It is not unusual for a little mind to come online prematurely– before the age of five. She awakens because a shock in her infant life stirred her into awareness. Otherwise, her little mind would slumber on, content to grow quietly and steadily until, by the age of five or six she would awaken into awareness naturally. Fortunately, my premature awakening occurred under pleasant circumstances. I met my father for the first time at age two years, three months. I remember the beginning and the end of his ten-day leave from the military. I wrote more about this here: https://peggyfirestone.com/mission-statement/
However, I think of all the other little minds in our world that are forced to come online under unpleasant circumstances. One’s first conscious remembrance, more than likely, sets the theme of one’s life. Did you know that? Think about it. You will find a fun set of questions at the end of my letter so you can test this theory for yourself.
By the time a child is age three or, at the most, four, she is the little sociologist of her family. Yep. With clipboard and a sharpened pencil, she makes observations, takes notes, and draws conclusions. She knows exactly what to do to make her parents happy (or not). She adventures into unknown reaches of her home, her garden, the street, shops, auntie’s kitchens, her uncle’s pockets. She tests her desirability and begins the next venture into testing her strength by banging her little self into the environment at large. She bites into a worm, sticks her hand into the fire, takes a leap of faith she can yell angrily at her mother and still be safe, dreamily walks away into the woods alone, stares at strangers…
Meanwhile, she collects information and all that data sets her on course for understanding the world and her relationship to it. Her growth and achievement will depend upon what she understands of the world and who she is in it. Its horizons and her reflection in it. Her early experiences in her environment will flavor and fragrance her awareness for the rest of her life. If she feels safe there she will be just fine, even when parents, neighborhoods and schools are less than perfect– and of course, they are. She will see these imperfections with a generous mind, the caveat being, she must feel safe even when dangers lurk.
Since life is a tough challenge almost at every turn, a child needs a sturdy experience of caring attention and safety if she is to have the positive inner resources to encounter later challenges in life.
Margaret Mahler, John Bowlby, Erik Erikson, and others have written extensively about what to look for as a child navigates the growing periods of her life. (See Erik Erikson’s theory on Stages of Development at the end of my letter.)
When a child does not have a good start in life, it is more than likely she will be in conflict for the remainder of her life. Moreover, the evolution of a child’s ability to trust and think creatively is almost entirely dependent upon the quality of ongoing exchanges between herself, her parents, and her environment. It takes a village.
Let us inquire further. When children are caught in an abusive family or a violent environment, the deepest pain is not the trauma or the abuse itself. It is the context of the relationship within which the abuse happens. While no one can deny the harm of trauma to a child, it is the whole feeling/thinking nature of the home and the community –the gestalt of all these relationships that causes the most psychic harm.
The backdrop of denial, the hurtful things said and done, the secrets, the betrayal, the lies and the double binds, create the deepest pain. Parents, siblings and friends, teachers, employers, and the police– unknowingly or uncaringly– create psychic infections that trap the child and each other in an onslaught of opportunists and parasites. The psychic immune system of the child goes downhill.
Children cannot predict when the abuse will happen. They cannot get the abuse to stop and they cannot run away. Abused children have to find some purchase in the family so they form an attachment to the perpetrator.
It is a devastating contradiction to form this unholy but necessary alliance. Psyche does not do well when asked to contain a longstanding contradiction. To prevent its fragmenting under stress, psyche makes a defense system that works automatically. Like the white blood cells of one’s physical body, psychic defenses talk to each other and surround the infection to neutralize it. I have identified the most common psychic defenses in bold type. I will also focus on the primary role of parent since that is the most important relationship to a child.
The most usual defense mechanism is dissociation. Children may go into a trance. The defense of dissociation shuts down the senses of seeing, hearing and sometimes remembering.
- They may experience depersonalization – that is, children remain alert but their bodies seem unreal or dreamlike to them.
- They may experience derealization – that is, children remain alert yet their immediate environment seems unreal or dreamlike.
