Human beings are highly social creatures. We live to interact with each other. The brain’s very design makes it sociable (Goleman, 2006), and our social interactions shape and mold virtually every aspect of our brains and behavior. In fact, when nothing else seems to be going on, the brain’s default activity is to start mulling over our relationships and social interactions. (Iacobini et al., 2004) Humans have thrived by working together for a common good, and this social interaction is something that can enrich our lives and lead to cooperative behavior that benefits us all. That's the good news.
The bad news is that humans regularly abuse our social nature. Eleanor Siegel (1991, p. 8) notes that "nearly every social interaction between humans...has a strong element of persuasion." It starts in grade school, when kids will band together to pick on another child for some obscure reason. It continues as we grow up, when adolescents divide into various social cliques, bullying becomes even more sophisticated, and it seems every aspect of life revolves around who did or said what. Unfortunately, as one recent rock song so dutifully notes, "high-school never ends." Adults regularly band together to try and use social influence to attack others on everything from their skin color and religious beliefs to their sexuality, hobbies or child-rearing practices. As much as social influence can benefit our species, it can also be used to destroy an individual.
Moreover, most social pressure has little to do with right or wrong, but instead focuses on being "different." Most people have an inbuilt fear of anyone different from themselves, and will viciously attack those who we deem as different or who have different preferences. (Pettigrew, 1997) Racism, gay bashing, genocides, and a whole host of religious wars are testament to this realization. In fact, doing the right thing most commonly means going against the group and standing up to the social backlash that results from it. Given the bloody and prejudicial history of mankind, a widespread belief is far more likely to be foolish than sensible, and virtually every advancement humanity has ever made has gone against social constraints.
So, considering the importance of social interactions, it's no surprise that maltreatment factors are largely dependant upon social influence. That's a large part of what this book is about; identifying the social influences upon maltreatment and avoiding the social abuse of children that is becoming all the more prevalent day by day. The most important element of any form of child maltreatment actually has little to do with what any potential abuser did. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, what actually happened is of very little importance. It's the social impact that matters. It's in the social realm where false beliefs arise and long-term harm comes about. For all the fuss about wanting to protect children, the sad reality is that far too often the most severe damage is caused by us.