Book review: The Drama of Being a Child (The Search for the True Self) – Alice Miller

This is actually a book report I had to write for my course, so it might be less of a traditional book review and more of a summary/general impressions I had of the book. Either way it seemed enlightening enough for those who might be wondering whether to read this to post it here. I don’t usually review books that aren’t genre fiction so this feels very odd, and somewhat personal too, but I do hope it will interest those who are intrigued by this field of study and self-discovery!

 

41046HJX0YL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Miller offers through her book a fascinating tale of the effects of childhood, not solely on the child as these events take place, but more so on the adult. These events from childhood that have become the invisible strings that guide us through our lives are, more often than not, simply accepted by the adult person as a fact that had little to no consequences on their lives. It is only when as an adult we can look back to our childhood days and not only understand but truly feel what affected us as children, that we can begin to unravel the tangle of fears, habits, and issues that has followed us everywhere we went during our adult life.

Much like emotional therapeutic counselling, Miller recognises the importance of the hurt and lonely child we all carry within us. She emphasises that it is that child’s emotions that make us often react as we do to the world around our adult selves. Because that child is made of so many repressed emotions, so he seeks to either take revenge upon the world, or hide away everything even more. The dialogue with this Inner Child is, to Miller, as intrinsic a part of healing, as it is for emotional therapeutic counselling.

Miller also mentions the importance of confronting those who have caused the hurt during childhood, whether face to face or, if the former is impossible for one reason or another, through a mental dialogue wherein the adult can finally unload the Inner Child’s actual feelings onto the person who has caused them and have a discussion with them. Similarly to emotional therapeutic counselling, Miller does not believe that we can be free of the hurt of our childhood until we have truly felt the emotions that our child-self repressed.

Another element in the book that reminded me strongly of what we had done in the course was Miller’s regular mention of her patients’ dreams and their importance in their therapy. She takes dreams as the subconscious’ way of talking to us, or trying to point where or what the issues might be. She points out in one of her examples how it can be an easy way to track therapy progress as the patient’s dreams change and evolve.

I personally found this read enlightening, especially following what I had already learnt about myself during the course and it shed a fascinating light on some elements of my childhood that has just seemed that they had left me unaffected up to that point. Stories of which I have little to no recollection but have been told about seemed to come back with stark clarity as the emotions I had felt were accessed. It emphasised that it was ok for my adult self to revisit those emotions, to let them happen and face the feelings of my childhood without fear of any consequences. It has allowed me to understand my reactions to certain things that happen around me, as well as turn the emotions elicited towards their true target instead of the situation at hand.

5/5

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Childhood development: nature vs nurture, or is it both?

Nature_versus_NurtureThe start of my childhood development course has taken me down the alleys of thinking about how it is exactly that children develop and what it is that affects their development. History has seen many a theory being introduced to explain how it is that we develop, learn, and grow. Not all of them still fully apply today, and some seem absolutely baffling if you’re not inclined to share the views of those who first introduced them. But on the whole, most of them have good points that seems to work especially well when mixed and matched in between the different theories.

The four I studied in-depth seemed to grow from within one another, with obvious elements of past theories being dropped as new and shiny concepts are introduced. Sometimes the progress is minimal, sometimes it is revolutionary, but each step taken forward towards a more global understanding of childhood development is an important one: full of promises of better parenting, happier children, and better developed adults. But there is a debate that has always permeated theories of development: are we the product of nature, or the product of nurture?

It’s not just psychologists that have been faced with this headache, and philosophers have, for centuries, asked themselves the same question. To clarify the terms, nature refers roughly to what we are given at birth: our DNA. Nature will decide if we have blond or brown hair, blue or grey eyes, whether our knees are not aligned or we are likely to get coldsores. Nurture, on the contrary, does not come to us with birth, but through the social context in which we are born, through the people around us, through the education we receive, and so on and so forth. So nurture isn’t going to decide what colour hair we have, but it is likely to decide what kind of human being we grow up into.

To an extent.

And this is where it gets tricky. Once we are grown adults, how can we pretend to know how and why we have turned out as we have? We can make guesses, theorize,  look back on our childhood and try to make rational, logical sense of it in a way we couldn’t at the time. But at the end of the day, even through careful study of other children, there is no sure way to draw solid conclusions and form theories that could claim to apply universally (because humans, after all, have this awful tendency to all be so very different from one another).

Take, for example, the case of Alfred (Yes, this is the best name I could up with for my made-up example). Alfred was born in a loving home, surrounded by a loving, peaceful family. He never spent ridiculous amount of hours watching violent programs on TV either. And yet, Alfred was a violent, anti-social child who could hardly be controlled by his parents. Eventually, it was discovered that Alfred had been born with a deficient part of his brain and was in fact a psychopath  Here, nurture is absolutely powerless against nature, although there is no doubt the nurturing would have affected Alfred in some ways. But nonetheless, who Alfred grew into was not ruled by nurture, but by nature. Perhaps even by both for who can say how Alfred would have turned out had he been raised away from a loving and understanding home? Nobody can, and that’s why the nurture vs nature debate is such a tricky one.

Obviously, there are times when nurture can influence nature, or at least can seem to. Children who are unruly from a young age can be taught discipline, but it is difficult to know whether their unruliness is something that they were born with (an innate trait of character) or whether it something they picked up from peers or siblings behaviour.  What, however, of children who demonstrate such behaviour without ever having witnessed it from others? Are they born with an innate desire to be unruly and cause havoc? Perhaps. And if that is the case then nurture can indeed overrule (or perhaps more so, bend and modify) nature.