- In extreme cases, they may create separate identities that cope and function as needed.
- Or they may become catatonic – psyche has taken them somewhere deep down or far off.
To stay psychologically whole, children tell themselves that the loving parent (as the primary relationship) does bad things (as the secondary relationship)
…to that little boy or girl over there …
…to that little body over there – not me.
They say to themselves:
I don’t have to shut down when my parent comes near
because that parent belongs to that little boy or girl over there.
And hmmm – what happened to that little child over there?
I don’t remember.
As time passes, the dissociative experience is firmly layered with the internalized image of the loving parent. What was once contradiction has now become paradox. The child’s psyche is protected and the attachment system is running.
Paradox is where two conflicted thoughts weave in and out of each other. Each thought is true and not true at the same time.
For example: “Parents punish their children out of love.”
Punishing and loving are impulses we can imagine are not contradictory. Plausible enough to rationalize the abuse. Enabling the victim to bond with the victimizer instead of escaping.
One more thought comes along: the fantasy of a rescuer. Children are biologically built to wish saving. Why doesn’t my other parent come and save me from the one who is harming me, body or soul? Who can the rescuer be?
There are a few options:
The rescuer might be the good parent, the absent parent (the parent who never comes), the idealized parent of adopted children, or the fantasy substitute replacing a depressed parent.
As children grow older, the rescuer-victim-perpetrator triangle is internalized and their self-protective paradoxes bind tighter. But at a certain point, paradox is not sustainable and error in thought must be layered on to accommodate this impaired attachment.
Children are thinking:
1) Because I love/hate them I must want the abuse.
2) The world is fundamentally dangerous, arbitrary, unpredictable & uncontrollable.
3) Therefore, I must not be happy because when I am happy my guard goes down & bad things happen.
4) Happy is phony.
5) Miserable fits me.
Defense mechanisms, paradoxical logic and errors in thinking make children weary.
Eventually, they agree with adults and peers about who they must be– bad. They begin to instigate trouble and act badly.
If badness is inside me,
I have a better chance of controlling the abuse.
If I become like the adults they probably won’t hurt me – I’ll belong.
I can control myself.
Now children have hope. They are psychologically aroused by being big and bad and physiologically aroused by being abused.
Building of a system of logic leads to dangerous conclusions. No children think:
I want the abuse. I want to be bad. I am in control.
The aftermath of rationalizing attachment to an abuser is a double bind.
The children have to remember to be bad. But being bad creates anxiety.
Abused children are trapped in an unkind world and they feel guilty for their part in creating it.
Children may burn themselves, cut themselves, threaten and harass themselves. This self-punishment becomes part of their reality. Expectation of rescue is close to zero. Self-mutilation brings relief from the anxiety.
When partnered with an abusive spouse, adult children reinforce their system of abused logic so the spouse is not blamed. Abused adult children are locked in the logic of the past and they rationalize a reason to stay. This is why battered spouses do not leave.
The defenses, the paradoxes and cognitive errors are deeply ingrained. They are too helpless and too little and too scared to be alone.
To heal the trauma two challenges must be faced:
1) to dissolve the ambivalent attachment to the perpetrator
the logic to be dissolved is:
1) You abuse me – I must survive
2) To survive I must belong
3) To belong I have to become like you
4) Therefore, I am bad
5) Bad is good.
2) to dissolve the believed grandeur of the abuse
To protect their integrity, children elevate the meaning of abuse from something grubby, petty and meaningless to something heroic.
I have written about some of the experiences that helped me grow up with a strong inner direction. God bless the child that’s got his own… I was very lucky. But so many children and their families are not.
It is important to understand psychological attachment. Its wisdom helps you stay objectively positive with someone suffering from attachment trauma. If a child has formed a positive attachment to you, something good must have happened to her to keep the light of hope alive, hope that enabled her to find you. The reason children find teachers, mentors, adult friends is because they have not given up wanting to thrive. They want to find their integrity in a right way.
