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What is Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome?

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  • Written By: Sally Foster
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 19 November 2016
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Munchausen syndrome, which takes its name from a German officer known for telling outrageous stories, is a psychological disorder in which the sufferer fakes or induces illness in order to garner comfort and nurturing from friends, family, and healthcare workers. In Munchausen by proxy syndrome, a related illness, a caregiver induces illness in another individual to gain sympathy as the caretaker of a sick individual. Most commonly, it is seen in mothers who induce illness in their children.

Also known as fabricated and induced illness (FII) or Munchausen syndrome by proxy, Munchausen by proxy syndrome is a form of child abuse. Most commonly, mothers suffering from this condition induce or feign physical illness in their children. In some cases, however, the mother emotionally abuses the child in order to induce psychiatric illness.

Munchausen by proxy is one of the most dangerous forms of child abuse for two reasons. To begin with, children who are victims of it face harmful and potentially fatal complications from the inducement of symptoms. In some cases, caretakers poison their victims or inject them with harmful bacteria in order to induce illness. Secondly, the child may face further complications from whatever treatment he or she receives for the alleged illness. For example, the child may be medicated for a problem he or she does not have in the first place.

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It is extremely difficult to detect this psychological disorder. Frequently, caregivers seem so attentive and worried that no one suspects them of hurting their children. Nonetheless, there are some signs that could suggest the condition is at play. Symptoms that change rapidly or are inconsistent with any diagnosis, unusual medical findings, or symptoms that are short lived and clear up when the caregiver is absent could indicate that the illness is fabricated.

The causes of Munchausen by proxy syndrome vary greatly depending on the history and motives of the sufferer. In many cases, caregivers were abused or ignored as children, and the need for sympathy and attention becomes so all-encompassing that it surpasses basic parental instincts. Caregivers suffering from this disorder may also suffer from depression, anxiety, or other psychological conditions.

Because of the involvement of both the caregiver and the child, treatment for Munchausen by proxy syndrome is two-pronged. The first course of action is generally to remove the child from the harmful environment. While some of the physical damage may be irreversible, victims usually improve drastically once the perpetrator is out of the picture. Secondly, treatment for caregivers depends on psychotherapy. This is most effective when the perpetrator is able to admit his or her wrongdoing and actively seek recovery.

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