Childhood programming

This post: circa 4,500 words, estimated reading time: 22 minutes

Childhood lessons: bad code

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.”

Tiny Buddha: You are not responsible for the programming you received in childhood.

My reply, shared below, was that it is a nice thought, a positive thought, but not scientifically correct, alas.

Fight or flight suppression

Caveats to the idea include the type, repetition, duration and longevity of the “programming”. If your primary caregiver (parent, ‘kind uncle’, foster home, whatever) is/was ‘programming’ you daily, it is a problem. Whether they used their belt, boots, fists, words – and or touches – it’s a problem. It doesn’t simply alter your thought patterns, risking later mental health issues, it also physically and permanently changes – damages – your brain. Specifically, it can cause measurable changes to and atrophication of the amygdala, 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!
No! Run away, run away!
No! 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. Smack. You brought this on yourself. SMACK. What happens next… SMACK is because you… SMACK…”

Well, you get the idea – the blows, whether verbal or physical, get harsher as their uncontrolled rage builds up. And the next time, you maybe don’t fight back or run away, you lie prone and take the beating; what else can you do. AND that makes them angry too 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, day after day, month after month, year after year. Maybe, between times, they will apologise. It’s not their fault, it’s the drink, it’s work stress, it won’t happen again, they promise. Perhaps adding “I love you” as you lie curled in a ball, broken.

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. Or maybe they themselves are the problem partner. Most people with a Borderline Personality Disorder, for instance, are found to have a high ACE score (see in a bit).

Read, for example, 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)).

According to MIND, almost a quarter of people in remand or in prison have BPD. ACE scores are correspondingly high. It is not a coincidence. Actions have consequences.

Keep it in your genes!

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) versus nurture (causality, upbringing), and of misdiagnosis and mislabelling. Still, it is generally agreed by doctors and psychiatrists that both play a part, and that prolonged and repetitive childhood trauma significantly increase the risk and likelihood of a range of issues. These includes depression, anxiety, various personality disorders, social adjustment problems, a greater susceptibility to a range of health problems, and a shorter life expectancy.

I am not getting into the science of it here, but a whole branch of research is devoted to epigenetics and the connection between child abuse and trauma and later physical and mental disorders. Childhood programming is actually childhood reprogramming. Your DNA is changed by environmental factors. Gene expressions are switched on and off like Christmas tree bulbs (and cannot be fixed). When a healthy person develops cancer, that is epigenetics at play. When the favoured twin goes on to Harvard and the other (identical) twin ends up in a psychiatric prison, you are seeing again seeing the effect of this at play. If you want a simple starting point, this is interesting: Epigenetics in Psychology, by Ian Weaver (Assistant Professor in Psychology and Neuroscience, and Psychiatry at Dalhousie University in Canada).

It should also be noted that it isn’t just direct and active abuse, it includes passive and indifferent abuse, such as physical and emotional neglect. And though not in itself abuse, poverty can also be a factor.

As a belated addition to this, and observing my own boxes, it’s never that simple. This post focuses on home life, family units (or lack thereof), It should be acknowledged that all of this is compounded and exasperated by outside trauma. By racial and similar forms of abuse. By fat-shaming and the likes. By poverty shaming – e.g. the doctor’s daughter (with her attendant audience) that gleefully pushes over the kid in hand-me-downs because (she thinks) she is a “better” person. (Yet the very act proved she really is not!).

It’s rather a long list, as you can imagine. At every point, when you are bullying – or being bullied – a statement is being made. “I’m better than you. You are nothing, I matter, you do not.” Essentially “One of us”, versus “not one of us.” The irony and observation that such abuse is cowardly and unworthy and pathetic is lost on them. On that note, you might want to read this article, What is Othering?

Interestingly, I appended this next paragraph after writing a paper on intersectionality and unconscious biases. And ‘white privilege’. It’s a concept I struggle with, for two reasons. First, I don’t think about the advantages of being white, and male. It’s just something I am. But also, I find racial prejudice baffling. Cultural biases, yes, those I can understand, but the idea that a person is better or lesser because of the level of melanin in their skin, or their gender is ludicrous.

(For those affected or triggered, I offer this interesting link, from trailer trash that moved up in the world (Sorry, not sorry, Gina): Explaining white privilege to a broke white person)

It’s not just in your head!