My next post will occur on February 6 (two weeks hence). I have stuff to do that will not afford me the time to write to you. So sorry.
Your loving friend, Peggy (Look for the exercise and notes at the end 💚)
Kalsched, Donald. The Inner World of Trauma, Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Ross, Colin, M.D., Dissociative Identity Disorder: Diagnosis, Clinical Features, and Treatment of Multiple Personality. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.
Wallin, David, Ph.D., Attachment in Psychotherapy. The Guilford Press, 2007.
WHAT THEME DOES YOUR LIFE FOLLOW?
Answer the following questions without pondering, that is, write yours answers quickly.
Name three stories (fairy stories are best, then significant movies etc.) that made deep impression on you when you were very young.
What was the theme of your first story? (You can find the theme by telling what the story is about in one or two sentences.)
What is your very first memory?
All themes have conflict in them. See how your first story and your first memory are similar. Write down the similarity between the two.
Erikson’s Stages of Devo- Life Cycle Theory (Social).
Read: Identity & the Life Cycle; Identity & Youth Crisis; Childhood & Society
1-12 months Trust vs Mistrust
Oral/Sensory Stage- Ease of feeding, depth of sleep, bowel relaxation. Teeth come in, therefore progress from taking to weaning. With that comes nostalgia for lost paradise. With good experiences, the child is hopeful.
1 Year – end of 2nd Year Autonomy vs Shame and Self-doubt
Walks, feeds self, talks Muscular maturation. Development of identity & courage to be independent. Holding on/letting go. Need for outer control –therefore courage to be independent Caretaker needs to be firm in preparation for child’s autonomy. Shame is when child is overly self-conscious because of negative exposure. Self-doubt results from parental criticism. Ex. Toilet
Warning Signs: Obsessiveness, procrastination. Rituals & repetitions to gain power. Self-insistent stubbornness or meek compliance. Fears loss of control.
3 Years – end of 4th Years Initiative vs Guilt
Initiative rises for the sake of activity- motor & intellectual. Frees child’s sense of purpose. Later, intrudes into space physically, aggressive voice, physical attack. Thinks of phallic entry. Guilt over aggressive goals. Desire to mimic adults-resolves Oedipal issues by social role identification- Sibling rivalry is frequent.
Warning Signs: hysterical denial; self-restriction means inner capacities are not realized. Blocked from moving forward because of fear & guilt.
5 – 10 Years Industry vs Inferiority
Tries to master objects, self, social transactions, ideas, and concepts. Child is busy building, creating, accomplishing. Receives systematic instruction as well as fundamentals of technology.
Warning Signs: Inadequacy, inferiority if child despairs of tools or skills and status among peers. Incompetency, self-restraint, conformity.
11 – Adolescence Identity vs Identity Diffusion or Role Confusion. (Matches with Genital Stage for Identity and Oppression)
Desires to synthesize self from components into a whole (Ego Synthesis). Develops ego identity (sense of inner sameness and continuity. Preoccupation with appearance, hero worship. Group identity is important for support, values reference, place to experiment.
Warning Signs: Role confusion, doubts about sexual/vocational identity. Stage between morality when learned as a child and concept of ethics learned as an adult. Excessive conformity or rebelliousness. Feeling estranged. Idealism – denial of reality. Juvenile delinquency.
Adulthood to Old Age
Intimacy vs Isolation Relationships are involved, reciprocal, sexual, occupational, and social.
Warning Signs: Failure to achieve intimacy leads to stereotyped relationships and distancing; readiness to renounce, isolate and destroy others who threaten
Generativity vs Stagnation
Out of concern, desire to guide next generation. Nurturance and caring for others
Warning Signs: Care essentially for oneself. Artificial intimacy. Self-indulgence.
Integrity vs Despair
One’s life is accepted. Achievements. Significant people.
Warning Signs: Despair. Life is too short to start another one or test alternative means to integrity. Self-criticism. Regret. Fear of impending death.
To see a comparative chart of theories please go to: