MEAN PARENTS AND MISERABLE CHILDREN:
STOP IT NOW
I know in today’s world of political correctness and social rightness it is considered passé if not just plain wrong to blame our current misery on our parents or on our childhoods. We all know the taboos against doing so. We all know the epitaphs and ignorant word slinging that lets us know we are Bad people with the capital “B” if we dare to challenge these norms.
I am not writing this book because I believe in that bunk. I am writing to set the record straight for any of us who grew up knowing what true misery is. We know who we are and it’s time we stood up for ourselves and stood up for one another against the onslaughts that come from the same kinds of people who were not there to protect us, defend us, or to intervene when we were little defenseless people who needed them to help us most. I am not about to let those same people attack me now. You can bet on it.
I am talking about appalling violations of basic human rights against infants and children. Where is the justice in not holding adults responsible for the harm they commit against the helpless and innocent? I DO hold parents accountable. They assume this accountability by bringing their offspring into this world. Ignorance is not an excuse in my book, though it is often a causative factor in how things go so terribly wrong.
There is nothing on earth as marvelously complex as a human being. We are and always have been at the apex of creation. There is nothing we can build or imagine as complicated as the human brain. Yet while our species has the potential for the development of a conscious self that can exercise free will and make choices, it is this aspect of our reality that makes us most vulnerable to damage caused by harmful parenting practices.
Our self does not operate independently from our body in this world. This is why we talk about our actions in terms of behaviors. Our emotions are behaviors. What we remember, when and how is a behavior. The essence of who we are and what we do is happening constantly on our most basic level as our genetic material is told how to manifest itself continually in interaction with our environment. These environmental influences come from both within our body and from outside our body from the instant we are conceived.
- Our DNA is continually receiving these signals not only about the condition of the world the body is living in NOW but also about the condition of the future world the body will be living in THEN. This begins even before we are conceived as the chemical signaling within our mother’s bodies are making our father’s sperm fertile, signaling conception, movement of the fertilized egg, telling it where to move to and exactly where to implant itself on the uterine wall.
The state of the external world we are being created to live in is constantly being communicated to our developing body through the condition within our mother’s body. This happens through the quality of the nutrition and/or toxins she consumes that is transmitted to us. It happens through the stress hormones activated in her body that tell our body what the world is going to be like so that our DNA can best be activated to prepare us for the state of that world.
Our pre birth environment is already telling our DNA control mechanisms whether the world is an optimal, benevolent, nutritious safe and secure world or if it is a harsh, deprived, malevolent world full of scarcity rather than plenty, full of threat of harm rather than safety, full of toxins rather than full of nutrition, where we will be endangered continually and might just be lucky to be born at all. We need to know on our deepest levels that our genetic control mechanisms will be doing all that they can to prepare us for either type of world based on the communication given to the fetus even before conception so that our bodies can best adapt themselves to survive. We also need to know that these same mechanisms are operational after we are born, and in fact continue to help us survive no matter what happens to us throughout our entire lifespan.
We need to know that there are degrees and thresholds along the developmental pathway, and that specific critical developmental windows continually open and close throughout our uterine experience, into our early infanthood prior to age one, then to age two, then others to age 4, then to age 7 and on up through our adolescence and early adulthood. What happens to us during the time frame of these critical developmental windows causes long term consequences that cannot be undone once the window has closed. What we also need to know is that just as we were not exempt from the consequences of harm and threat of harm during our own developmental stages, our parents were also not exempt if they grew up under less than optimal conditions themselves.
Much has been written about what the experts call “the intergenerational transmission of unresolved trauma.” Common sense tells us that actual observable behaviors can easily be transmitted by grandparents through parents on down to their offspring. What is only now becoming clear through the study of epigenetics is that our genetic control mechanisms that tell our bodies how to prepare for a safe or a dangerous world can transmit that information about the condition of the future world right down through the generations along with DNA as well.
We can continue to make all the verbal and mental distinctions we want to between emotional, psychological and physical factors in the environment that influence our development. The fact of the matter is that the body doesn’t care what we name or call anything. Reality is reality. The more complicated our world becomes means that there are corresponding complex risk factors that can influence our bodies and our children’s developing bodies.
Going at this with our eyes closed and our heads in the sand or in the clouds is not going to help us consciously take charge of how these risk factors influence either us or our own children. We need information. We need the facts. We need to face our own challenges head on. This is the only way we can gain what I believe will best help us heal from the terrible troubles of a traumatizing childhood — informed compassion.
We were supposed to outgrow our magical thinking during one of our developmental windows of our early childhoods. If we choose to practice it now in the form of denial we are asking for troubles that can be averted by understanding what affected us in the past affects us now as well as how our bodies are using this information to take care of us in the future.
