized coping. As well, I don’t think this paints a picture of a monster, this is rather your interpretation of the phrase. For myself (and hopefully other clinicians), sexualized coping alerts me to a set of problems that an individual is having and suggests that they might need help to improve their ability to cope with the negative experiences that are part of the human experience. And our research only suggests a link between emotional congruence and sexualized coping in convicted individuals. I would encourage you to read our 2014 article (freely available on researchgate), particularly the discussion of these issues.

    As well, I do believe that you misinterpreted the statement you quoted. This was not an endorsement of conversion therapy.

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