Think about the following situations and the resulting behaviour :
A text message from your partner’s former lover sends you into a spiral of rage, insecurity and self-doubt. They reassure you but you are convinced they are cheating.
You want to change your job but fail to apply for a new one because you are convinced that you are not good enough to get it.
You allow people to walk all over you because you are not assertive and like to avoid conflict, resulting in regret and self loathing.
You are in a dysfunctional relationship but cannot find the courage to leave…. fearing what might come next.
These situations are typical of the way many people live their lives. For them, this is normal. They feel that this is their lot..they don’t deserve anything better. When we look for the reasons for this, the past and especially upbringing is the first place to look. While the old cliché goes that therapists always blame the parents, their influence or lack of, is a vital cog in the wheel of development and can set the mould for the subsequent adult’s view of the world. However, there are other factors too.
As we grow up, we face daunting challenges that need to be overcome. In favourable circumstances with loving parents, understanding teachers and society in general, these challenges can be managed fairly easily and the transition to mature adult is a functional one. However, in reality many young people will face overwhelming hurdles in order to bring themselves out of adolescence. Here I look at some of these potential hurdles. In this article, the subject of abuse in various forms is not covered.
Early attachment problems:
Developmental psychology describes the tendency for a child to seek closeness with a specific person, usually the mother. The child does this to create a secure, reliable base that is a vital biological function important for survival. From this base, the child can explore the world and master its surroundings. However, some children do not have this opportunity due to abusive or neglectful parents, death of a parent or other events a prevent secure bonding. Those children who have a strong attachment to parents experience a far better self-image and deal with stress better (Burge, et al 1997). It is also seen to improve such factors as body image, academic performance and sexuality. Insecure attachments have been linked with substance abuse, eating disorders and high-risk sexual behaviour. It is also more likely that infants who had anxious attachments to care givers grew up to experience more anxiety as an adult.
Unhelpful parenting styles:
The family is the primary provider of the emotional, intellectual and physical environment that a child grows up in. This is also clearly the biggest influence on the child’s view of the world and its ability to cope later in life. The ability of the parents to make this environment “good enough” for correct adjustment and healthy functioning is key to this process. It would be wrong at this point to say that parents are the only factor. There are many examples of children from loving families who still experience issues later. However, it is also true to say that when parents regard their own needs as more important than those of the child, the family becomes dysfunctional, leading to a variety of consequences for the child. The biggest responsibility for parents is to coach children through various developmental phases, addressing unacceptable behaviour and promoting socially acceptable behaviour instead. Such behaviour generally starts in early childhood and when not addressed or even noticed, can lead to much more extreme behaviour later in life. Some parents even engage in these behaviour patterns themselves, increasing the likelihood that the child will do the same. It has been consistently demonstrated that anti-social behaviour by parents , especially fathers, is connected to youth and adolescent behaviour of the same ilk. (West,1982)
Children and young people are easily traumatised by loss. They may lose peers through relocation or rejection. They may lose family members through divorce, abandonment or death. When children experience loss, the grieving process can be extended through adolescence into adulthood and affect emotional states and behaviour. It is becoming increasingly recognised that children who experience loss need to be helped through the process so their developmental journey is not impeded. For example Brent, et al 1993, found that young people who had experienced the loss of a friend through death were more likely to be depressed and more likely to commit suicide later in life. There were also intense feelings of guilt attached to the depression. Also Meshot and Leitner, 1993 reported seeing instances of shock, irritability and anger in children who had lost a parent through death.
There is a growing body of evidence through research (Frederick, 1985, Earls, 1998, et al) that children who are traumatised in the home suffer from PTSD, where it is absorbed by the child that their life or the life of loved ones is in danger. A good example of this trauma comes in the form of domestic violence. Children are often traumatised by such events even if only voices are raised but when they perceive that it may result in the death or injury to a parent (or them), PTSD can be the result. They may experience flashbacks and nightmares, they may trigger badly when outside cues remind them of the event and they may experience numbing or dissociation. There may be the avoidance of situations that trigger these feelings and they may be hypersensitive to factors directly related to the violence. When not addressed early, this can lead to an adult who has a limited range of emotional expression, unable to show love or engage in intimacy. They often have persistent feelings of irritability and have trouble concentrating. The saddest statistic is that children who have witnessed domestic violence and abuse are more likely to go on and be abusers themselves. (Singer, 1995)