Your body, your instinctive and primal brain, evolved over millions of years, does not and cannot understand this behaviour. 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. Similarly with first responders (fire, police, ambulance), for whom PTSD is a problem. So it is with adults who had a – difficult – childhood. They can become stressed, hyper-vigilant, touchy, over-reactive, over-sensitive.

Abusive ‘caregivers‘ aren’t merely 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.

You might want to look up cPTSD, or Complex PTSD, or Google scholarly and academic papers under “child abuse and the amygdala“. There are many!

Abuse is ACE!?

Not quite as specific or scientific, as everyone is different, but the established guide is called the ACE score. This is a ten-point checklist for how messed up your childhood is/was. Factors include 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.

Abuse leads to ill-health

According to the NHS (and many others):

“This can result in individuals whose systems are ‘locked’ into a higher state of alertness; permanently prepared for further trauma. Such physiological changes increase the wear and tear (allostatic load) on their body; increasing risks of premature ill health, such as cancer, heart disease and mental illness.”

(e.g. BPS: ACE and social injustice ).

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:

Have been in prison.
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).

It adds 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:

“ACEs should not be seen as someone’s destiny. There is much that can be done to offer hope and build resilience in children, young people and adults who have experienced adversity in early life.”

Some people have a natural and stronger resilience, others, not so much. The people and support you get as an adult are also a significant factor in how well you overcome and adapt. For some people it is empowering, to overcome and prosper because of or despite that past. 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.

These counters include best friends, 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 on 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. Still, the reality, as many of the people commenting there realised, is it ain’t that easy. But you should try to.




Abuse leads to jail time – for the abused!


Chained feet


I touched on this above, and won’t delve deeply into it here, but it you are interested or concerned, and want to research further, Google this: correlation ACE score NEAR prison.

The results were many, and conclusive. To avoid the more academic studies, you might want to start with this, from the NHS, Understanding the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in a male offender population in Wales.

It tells, for instance, that
“Of the 39% of prisoners categorised as prolific offenders:
9 in 10 had at least 1 ACE compared to 8 in 10 of those not categorised as prolific offenders.
6 in 10 had 4 or more ACEs compared to 4 in 10 of those not categorised as prolific offenders.”

The higher your ACE the more likely you were to keep ending up in prison.
Of those reporting an ACE score of 4 or higher, 59% had served at least seven prison sentence. This is compared to 13% for those who claimed an ACE score of zero.

If you want a more academic version, Reavis et al., concluded:

On the basis of a review of the literature and current findings, criminal behavior can be added to the host of negative outcomes associated with scores on the ACE Questionnaire. Childhood adversity is associated with adult criminality. We suggest that to decrease criminal recidivism, treatment interventions must focus on the effects of early life experiences.

Reavis, J. A., Looman, J., Franco, K. A., & Rojas, B. (2013). Adverse childhood experiences and adult criminality: how long must we live before we possess our own lives?. The Permanente journal, 17(2), 44–48.

This doesn’t mean one leads to the other, more that the abuse, along with other factors, leads them astray. I am of the opinion it is a choice, but through adverse conditioning they do not have the mental fortitude, are not disciplined enough and or brave enough to make that choice. If you were badly abused, in whatever form, you know what it feels like. You KNOW. Do you grow up to be a clone of that abuser, or do you decide, “I will never be like that.” Even if you cross that barrier, it’s hard. But it’s a start.

It’s easy to be a nice person if all you have known is a nurturing environment. But if you were raised by a belt, by fists, by screaming, by neglect, by abuse, is it any wonder your outlook is dysfunctional. What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.

Ponder this:
Your child is on the floor, sobbing, your handprint a glowing red outline on their innocent face.
Which would hurt (or anger) you the most, a slap in the face from someone much bigger than yourself, someone you can’t or won’t fight back against? Or being told by your partner, “You are just like your … (abuser). I should never have married you!” We all have darkness inside, it is up to us to keep it chained away.


The Scream, by Much, with a quote by Nietzche

The famous picture is The Scream, by Edvard Munch. The equally famous quote is by his contemporary Friedrich Nietzshe, who warns of the dangers of staring too deeply into the abyss. Of examining the darkness you feel too deeply. Philosophers have debated the meaning of both of these for over a century, but perhaps a more modern version would be Batman!

