The impact of early childhood lessons can be best understood from a biological framework. Since human beings, relative to the animals, survive by intellect rather than instinct, a human child’s primary biological urge is to learn how to survive; to learn to be like his parents. In this context, the parent is the supreme, unquestionable authority. Winning parental approval is, in the child’s mind, equivalent to being worthy of survival (lovable, good). Parental disapproval, likewise, is equivalent to a message that something about the child is, in some way, unfit for survival (unlovable, bad). Through parental expressions of approval and disapproval, the child learns to see the world, and himself, through his parents eyes. Barring traumatic events, what a child learns by about age six remains as a framework upon which all future learning is based.
This parental authority, based in a biological assumption of parental fitness for both parenthood and survival, is the ultimate measuring stick for the child’s perception of his own “fitness for survival/goodness/lovability” or “unfitness/badness/unlovability.”
In the “ideal” family, parents have excellent self images, a good sense of their own self worth and a system of values that serves them well. They effectively pass these on to their children through modeling, mirroring, warm and loving support, encouragement and confidence in the child’s growing ability. In the ideal family, the child learns he is loveable by being loved. He learns he is capable of loving by the warm response of his parents to his loving gestures. Being the ultimate authority, the parents showing of interest and concern for the child, treating the child as valuable, can’t be questioned. All this is learned. All this is the framework on which future lessons are built.
Children are aware of, and extremely sensitive to, the emotional responses of their parents and they internalize these responses. This is an important way parents pass information on to their children. For instance, if a small toddler tries to put a key into an electrical outlet, a parent’s emotional response (fear) is internalized in the child. The child learns when to be afraid. This serves the child well, since mother and father won’t always be there to protect him. His recollection of his parent’s fear, now his fear, will be sufficient to prevent him from trying it again.
The parent’s emotional response, or lack of one, is the core of childhood lessons. If a parent would, in a cool, detached way, say “Don’t do that,” the child’s long term, if not also short term, response would be entirely different. It is the emotional context and emotional charge that give a lesson meaning, staying power and force.
When looking at a particular childhood situation it is important to recognize that the emotional response of a parent is much more important than, and overrides, what is said. Context is everything. “Isn’t that nice,” in response to a child’s action, in and of itself, has little or no meaning to the child. The important message is carried in the body language, the tone of voice and the look in the parent’s eyes. “Isn’t that nice,” with an angry glance and tense voice, is a far different message from “Isn’t that nice,” eyes full of warmth and affection, a relaxed smile, soft voice and maybe a warm hug. Children internalize both the statements and the emotional content, but the emotional content is what defines the words and the event as a whole.
Lessons learned build upon previous lessons and set the stage for future lessons. To learn mathematics, for example, children first learn simple arithmetic. The knowledge of arithmetic is the basis on which algebra and geometry are learned. Any lower level error left uncorrected will adversely affect, if not leave impossible, the learning of later lessons.
In the same way, the important building blocks on which children build their view of the world and of their place in it are based on the emotional responses of early childhood authority figures, most particularly the parents. In the first six years of life, a child has basically learned “who he is” through the lessons learned at home. Later experience outside the home tends to merely confirm the lessons already learned.
Our more complex responses, such as what kind of work we do, who we fall in love with, how we raise our children, how we feel about members of other races and the opposite sex, our religion, the foods we like to eat, nearly everything about us, is heavily based upon prior learning, little of which is ever, or ever needs to be, re examined and changed.
In the ideal family, a child reaches adulthood with confidence in his ability, a healthy respect for and awareness of his needs and an awareness of the surrounding opportunities to fill those needs. Should life circumstances change, new lessons will be learned. The “ideal” person from the “ideal” family is “ideally” adaptable.
Of course the ideal family is just that, an ideal. But even in the “average” family, there is a great deal of difference in degree, if not so much in substance, from the lessons usually learned in the family of an addicted person.
Although it has been long suspected, only recently has investigation begun on the connection between severe childhood abuse and the development of addictions. In two studies104 abuse of illegal drugs by a largely criminal group of adolescents was found to be associated with prior physical and sexual abuse. In a third study105, severe childhood physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse was found in 90 percent of the addicts and alcoholics who went through a gay treatment center. The scope of these studies is limited. While of themselves inconclusive, this early evidence supports a connection between an abusive childhood environment and severe chemical addiction in adulthood.
There has also been a wealth of indirect evidence that supports a connection between child abuse and the development of addictions. Among this evidence is the fact that alcoholic parents are the most likely to produce alcoholic or drug abusing offspring.106 Alcoholic fathers (and one could assume also alcoholic mothers) are more likely to physically and sexually abuse, inflict “cerebrocranial trauma” and create a home life for their sons of “chronic discord.”107
Certain parental behaviors and attitudes have also been associated with later addictive behaviors in children. Parents of young adult substance abusers have been described by their children as “cold, indifferent, controlling and intrusive.”108 Independent researchers have found fathers of drug addicts to be rejecting and lacking warmth.109 Others found that drug abusers come from families in which there was “a communication gap and either laissez faire or authoritarian discipline” and also where the “most powerful parent modeled the use of psychological crutches to cope with stress.”110
Children at high risk of becoming substance abusers (children of alcoholics, the same group that is so frequently physically and sexually abused and have a chaotic home life) have been found to be “less emotionally controlled.”111 In one study teachers described them as “emotionally immature, unable to take frustration in stride, sensitive to criticism, moody and depressed.”112 Preadolescent sons of alcoholics have been described as having characteristics of “Emotional immaturity, low frustration tolerance, and moodiness.”113
Children who later become alcoholics have been described as having “antisocial tendencies,” “a negativistic outlook”114 and being “marked by social nonconformity and delinquency.”115 They also have been found to be nail biters, shy, suffer nightmares and phobias, throw tantrums, have tics, stutter, suck their thumbs and have eating problems.116
While many outside observers, particularly psychiatrists, often see the behavior of “pre-alcoholics” as evidence of a genetic “predisposition to alcoholism” such as ”emotionality,“ it seems ludicrous to assume that any possible genetic personality predisposition overrides being physically, sexually or emotionally abused, growing up with cold, indifferent, rejecting parents or growing up with a parent who is more likely to inflict “cerebrocranial trauma” on their child.
Clearly, not all abused children grow up to be addicted so abuse can’t be said to be the only factor in producing addiction. Severe abuse is a “good way” certain lessons are “taught.”
learning to “not be aware”
At the heart of addiction in humans is learning that essential parts of the self are “bad/unlovable/unsuitable for survival.” Two of the essential parts taught to be bad are the intellect and internal emotional experience. What happens to children, as may have happened to their parents before them, is that they learn to not experience, to not be aware of, some or all of their emotions.
For instance, if anger should happen to be one of the emotions considered bad, the child, when displaying anger, will be given the message that to be angry is bad. No distinction may be made for the child, or perhaps even seen by the parents, between the internal experience of anger, the proper and appropriate expression of anger and having a temper tantrum. For instance, if a small child becomes angry and throws food, the child won’t simply be given the message that it is unacceptable to throw food. He will be given the message, either explicitly or through implication, that being angry is bad. This may be reinforced by the parent’s own behavior. They may be so good at “controlling” (repressing) their own anger that the only model the child sees is “not angry” and explosions into vindictive, verbally and/or physically abusive rage. In this situation the child only sees, and therefore learns to consider, anger as a destructive force.
The ways parents express disapproval for the child’s experience of anger are as varied as the methods a parent has of showing displeasure. They can vary from physical punishment to verbal disapproval to the withdrawal of affection. Perhaps the most insidious, for a small child, is when a particularly insecure and needy parent is hurt by a toddler being angry with them. While preadolescents and adolescents often respond quite differently, nothing is so frightening or reprehensible to a small child as a parent being in pain. The child comes to see experiencing anger as betraying his parents. However it may be taught, the small child sees himself responsible and learns that to be angry is to be bad. Anger is far from the only emotion likely to be taught to be bad. A child may be taught that sadness, fear, feeling warmth and affection, and even happiness, are bad and must be suppressed and eliminated.