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Another issue with the concept is when we start looking at people’s choices in career. Those who follow artistic careers and have had contact with an adult they are related to who also follows such a career might find they are told that they are doing so that it is because it is in their nature (clearly being a musician runs into the family, for example). But if a child of two doctors follows the same line of work as his parents, people are far more likely to blame it on nurture (it’s all he’s ever known/he’s trying to be like you). The question is, what is the difference? Maybe a child only chooses to become a musician, not because it is somehow written in his genes, but because he wants to be like his father, his mother, or his uncle. And maybe the little girl whose parents are doctors decides to follow in their footsteps not become she dreams of being like them, but because she feels a real calling towards the profession.

Either way, the idea that either nature or nurture forms us into what we become misses out one important factor: choice. Neither theories, not even them combined, take our own personal choices into account. From a very young age, babies and children are capable of making choices in their day-to-day lives and those choices are likely to have as strong an impact on their development as nurture and nature put together. But that’s for a different blog post all-together.

Psychologists are more and more agreeing that pitching nature vs nurture is a terrible idea and that if we are to truly understand how we develop, both as children and once we have reached our adult years, we need to look at both. To understand one truly would mean the need to understand the other just as completely. Indeed, how could there be development as we know it if only nurture, or only nature had a part to play?

Childhood and identity

open-uri20120828-7303-1xpgydfIn a handful of weeks, I’ll be starting a module on Child development. Now a couple of years back, when I very first signed up to the course, I rolled my eyes at the idea of a module that dealt mainly with childhood and children. But since then I have had to deal with a lot of issues the root of which is to be found in my childhood. It has gifted me with a new perspective on the subject. As such, I find that I am rather looking forward to studying the psychology of children and how their environment  and the people around them have the power to impact on their personality.

Nurture isn’t the only factor at work, obviously, as nature plays its part as always, often unseen–or perhaps not so much unseen as not understood–and in a far different way to nurture. For example, I read a while back now (in an article that I can no longer find, unfortunately), that scientists have discovered that there exists a gene that is likely to make children behave more obediently towards their parents. Children lacking in that gene, seemed to be far more free-willed and likely to make their own decisions from a younger age, instead of obediently listening to what they’re told to do.

But nurture can definitely affect nature and influence the direction in which it develops. Several researches have demonstrated that children receiving higher level of care of attention from their parent or carer are likely to grow up healthier, smarter, and kinder (See article: Why spoiled babies grow up to be smarter, kinder kids). If you look at it on very simple term: if the baby is well looked after, the growing brain doesn’t need to waste resources on stress, crying, or other efforts to draw the attention of the ones it expects to be looked after by. So our personality, which will later contribute to the forming of our identity, is influenced by outside factors from the second we are born–and possibly even before that, when we’re still in our mother’s womb.

Obviously, the attention that our parents/carers give us as we grow up will not entirely decide who we are: nature still has a say in the matter and some people who have suffered horrendously neglectful and/or traumatic childhood can still turn out to be wonderful people capable of more empathy than most. On the converse, all the love in the world might not change the way the brain of a sociopath or a psychopath was wired to start with.

Nonetheless, childhood is the root of who we are, whether we like it or not: the person we are today has its roots in our childhood. As such, any baggage that we acquire through childhood, we are likely to drag with us for the rest of our life. Sometimes, even becoming aware of the issue and its origin, is not enough to drop the baggage; it might become lighter and easier to carry, but it never fully leaves us.

My childhood wasn’t an unhappy one, my parents were fairly attentive, and generally I was loved by the people around me. One of the greatest problem my family suffered from, was the incapacity to communicate with each other. When I was six, my mother started suffering from depression due to problems at work. As a child, I was well aware that something was different about my mother, although no-one ever told me what: my mum’s depression was only discussed in between her and my father behind closed doors, and even then, I don’t think they did much talking at all. I found out what was happening by eavesdropping at the kitchen door in an evening. But from this, and several very similar incidents, I learnt a lesson my parents had never thought they might be teaching me with their actions: talking about what is wrong with us personally is bad, something to be done in secret and, preferably, not to be done at all.

I have dragged this with me all the way to my adulthood. Even now, I am more than likely to not talk about something that is bothering or upsetting me. I bottle everything up inside, store it behind high walls and attempt to cope with it by myself. It very rarely works, unfortunately. Eventually, everything that builds up inside gets too much and I find myself crumbling under the weight of it all. I am lucky enough to have a special someone here to help me cope, but he–quite rightly–gets frustrated at my incapacity to talk about the things that get to me. I have been trying to improve since I very first admitted to this issue, but it’s still hard most days to not feel ashamed of some of the negative thoughts that go on in my head.

This is but one of the things that I have dragged from my childhood into my life as an adult, and it is but one example of how things can affect children on a level often unseen by the parents or carers. Received, or perceived, love or affection aren’t the only things that start to shape a child’s personality as they grow up. Children learn by watching and copying: when they play make-believe with their friends, they will more than likely copy the attitude of the adults around them. Although such games are unlikely to directly influence personality later on in life, they do set a basis of what the child perceives as normal behavior for an adult and their own expectations of themselves.

Not everyone will be affected the same, but it’s impossible to know what will and will not affect a child’s personality until it is too late. Where demanding parents may push their child’s ambitions and drive forward, it may just as well make them feel pressured, unworthy, and unable to cope. There is no hard and fast rule that decides how we are going to react to how the people closest to us act and how it will affect us once we are out of childhood. Some children may give clear signs of how they are affected whilst others are likely to bottle it up and hide behind a facade.

But one thing is for sure: there can never be too much love and care in a child’s life, and no-one has ever suffered from too much love in their childhood, and from having attentive parents.