Alfred: That’s how it starts. The fever… the rage… the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men cruel.

Or perhaps turn to the dystopian novel by Suzanne Weyn, The Bar Code Tattoo. You become the monster you fear the worst, so the monster won’t overtake you.

Balancing the books

Just read an interesting article on Psychology, A 17-Item Checklist Geared to Neutralize Early Life Distress. It supports the argument that positive factors may counteract adverse childhood experiences. The author – Christopher Bergland – is a personal couch and world-class athlete, rather than a psychologist, yet writes well and gives full citations. Included in these are PCE’s (Positive Children Experiences) and BCE’s (Benevolent Childhood Experiences).

The link and citation for the first are 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. Regardless, 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 between 4 and 8 together, which must twist the results. There is a world of difference between:

An ACE of 4 (e.g.)

Child abuse: physical AND emotional
Child neglect: physical AND emotional

An ACE of 6 (e.g.)

Child abuse: physical AND emotional
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 abuse: physical, emotional, sexual
Child neglect: physical, emotional
Familial dysfunction: mental illness, substance abuse (e.g. drug addiction, alcoholism), physical and emotional abuse (e.g. wife-beating), divorce

Points for Reflection

“The evidence does not prove causality. Not all children who experience multiple ACEs become victims or perpetrators of violence in adulthood, but they are statistically more likely to than people with no ACEs.

What is predictable is also preventable.”

~ Dr R. Anda

Triggers, and understanding versus understanding

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 mostly 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 effect on society is lost.

Think I’m wrong? Consider this, using Aces Too High (What’s Your ACE Score? / What’s Your Resilience Score?)), it asks, for instance:

“Prior to your 18th birthday:
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 the trauma result in hospital treatment for broken bones or open wounds?”
“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?”
“Were you or other family members later sectioned under the Mental Health Act?”

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 around. Their answer, or rather the intonation of the response: “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.

In one session, a (male) clinical psychiatrist reared backwards. In another, a (female) therapist toppled back over her seat, scrambling for a panic button. Because of my face, my eyes ‘changed’ at something they said. I am not intrinsically violent or menacing, (though there are things in my past), and I do not have a recorded history of violence. In fact I could be described as bookish, if a tad intense. I was just being treated for depression and other mental health issues, and the incidents lasted barely a second. Still, the change was so fast, so startling, that before my barriers slammed shut again, they peered into the darkness. To suppressed, burning rage, and it scared them.

I also had one counsellor with his head between his knees, trying not to throw up and saying, over and over again, “I’m sorry, measures weren’t in place in those days.” To be fair on the guy, one of the other patients, a young girl, had committed suicide in the toilet earlier in the day, so he wasn’t having a good day. Or week, she was the second that week!

They often have no idea! They understand, intellectually, they empathise, but they rarely know. This can even apply to ‘damaged healers’, to the counsellors, therapists and psychiatrists who entered the profession after battling their own traumas. Bad as my own experiences were, at times, I know others had it much worse – I would not presume to understand their version of hell.

Consider this picture below, flagged under swimming (etc.) on Pixabay. Innocent enough, unless you fell into a river as a child and nearly drowned (I didn’t), in which case it might bring unpleasant memories. Or something else happened, and it causes flashbacks.


In one case, learning to swim meant being forced into the water and dragged far out of their depth. They were told, “Swim. Or drown.” Drowning is a bad experience. It is especially unpleasant when making it to safety results in being dragged out again, and again, and again. Screaming. And no-one will help because they are scared of the person doing it. That is not programming you can code out when you are older, that is hard-wired into you, that is deep-seated scarring. You are not only helpless, you feel, you know, deep down, that no-one will help you. Part of you disassociates, understands that they are ‘just’ teaching you to swim, to ‘help’ you, and this is just their way. And your body screams.

