A recent inspirational quote on Tiny Buddha, on Facebook, began: “You are not responsible for the programming you received in childhood”, adding: “But as an adult you are 100% responsible for fixing it.”
My reply, shared here, was that is is a a nice thought, a positive thought, but not scientifically correct, alas.
Caveats include the type, repetition, duration and longevity of the “programming” but, basically, as an example, if your primary care giver (parent, ‘kind uncle’, foster home, whatever) is/was ‘programming’ you daily, with belts etc, boots, fists, words – or touches – it doesn’t simply alter your thought patterns, risking later mental health issues, it also physically and permanently alters – damages – your brain, specifically causing measurable changes to and atrophification of the amydala, hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
All creatures have some sort of fight, freeze or flight system hard-wired into their brain. You are in DANGER! Fight back! Run away, run away! Play dead! In an abusive upbringing this option is removed. Your body, your brain floods your system with drugs to say, “get out of this mess” and your ‘loving’ carer won’t allow it. Might even revel in the pain and suffering any rebellion evokes, it gives them a ‘reason’ to hurt you more, to teach you a lesson. You should have known better, you asked for this, you brought this on yourself. What happens *SMACK* next *SMACK* is because you *SMACK*…
Well, you get the idea. And the next time, you maybe don’t fight back, or run away, you lie prone. AND that makes them angry, because you – spiteful little brat that you are – are trying to take away their “reason” to punish you. For that you must be punished!
Rinse and repeat, month after month, year after year.
Perversely this chaos can become the norm, so, in later, future adult relationships, kindness is so alien it is uncomfortable, which is why some people, particularly (but not wholly) women end up in a series of broken and dysfunctional relationships with abusive partners. Most people with a Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, are found to have a high ACE score (see in a bit).
(e.g.: Borderline personality disorder and childhood trauma: exploring the affected biological systems and mechanisms, Nadia Cattane et al, BMC Psychiatry. 2017; 17: 221.(doi: 10.1186/s12888-017-1383-2)).
Echoes of this are found in many, indeed the majority of mental health problems. There remains, by experts, the arguments of nature (genetics and DNA) verses nurture (causality, upbringing), and of misdiagnosis and mislabelling, but it is generally agreed by doctors and psychiatrists that both play a part, and that prolonged and repetitive childhood trauma greatly increase the risk and likelihood of a range of issues, including depression, anxiety, various personality disorders, social adjustment problems, and greater susceptibility to a range of health problems.
It should also be noted that it isn’t just direct and active abuse, it is also passive and indifferent abuse, such as physical and emotional neglect. And though not in itself abuse, poverty can also be a factor.
But your body, your instinctive and primal brain, evolved over millions of years, doesn’t and cannot understand this. So, in essence, it keeps on flooding you until it has nothing else to give, until it is physically – literally and actually physically – rewired at the neurological, biological and biochemical level to be permanently switched on. You can also see it in war veterans, soldiers so traumatised by gunfire and bombs that the slightest bang triggers them. So it is with adults who had a – difficult – childhood. They can become hyper-vigilant, touchy, over-reactive, over-sensitive.
Abusive care givers aren’t simply being bullies, or harsh, or strict, they are, in a lot of cases, causing actual brain damage. Let that sink in. Happy thoughts will help manage this, but anyone that tells you you can simply wish it all to go away is a quack.
Not quite as specific or scientific, as everyone is different, but the established guide is called the ACE score, which is a ten point checklist for how messed up your childhood is/was. Factors includes divorce, prison, alcoholism, and drug abuse by parents, and the physical, mental and sexual abuse of the children. Even with just 2, expect some issues in adulthood, by 4 it’s going to lead to later problems, by 6,7 and up, you/they are messed up, ‘cos, really, that’s just not normal or healthy. With 6 ACEs the risk of becoming a class iv drug user is increased 46x, the risk of suicide by 35x. By 7 or more ACEs, it just piles on the pain.
According to the NHS (and many others):
Or Google: Adverse Childhood Experiences / ACE and resilience, or variations.
Health Scotland, for instance, points out that, those with 4 or more ACEs (out of 10) are more likely to:
develop heart disease
frequently visit the GP
develop type 2 diabetes
have committed violence in the last 12 months
have health-harming behaviours (high-risk drinking, smoking, drug use).
and that: When children are exposed to adverse and stressful experiences, it can have a long-lasting impact on their ability to think, interact with others and on their learning.
There do, however, offer a ray of hope by adding:
Some people have a natural and stronger resilience, others, well… The people and support you get as an adult are also a big factor in how well you overcome and adapt. For some people it is empowering, to have overcome and prospered because of / despite that, for many others, sadly it sets the pattern for life.
Note, however, that the ACE checklist only counts the negatives, it fails to include positives and buffers – best mates, supportive teachers, doting grandparent and other, healthier life experiences and input that can help to mitigate the trauma. This applies equally in later life, depending whether the people and environment you surround yourself with are positive and nurturing – or just more of the same.
The overall message from Tiny Buddha is positive, but the reality, as many of the people commenting there realised, is it ain’t that easy. But you should try.