Nothing that I tell you next is a one time thing. We are complex beings in constant interaction with our environment. Because we are constantly changing everything we look at today will look different at a later time. We need not be afraid of that. We can start at the beginning and follow the circular spiraling pathway of who we are now based on what we know about what has happened to us, and then look toward the future with hope of becoming even better.
First we will understand that we cannot outrun our past. It is here as us today, not as an inner child, but as a complex interacting molecular body that remembers not only everything that we have ever experienced, but through our DNA and its operational mechanisms, remembers our entire evolutionary history both as a species and as an individual member of that species. We are a living molecular memory and if we want to change who we are today and how we live, that is the level we are working on. As we make changes we are changing our molecules.
This single awareness by itself will change how we orchestrate our own healing. Throughout especially our very early infancy and very young childhood, the experiences we had with our caregivers built our body, our nervous system including our brain, built our immune system, and determined in tandem with our DNA and related processes, how our entire self operates. To put it most simply, we grow into ourselves by using the experiences our caregivers give us as building materials. In this way, we literally built them into ourselves.
If you happened to have some version and combination of an incredibly mean, unstable and psychotic mother and a distant, remote father as I did, it becomes obvious from the start how problems THEN became problems NOW. Experts in the field of early attachment systems could say that my mother’s terrible abuse of me caused me to have an insecure attachment style. Like that tells me much? True, it was pretty hard for infant me to form a reliable warm fuzzy mental representation when she was absent from me of a loving, caring mother that was going to return to take care of my needs. I never knew what was going to show up next, a vicious terrifying monster or a face of sweetness and smiles.
Right here you can see that my mother’s dysregulated body, brain and mind were building my body, brain and mind just like hers through the way she treated me as an infant as much as through the milk she brought me in the bottle. Humans evolved with four distinct yet cooperative and synchronized motivational systems: attachment, caregiving, sexuality and competition. I will say right here that I cannot talk about sexual abuse because I did not have that distinct history. But I can say that in my mother’s relationship to me, the remaining three systems were in the air like chaotic juggling balls and the one that most often won, other than the basic physical caregiving she was, at least, able to give me, was competition.
Her own world was one built on traumatic childhood abuse and neglect, and one that I believe did involve sexual abuse in her early childhood. Her unique experiences interacted with her critical developmental windows, her genetic systems, her individual developing self including her developing nervous system and brain so as to make her absolutely unfit to be a mother.
I know that’s something else we don’t like to talk openly about in our current polite society, but nature doesn’t care. It’s ALL bottom line about reproductive fitness. How healthy, smart, talented and desirable we may appear to a potential mate is all about what’s called fitness indicators. Because who we become happens in interaction with the world around us, our fitness indicators are signals not only about our own personal fitness to reproduce and care for our offspring, but also are signals about how fit the world is to bring the children into. My mother did not develop in a world that was fit for a child, and surprise! Surprise! That world did not make her a fit mother.
Now what about me? If I had know when I had my children what I know now I would have said that chances were greatest that I was not fit to be a fit mother either. Yet I did have three children and I did not abuse them and they are all doing well, though not perfectly. It becomes an issue for this book as to how that exactly happened and I will talk more about that later. I just want you to know that having a crappy childhood does not mean that you will always become a crappy parent. But the risks are sky high. There has to be intervening factors, helpful resources available to the child to counteract the great harm done by persistent harm and abuse. I obviously had access to some of these beneficial factors, though they didn’t seem to come from what a person might usually expect.
Let’s return to infant Linda alone in her crib needing a caregiver to bring her something she physically needed. My mother did take adequate care of my physical needs, a huge asset in the line up of what allowed me to survive. She had enough of an early 1950s investment in being the image of a Betty Crocker mother to make sure to the outside world that I looked the part of the Perfect Baby. Nobody knew at that time what went
But my attachment needs? Nope. I know now that I ended up not with a warm, loving, safe and secure attachment (which 45-50% of people actually do). I ended up with what the experts would call an insecure attachment disorder. But even given this, I didn’t get the lesser of the damaging kinds, avoidant or preoccupied insecure attachment disorders. I ended up with the worst kind – the disorganized, disoriented insecure attachment disorder.
We hear people talk about “abandonment issues.” When an infant and child is not loved from birth, we are not talking in terms of abandonment. We are talking about either insecure attachments, or no attachment at all. We are not used to talking about the most profound consequences of these faulty attachments from birth – emotional dysregulation. If an infant is loved in a dependable consistent way, its brain will grow in an orderly fashion based on these relationship interactions.
