Minister of State for Primary Care, Roisin Shortall, at a recent Conference on Early Childhood spoke about ‘transforming social services for mothers and infants’ in the light of overwhelming evidence that the early years in a child’s life affect the child’s later potential in emotional wellbeing, physical health, education and employment. One of the speakers at the conference, George Hoskins, an authority on crime prevention and chief executive of Wave Trust in Britain said that ‘dysfunctional children create stupendous costs.’ What was not voiced is that the financial costs pale in comparison to the emotional costs to the child’s sense of self. Another belief expressed was that children who experience neglect, abuse, emotional abandonment become ‘hard-wired’ in their responses (for example, become aggressive, withdrawn, depressed, anxious and insecure) to the neglect experienced. Similarly, it was expressed that children who receive ‘good enough parenting’ (mature and loving support and a predictable and consistent environment) become ‘hard-wired to expect security, care and love. This term ‘hard-wired’ though it appears to have a ring of science to it, is in fact meaningless. The key message voiced was that ‘the most critical aspect of the infant’s life is the relationship between baby and key carer, usually the mother.
There are a number of concerns I have about some aspects of what emerged in this Conference. My first concern is about once again putting all the responsibility for the mature rearing of a child on a mother’s shoulders and not at all emphasising that when a child does not experience a caring relationship from his/her father the child may well close himself/herself off to reaching out to males. Furthermore, it takes the world to rear a child and each adult who interacts with a child affects how that child sees himself. Somebody told me recently of a three year old who had received a gift in the post from her grandfather and when requested to send a thank-you card to her grandfather she asserted strongly, ‘no, I won’t, he never looks at me and never speaks to me!’ A similar story is about a young man who is terrified when he is in the company of women (‘my mother was scary’, he told me) but is comfortable in the company of men (‘my father was kind, though passive’). Yet another story is of a teenager who displayed major aggression towards teachers, both male and female, except with one male teacher who befriended him and was kind and supportive (both parents had harshly abandoned the teenager).
In formulating policies for the rearing of children, it is vital that all adults who are likely to encounter the child have a consciousness of their own and the child’s unique self and worth. What did not emerge at the conference was that the relationship that parents or other significant adults have with self determines how they relate to children, and when neglectful they do so unconsciously. Psycho-social opportunities for these adults to come to consciousness of their dark interiority are essential for their own and children’s wellbeing. I have been saying it for years – all parenting starts with self, all teaching starts with self, all health-care starts with self, all management and leadership start with self. Teaching people skills of affectionate and empowering ways of rearing children work only when the adults are that way in their relationship with self, or, at least, coming into consciousness and practise of it.
My greatest concern is about the notion that children become ‘hard-wired’ in their reactions to neglect and are subsequently viewed as ‘dysfunctional.’ Indeed, I challenged a colleague, Dr. Allan Schore, at a recent conference on ‘Why Psychotherapy Works’ to explain how is it that he describes a child’s response to threats to his/her wellbeing as adaptive when they occur but, later on in years, describes these responses as disorders. The more common disorders that children are labelled with are ADD, ADHD, ODD, dyspraxia, dyslexia and Asperger’s syndrome. Currently, some three and a quarter million children are labelled with ADHD in America and about 2.5 per cent of all children in the USA are labelled bi-polar depressed and are on anti-depressants. I pointed out that, for example, when I work with an older child or teenager and we establish a strong relationship bond that the ‘hard-wired’ defensive responses are gradually replaced with a receptivity to care and expression of love and friendship. Similarly, it is more accurate to say that when a child in his/her early years experiences neglect, that he/she creatively develops powerful defences against further hurt and only at a later point in time when they consistently experience love and belief in them will they again risk trusting that they are, indeed, lovable and powerful. What I feel is also missed by this ‘hard-wired’ concept is that the defensive responses formed in the early years also serve the creative purpose of acting as a substitute for the real experience of being loved for self. Typical defensive/substitute behaviours developed are over-pleasing, passivity, aggression, illness, perfectionism, high academic/sport performance, being ‘difficult’. All of these creations get a response from adults and thereby reduce the child’s felt invisibility. If, later on, children experience being loved for themselves they employ their intelligence and creativity, but this time to be openly rather than defensively responsive. Seeing children as dysfunctional and suffering from disorders results in increasing their invisibility, lowering their self-esteem rather than affirming not only their unique presence and individuality, but also their power beyond measure to determine when it is safe or threatening to be self.
Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker. His recent book with co-author Helen Ruddle, Relationship, Relationship, Relationship: The Heart of a Mature Society is relevant to today’s topic.