Child abuse often plays a direct role. Imagine an alcoholic father or mother who regularly gets drunk and beats a child. The child’s normal, natural, healthy responses would only serve to provoke further punishment. Under such circumstances, a child may learn to not show or even feel anger, fear or sadness. In the child’s mind, if the parent is displeased, the child is somehow wrong and it is up to the small child, with a child’s limited intellect, to figure out how.* The lesson to the child may be obvious, “I am bad because I am angry,” or sad, or afraid. Every effort is made to be good. He would learn not to be, at least in his conscious awareness, angry, afraid or sad.
In learning to suppress emotion, a child learns to suppress his mechanisms for calling conscious attention to a problem, preparing for action on that problem and processing information for future reference. A child learns to sabotage his mechanisms for awareness, response and change.
an example of self-sabotage
A tragic example of learned self sabotage shows that it is what is learned, not how it is learned, this is important. In this instance the lesson clearly was not a result of parental child abuse but of a brutal coincidence. Eric M. is an ex alcoholic now approaching 40. As an 11 year old child, he was occasionally permitted to move the family car out of the driveway. One Sunday afternoon, he did so without the proper permission of his father who became angry and scolded him. Young Eric, feeling he was being treated unjustly, was defiantly angry. The next day he went off to school still simmering about the dispute. When he returned home, his father was dead. He had suffered a heart attack.
In the boy’s mind, reeling with grief and guilt, one idea in particular stuck and stuck fast. Never be angry with someone you love; they will go away. It affected his life in two disastrous ways. First, since a major part of grieving is being angry, he carried that grief with him. Second, he automatically suppressed his awareness of anger towards others, especially those he loved. In his mid 30s, he was abandoned after a year long love relationship. He didn’t get angry, at least not consciously. His friends and AA sponsor also abandoned him. His AA “friends” because he was depressed; it upset their serenity. His sponsor accused him of being willful and ungrateful. Eric still didn’t get angry.
By this time he had lost twenty percent of his body weight, had not been able to sleep more than an hour or two at night for months and thought he was going out of his mind. He wasn’t angry. He just wanted to kill someone. Himself. Because he was afraid to be angry, rather than his anger serving useful purposes, such as providing information and preparing him to defend his person, it nearly destroyed him.
Other lessons assault the child’s trust of his ability to reason and use his intuition. When parents make statements about their own feelings that are directly contradictory to the child’s keen perception of such things, the child becomes confused. One mistake that parents often make, perhaps in trying not to be cold and unloving as their own parents may have been, is to always express love toward their children even at times when they don’t feel it. The child, being perceptive to the real emotional state, is thrown into confusion.
If the child doesn’t question further, he will be trapped into figuring out how he is wrong. Either his perception is wrong or his parent really doesn’t love him. If he believes his perception wrong, he comes to distrust his intuition. If the child comes to the conclusion that the parent doesn’t love him, the parent being the measure of what is right, he has no choice but to see himself as unlovable. If he questions the parent and gets the message that his awareness is displeasing, he may learn to not be aware. He will learn to “automatically not notice.” He will make the conscious decision to pretend not to notice and practice it until it becomes subconscious. Later in life, he may well wonder how he could have been so gullible as to fall for a woman who didn’t love him or how he could be so wrong in sizing up business partners.
Assaults may be directed against the child’s trust in his ability to use his reason, to think. When parents criticize their child’s ability to think, the child internalizes his parents statements and their emotional context. They are internalized as the child’s own thoughts and feelings toward himself. If criticism is severe enough, the child may learn he is helpless to think. He’ll learn to “automatically” not try to think things through.
In the addictive family system, children often learn other lessons which diminish their capacity to fill their needs later in life. Some of the lessons which cause the most trouble are those directly surrounding basic lovability and fitness for life. When parents are incapable of loving their young child, the child doesn’t see it as the parents’ problem. He is left to figure out how he is wrong. He can either think, “There is something wrong with me; I am unlovable” or “There is something wrong me; I shouldn’t want to be loved,” or both.
