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.
Just read an interesting article on Psychology today: A 17-Item Checklist Geared to Neutralize Early Life Distress, supporting the argument that positive factors may counteract adverse childhood experiences.
What I find interesting, and impressive, is the author – Christopher Bergland – is a personal couch and world-class athlete, rather than a psychologist, but writes well, and gives full citations.
Includes in these are PCE’s (Positive Children Experiences) and BCE’s (Benevolent Childhood Experiences).
The link and citation for the first is Positive Childhood Experiences and Adult Mental and Relational Health in a Statewide Sample, Associations Across Adverse Childhood Experiences Levels.
(Cite: Bethell et al, JAMA Pediatr. September 09, 2019. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3007)
Personally I find the notation that anyone can score highly (6+) for ACE and also highly for positives dubious, to say the least, but the study suggests a relatively high ACE score, supported by a relatively high PCE score were less vulnerable to the psychological toll of early life adversity. However, the study lumps ACE scores of 4 to 8 together, which, as well as being lazy, must horridly twist the true results as there is a world of difference between:
An ACE of 4 (e.g)
Child neglect: physical AND emotional
An ACE of 6 (e.g)
Child neglect: physical AND emotional
Familial dysfunction: mental illness AND physical and emotional abuse (e.g. wife-beating)
An ACE of 8+ (e.g most or all of the following:)
Child neglect: physical, emotional
Familial dysfunction: mental illness, substance abuse (e.g drug addiction, alcoholism), physical and emotional abuse (e.g. wife-beating), divorce
Some things cannot be unseen, all I’m saying..
A greater distinction needs better understanding, for which I wrote: Smacking and the law. This is especially the case in the virtue-signalling and overprotective nannying state of the world, and the ‘snowflake’ mentality. Sounds pompous and condescending, but it’s a fact, one largely lost on the world.
There’s too much focus on the soft ‘don’t hurt their feeling'(outside the home) and not enough focus on ‘don’t hurt them in the home’. This is reflected in social media, in polls, in studies etc, and its affect on society is lost.
Think I’m wrong? Consider this, using Aces Too High (What’s Your ACE Score? (and, at the end, What’s Your Resilience Score?)), it asks, for instance:
Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often: Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?
Did a parent or other adult in the household: … or Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?”
But it neither asks, considers, nor takes into account the context of a person’s life, such as the age when it occurred, nor the duration, intensity and frequency of the trauma and adversity. It most certainly doesn’t ask, for instance:
“How many times did you end up in a mental health unit as a child?”
“Do you still wake up screaming in the night because of childhood trauma?”
Case in point, which I’ve seen and noted a few times during counselling sessions, the psychiatrist says something like, “Yes, I fully understand.” The patient reacts (triggered) and spins round and their answer, or rather the intonation of the answer: “Do you?” results in much backpedalling (physically and verbally), even panic, and the stuttered admission that, well, they didn’t actually understand, having never experienced it, never even imagined it, but they had studied that sort of thing, read cases notes, had other patients.
They have no idea!
STRONGLY RECOMMENDED: BPS, Public Health England: Introduction to
Adverse Childhood Experiences
ANYWAY, on the positive side, for PCE, with the condition of “before the age of 18” and the assumption of ‘continually had’, “I…
Felt that my family stood by me during difficult times
Enjoyed participating in community traditions
Felt a sense of belonging in high school
Felt supported by friends
Had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in me
Felt safe and protected by an adult in my home
Have to say, I hate caveats and clauses that hide the facts and nuances, they annoy me inordinately and the smack of pseudo-science. Simply fact of human biology: your brain takes 25 years to reach maturation, and most of the happens in the ages 0 to 4 and 4 to 8. If the first 16 years of your life were abysmal, leaving toxic ‘home’ and making friends at 17 won’t undo the damage.
See also ACEs and counter-ACEs: How positive and negative childhood experiences influence adult health
(Note, this is an academic paper, locked behind paywall).
See also: Positive childhood experiences predict less psychopathology and stress in pregnant women with childhood adversity: A pilot study of the benevolent childhood experiences (BCEs) scale.
(Cite: Child Abuse & Neglect, Volume 78, April 2018, Pages 19-30, Narayan et al., doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.09.022
(Note, this too is an academic research article, locked behind paywall).
The BCE score then, allowing for the same caveats, begin with: “Growing up, I had…”
At least one caregiver with whom you felt safe
At least one good friend
Beliefs that gave you comfort
Enjoyment at school
At least one teacher that cared
An adult (not a parent/caregiver or person from #1) who could provide you with support or advice
Opportunities to have a good time
Ability to like yourself or feel comfortable with yourself
Predictable home routine, such as regular meals and a regular bedtime
Thus, you have up to 17 good factors to try and counter the bad ones. The ultimate question is they balance, what resonates most, what’s forgotten (and best left so!), and what, on reflection, can you see with rose-tinted glasses. You can’t change what happened, but you can change how you remember it. Potentially at any rate.
If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.
~ Wayne Dyer
Psychology Today: Three Ways Childhood Trauma Affects Adulthood Complex childhood trauma is subtle but has long-term consequences.