If an infant is mistreated consistently that mistreatment, as it builds the growing brain, builds itself into the very fabric of the brain. It determines not only how the brain structures form, but how they interact with one another. If the abuse is bad enough, chronic and long term with a lack of caregiver support by anyone else, the consequences will be the development of what Teicher calls an evolutionarily altered brain designed in, by and for a malevolent hostile toxic world. Once these brains are formed, the individual will never be able to fully adapt to or adjust in a benevolent world.
Through my research I have found that even though an altered brain is damage enough, that’s not all that is changed. The entire nervous system, stress response system and immune system also suffer from altered developmental pathways. The set point of homeostatic equilibrium is changed for a person maltreated from birth or before in such a way that calm and peaceful balance is nowhere to be found in their bodies. Trauma has become the norm. Anxiety disorders including depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often the least of the developmental outcomes. Equally often genetic potential that would not have been activated during a safe and secure development is rocketed into action to create long range child, adolescent and adult “psychopathology.”
While the professional world might call these resulting conditions “mental illness,” I define them in terms of the fundamental attachment disorders that lie beneath them and the survival-based adaptations the body had to make on every single level in order for the individual to survive what no one should have to endure. It is by looking at these adaptations in the positive light of what they accomplished for infant and child abuse survivors that one finds how they are connected to some of the greatest gifts the human race has as its resources.
Mental characteristics are direct reproductive fitness indicators. In the best of worlds, they shine as talents in music, dance, intelligence, humor, creativity, imagination, perseverance, focus, and the language arts. In the worst of worlds, they keep us alive but can become so exaggerated and out of balance that the resulting immune and nervous system and brain dysregulation becomes a direct indicator that the individual is ill and does not have the fitness to reproduce. But we pay no attention to these fitness indicators, even when they tell the story that not only is something wrong now, but something was wrong in the past that prepared this person for a world of wrong in the future. By knowing what these indicators are, what they are signaling as they communicate to us, we will know more about ourselves in interaction with the world we live in. Nobody ever lived in a vacuum.
We either developed well being in a world that told us all was mostly well, or we developed ill being in a world that was hostile and created corresponding illness. There should be no surprise that the body has the ability to adapt itself the best that it can given the genetic potential in our human gene pool, our individual inheritance of our particular part of it, and given the fundamental mechanisms that are in constant operation in all of us trying to make the last ditch efforts toward survival in the worst of all possible worlds when those situations occur. And believe me, there are many of us that know these kinds of worlds from birth or before. That we made it through and are still alive is the greatest miracle. When some of us reproduce creates the greatest tragedies.
These fitness indicators evolved to inform and caution us. When things go wrong they are warnings about the state of the world and the condition of the people in it. When things go right these fitness indicators tell us that, also. If anyone asks me why someone abuses an infant or a child or asks me why often one child of a family is especially singled out for the abuse, as was the case in my family, I have only one simple two part answer. The first part of the answer is that any person who abuses a child does so because they are mentally ill. The second part of the answer is that anyone who insists on any other answer must themselves be mentally ill. I say this because I believe that child abuse is a symptom of mental illness which is itself a reproductive fitness indicator that tells us there is something wrong with that person and wrong with the world they developed in. Well being excludes abuse and abuse excludes well being. The alternative to well being is ill being and that, my dear readers, is as simple and truthful as it gets.
I am not talking about blaming our parents. I am talking about the realities of consequence. It is especially important for us to heed the research also that is showing that verbal and emotional abuse of children has every bit as much of a negative impact on their lives as does any other form of abuse. The sad fact is that as physical abuse becomes ever more legislated against, the abuse is going underground, becoming even more hidden and harder to detect unless we learn to recognize the signs. Even then, how do we prove verbal and emotional abuse? It does not leave the telltale signs upon the body of the infant or the child. Its impact is still profound and devastating, and I believe we can see it even in the eyes of an infant, and certainly in the eyes of a child and a teen. But we have to be willing and able to look.
I also do not believe that an adult who is chronically mean to a child is completely OK in all other spheres of their life, either. We get pretty busy in our society both with our own lives and with working hard to fit in, not make waves, in fact, making as few ripples as possible. We are taught to mind our own business and to think the best of others. We are taught that giving someone else the benefit of the doubt is a good thing. We are taught to believe one another’s lies. And all to what good end when the lifetime of a child is at stake?
We can choose to face our demons of denial. In young children the magical thinking stage lies on the road to a grasp of the bigger picture of the reality of the social and physical world they live in. Or not. In the case of my mother, and of many people who could be diagnosed with BPD, that recombination of thought that allows adults to keep reasonable balance, perspective and control is effectively interfered with along the way, most usually through the interaction of their genetic inheritance with early abuse, neglect and maltreatment that is followed by some form of betrayal trauma at a slightly older age, usually sexual abuse. I call this being broken.