However you coat it, whether attempting empathy or not, saying, “It was in the past.” “It wasn’t that bad.” “I understand.” “You’re safe now.” Well, …

Suppose, for fun, to humiliate you, to make you cry, I shot you in the left leg. But you bite down on the pain and shock.
See, now you are spoiling my fun, so I shoot you again, this time in your right hand. Yet, stubborn person that you are, even as the tears form, you still hold it in.
But I will not be denied my fun, my sport. You are making me angry now. So I point the gun at your face. An inch from your left eyeball. You are literally, actually staring down the barrel of a gun. Your friends are too shocked, too terrified to utter a word, to even breath. Dead eyes stare at you, and a cold, emotionless voices says, “You will cry for me.” Your friends bolt.
It’s the same gun you once put to your own temple and tried to find the courage to pull the trigger. You note that my lips are now a tight line, taut, angry. It could be worse, I could be smiling, a toothy grin that fails to reach my eyes. No more playing.

For most people that’s just a silly scenario in a bad movie, perhaps. For some, elements of it may trigger flashbacks of the most traumatic day of their lives. For others, well, maybe that was a Tuesday afternoon – it was a bad day, but others were worse, in their own way.


STRONGLY RECOMMENDED: BPS, Public Health England: Introduction to Adverse Childhood Experiences

It should be noted that there is an awareness of the conflicts I raise in the paragraphs above. For instance, the Journal of Juvenile Justice (US) describes for they break the questions down by degrees, using the PACT ACE score. For high-scorers and youths considered at high risk to reoffend, this is followed by a full assessment.

Get out of jail free cards.

On the positive side, for PCE, with the additions of “before the age of 18” and “continually had”, “I…

Was able to talk with the family about my feelings

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. It is a fact of human biology: your brain takes 25 years to reach full maturation, and most of which occurs between the ages 0 to 4 and 4 to 8. If the first 16 years of your life were abysmal, leaving a toxic ‘home’ and making friends at 17, or 21 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 a 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.,
(Note, this too is an academic research article, locked behind a paywall).

The BCE score then, allowing for the same caveats, begin with: “Growing up, you 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

Good neighbours

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 routines, 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 questions are: do they balance, what resonates most, what is 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

See also:

Psychology Today: Three Ways Childhood Trauma Affects Adulthood Complex childhood trauma is subtle but has long-term consequences.

Local Government Association: The relationship between family violence and youth offending. Long report, also covers supporting factors.

The World Health Organisation have this Key Facts report about the cycles of violence and the relationship between childhood maltreatment and the risk of later becoming a victim or perpetrator of violence

Consequences of child maltreatment
“For many years, research has demonstrated a number of potentially negative outcomes for victims of child maltreatment (9–11), including:

physical and mental disability
stress and physical health problems
low self-esteem and poor self-worth
educational failure
emotional and behavioural problems
sleep disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (*)
mental health problems
eating disorders and self-injury
alcohol and drug abuse
increased risk of further victimization
victims becoming offenders
antisocial and criminal acts
* Really, cPTSD, or complex PTSD, which is being added to the ICD-11.

The reports does consider other factors, including living in poverty or low income, living with step-parents, isolation or a perceived lack of social support, early separation from the mother, and young parental age.

Child Welfare (.gov, US), Long-Term Consequences of Child Abuse and Neglect

Sottish government’s Justice Analytical Services: Understanding Childhood Adversity, resilience and crime, What have ACEs got to do with Justice?

Public Health Wales: Adverse Childhood Experiences and their association with chronic disease and health service use in the Welsh adult population.

Thus, by the age of 49 years, 24.9% of individuals with four or more ACEs reported having ever been diagnosed with one or more chronic disease while this figure was only 6.9% in those with no ACEs

Liverpool CAMHS, in association with Merseyside Youth Association. 2019 ACE Perception Survey Findings

Public Health wales, in association with Bangot University. Understanding the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in a male offender population in Wales: The Prisoner ACE Survey.

Larry’s Roadmap, ACES and Health Outcomes.
Carries on over a few pages. It all interested me, but one part in particular caught my attention.

My personal experience is with insomnia and nightmares or night terrors.

Insomnia happens for several reasons. People experiencing chronic stress due to childhood trauma generally live with high levels of cortisol. High cortisol levels can cause multiple sleep problems.

One thing cortisol does is retard your body’s production of melatonin. Melatonin is the natural sleep hormone you generate that kicks in at dark. When the sun goes down and your eyelids start to get heavy, that’s melatonin at work.

For a person with insomnia that’s not how it happens. Melatonin is their enemy. I mean, why would you want to sleep if you’re in constant danger?

Yes, well, that makes so much sense!

Feature image by DarkmoonArt_de from Pixabay

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