In the same way a child learns he is unlovable, he may learn he is incapable of loving. If parents are incapable of being touched by their child’s displays of love, again the child is in the position of figuring out how he is wrong. He can either think, “There is something wrong with me; I am incapable of loving right” or “There is something wrong with me; I shouldn’t want to love.”
Since in early childhood parental love is equivalent to a message of fitness for survival, fitness for life, a child who learns he is unlovable is in for serious problems. Just like the hungry rats in the cage who could never get quite enough food, these children are subject to never in their lives get enough love and approval. They tend to spend the rest of their lives compensating for their “unfitness” or “unlovableness.” They’ve already been taught that their emotions are wrong. As long as they don’t allow themselves the awareness of the emotions involved in the lessons of unlovability, the lessons can’t be relearned correctly. Since the lessons are kept buried away, they can’t be challenged. What the adult normally does is everything possible to prove his fitness in his parents’ eyes. He can be not angry, not sad, not afraid or not aware.
The lessons which interfere with later love and intimacy vary tremendously. If parents ignore their children, the children build their world view on the belief that they should be ignored, that they are not worthy of attention. In adulthood, they may be confused by others showing them attention. The subconscious judgment may be made; “Something is wrong with them. They think I’m worthy of attention,” or, “What am I doing wrong that I’m drawing attention.” A parent may ridicule a child for any demonstration of a desire for, or expression of, affection. In such cases, as an adult, he may ridicule those who try to show him love and affection.
Parents who are unable to express love and affection may substitute other things for love. For example, instead of expressing love for their child by hugging, caressing, and other warm and affectionate interaction, they may, out of a sincere attempt to love their children, buy them things instead. A child who grows up under such circumstances may, as an adult, “do everything for” someone they care about and wonder why they don’t get anything in return. Of course, “everything” doesn’t include giving genuine warmth and affection and the “love object” is not chosen with a consideration of his or her ability to give and appreciate warmth and affection but for the willingness to accept material goods.
God in the “addictive family system”
One important area to cover before moving on to adulthood is the role of God in the addictive family system. Parents, as the ultimate authority, define God for their children. The child’s view of God is in large part an image of the values of the parents. In the “ideal” family, God plays a central role in the child’s feelings of self worth and is seen as a loving and kind protector; as an extension of parental love. In the addictive family system, God is often used by the parents to enforce discipline. Veiled and not so veiled threats of eternal damnation are made by the parents in order to enforce rules which can be enforced in no other way.
In families where essential parts of the natural internal experience of thought and emotion are taught to be evil, God’s role may be cast as the “thought and emotion police.” For example, if a child is suspected of having thoughts unacceptable to the parents, the child may be told it is displeasing to God and that the child must not think them if he wants to go to heaven. Of course the child knows the alternative to heaven is hell. In the family in which children are taught the parental belief that anger, in and of itself, is bad, religion will be selectively used to enforce the family rule. For instance, if such a family happens to be Christian, the children will never be told about Christ’s anger when throwing the moneychangers out of the temple.
To the child in such dysfunctional families, God is seen as an agent of the abusive parent and God’s love is seen as parental “love.” For instance, imagine the effect on a ten year old girl who on Saturday night is beaten by her drunken father. Sunday morning she goes to Sunday school class. Imagine the message she gets when she hears the teacher read from the Bible, “Honor thy father and they mother, that all may be well with thee and thou mayest live long on the earth.” God, in the child’s mind, is on the side of a man who has just beaten her and, if she doesn’t honor him, God will kill her. Hardly the message intended.
Children who have learned to disrupt their normal mental functioning may never in their lives be directly critical of their parents’ actions in early childhood. They are even less likely to question the lessons learned as a result of those actions. However, they may have such a negative concept of God that, at the first opportunity, and quite understandably, they reject God and religion as terrible oppressors