By Joy Birnbach Dunstan, MA, LPC, MAC
Growing Up Again
We all grew up to be how we are for a reason. Some of the reasons are hard-wired biologically. Some of the reasons have to do with environmental and parental influences. The nature vs nurture question has been argued forever, but today I’m going to focus on the nurture side.
Through every stage of growth, a child has certain developmental tasks. If the child’s needs are met and the tasks are successfully accomplished, the child grows in a healthy manner. Sadly, sometimes these needs are not met, leaving the child struggling or damaged in ways that stay with him or her for life, or until there is a corrective experience. Many adult behaviors are clues to problems stemming from each of six primary stages of growth.
The earliest stage is from birth to six months. The child’s tasks are basic: learning to trust, to get needs met, to be joyful and deserving of their place in the world. If the parent or other caregivers didn’t respond to the infant’s signals, didn’t hold them enough, gave rigid or angry responses, or neglected basic care and protection, we see certain behavior patterns when the child grows up. Clues that an adult has issues left over from Stage One include not trusting others, secretiveness, wanting others to know your needs without asking, feeling numb and unaware of your own needs, believing others’ needs are more important than your own, not wanting to be touched or compulsive touching and sexual acting out.
Stage Two is from 6 to 18 months. It is a powerful time when it is important for the child to learn more about trust, learn that it is safe and wonderful to explore, to trust his own senses, to be creative and active. If the parents did not allow protected mobility, criticized or shamed, excessively disciplined or punished, or overly restricted the toddler, we see these clues in the adult: boredom, reluctance to initiate, overactive or overquiet, avoidance of doing things unless you can do them perfectly, compulsive neatness, lack of self-confidence, thinking it is normal not to be safe, supported, and protected.
Stage Three, from 18 months to 3 years, is about learning to think and solve problems and to express and handle feelings. Parents can thwart these tasks by using too many don’ts and not enough do’s, getting caught in power struggles, not setting appropriate limits or expectations, and shaming or discounting the child. This creates an adult who is overly rebellious, egocentric, needs to be right, bullies, says yes or no too quickly, and intimidates others or is easily intimidated.
Stage Four, from 3 to 6 years, is about identity and power. The tasks of this stage focus on activities that help establish individual identity, learn skills, and figure out role and power relationships with others. If parents didn’t support growth in this stage, we see an adult who demands to be in a position of power or is fearful to use power, defines self by a job or relationship, is driven to succeed, feels inadequate or superior, and expects magical solutions.
Stage Five, from 6 to 12 years, is about structure. This includes understanding the usefulness of appropriate rules and developing the values on which rules are based. Parents hinder growth by erratically enforcing rules, insisting on perfection, expecting a child to learn without adequate help or clarity, and overstructuring the child’s time. These behaviors can create adults who are either loners or need to be part of a “gang,” think rules don’t apply to them, need to be #1, don’t trust their own thinking or intuition, and are reluctant to try new things.
Stage Six, from 13 to 19 years, focuses on identity, separation, and sexuality. Unhelpful parent behaviors during this time include being unresponsive or uncaring, withholding loving touch, responding sexually to the adolescent’s developing sexual maturity, failing to set appropriate limits or allow healthy independence. Adults with issues stemming from this stage may show a preoccupation with sex, appearance, and friends, be unsure of their own values and vulnerable to peer pressure, be overdependent or alienated from family and friends, have problems starting and ending jobs and relationships, and look to others for their definition of self.
Maybe you recognize some of these traits in yourself or others. Understanding their origin can increase compassion, and growth can always occur because “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
If you’d like to know more about these ages and stages, you might enjoy reading Growing Up Again: Parenting Ourselves, Parenting Our Children by Connie Dawson and Jean Illsley Clarke.