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  • Writer's pictureJosh Killam, LPC

An Absence of Childhood and the Development of Pathological Responsibility

What happens when a child grows up with parents who do not attend to their needs? One way a child learns to cope with a neglectful parent and the dynamic I am going to highlight here is developing an internal sense of responsibility. This sense of responsibility manifests itself through the development of an internal parent the child uses to cope with the absence of a nurturing caregiver. This internal parent tends to act as an inner critic more so than a caring parent. This critic responds with shame and harsh criticisms as opposed to compassion and acceptance. These are children you see and say to yourself, "there is a child who was forced to grow up too soon." Or "that kid is really mature for his age." A child who develops an internal parent due to neglect could be said to have had their childhood stolen from them. In the absence of human connection, a sense of pathological responsibility develops.

I want to consider the story of two brothers, the younger of the two brothers we will call Alex and his older brother Jacob. Alex and Jacob grow up with an emotionally abusive and neglectful father and a mother who does not have the emotional resources to attend to the kids' needs. The Dad has a controlling and abusive relationship with their Mom. The relationship that Alex and Jacob have with their Dad is filled with emotional neglect and abuse. Let's also assume that the troubles at home also show up in Dad's work, leading to an unstable career with financial insecurity that affects the family. Jacob, the oldest of the two sons, grows up without direction, without guidance, and of course, is emotionally neglected. Mostly, Mom does not have the emotional bandwidth to tend to her son's needs, and Dad is absent and abusive. So the Jacob is never allowed the opportunity to develop a healthy sense of self and learn his worth as a son. He is deprived of healthy attachment and forced to learn to cope with the trauma that has riddled his childhood. This leads Jacob having let us say, a "troubled childhood."

The critical point to consider for the older brother, Jacob, is that from the outside looking in, Jacob was deprived of his childhood. He struggled with mental health issues, substance abuse, and trouble with the law. Jacob outwardly struggles to adapt to a fulfilling, meaningful life. Which leads to Jacob being given extra attention and being labeled as "in need of help." From the outside looking in, it is easy to see that his childhood was tragic, and needed help. The story of Jacob offers a path for an observer to find a sense of compassion and understanding for him.

Let's turn to the younger brother, Alex. Alex had the opportunity to grow up with three role models. Dad and brother were models for what not to do. Mom offered a victim mentality model (meaning an inability to care for herself and children by standing up to Dad). Alex's way of coping with his childhood was to manifest an internal parent based on what he did want to be, Jacob or his Dad. As I said previously, it is evident to Jacob that his childhood was stolen from him. This was not the case for Alex. The difference for Alex is a lack of awareness that his childhood was stolen from him because he learned to take responsibility for himself and his Mom in the absence of parental responsibility. For example, Dad was angry and neglectful, so Alex aimed to always be attentive and caring. Mom was unable to care for herself, so Alex made it his responsibility to care for those that could not care for themselves.

As early as Alex can remember, he felt an obligation to take responsibility for his Mom. A problem for Alex is that he does not know that he was not allowed to be a child. He views his desire to take responsibility as a value. To escalate the problem further, adults in his life praised him for these character traits. Viewing him as a "wonderful mature kid." Internally, Alex lived in a state of fear, constantly concerned with what tomorrow would bring. Mindful to never ask for too much and be careful to keep his desires in check because "Mom's needs are more important?"

Alex lived his childhood in a state of constant responsible mindfulness. Always working against "not being like his dad or turning out like his brother." Again, he had a similar childhood as Jacob. He was emotionally neglected and abused while being left to fend for himself. The difference is how Alex coped with the absence of healthy attachment. By developing an internal parent who focused solely on filling the void of appropriate responsibility in his life. Rather than acting out and using drugs to cope, Alex internalized responsibility to ignore his feelings of loss and neglect.

The challenge for someone like Alex is that this type of upbringing produces many positive attributes. Responsibility and discipline can lead to success in life. From his relationship with his Mom, Alex learned to be emotionally attentive to his relationships. He constantly put other's needs before his own. From the outside looking in, Alex is an emotionally aware well-adjusted young adult who seems to have a lot going for him. However, internally Alex suffers from chronic shame, no connection himself, and rarely feels worthy of his success. There exists a chronic feeling of "I'm not good enough." Typically these types show up in counseling, saying something like, "I don't know myself, I don't know what I want out of life."

The value of learning chronic responsibility at a young age makes it hard to argue that it is a problem. People who were forced to grow up too soon are typically successful and appear proud of their accomplishments. However, if you look closer, they often lack a sense of a secure self. They are constantly second-guessing themselves and often do not much about who they are as a person. There is a constant sense that they are not good enough, leading to chronic shame and feelings of low self-worth. People like Alex struggle to know their likes and dislikes, who they wanted to be, and what social groups they wanted to be a part of. Maybe you have met someone like this? We might describe people like this as "chameleons" capable of blending in with almost anyone. They spend their childhoods learning to pay attention to everyone else and never learn to attend to themselves. Or that they are even capable of such attention.

Childhood is meant to be a time where we do not have to worry about tomorrow. It is a time where we can be free to play and experience the joys of innocence. However, when you consider someone like Alex, who was forced to begin worrying about tomorrow at far too young of an age, you get a disconnection with the self. A struggle to answer simple questions such as what's my favorite type of music? Favorite food? Hobbies? Dreams? They struggle to know themselves because they have been forced to constantly worry about tomorrow and everyone but themself. They live acutely aware that every action they take today leads to an effect tomorrow, so they stay stuck in an anxious state of responsibility. Never able to learn who they are by being allowed to live in the moment.

In childhood, we are supposed to be allowed to run amuck. Make mistakes, not know who we and try on new things. Be impulsive, say the wrongs things and not have plans for tomorrow. When the freedom to live in the moment is granted to children, they develop a sense of who they are. With the proper structure in place, this innocence or naïveté allows children the space to grow into who they are. By the time we are adults, we know who we are and what we want to be or understand who we are not. There is an appropriate time to learn responsibility. Childhood is not that time. Childhood is a time to learn to be free, make mistakes, and play.

If any part of Alex's journey resonates with you, I want you to hear that you are worthy and capable. I see you. My hope is that you can learn to see yourself.

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