The Trauma of Childhood

by Alice Miller

The Trauma of Childhood
Tuesday June 01, 1999

As long as they are loved, children can recover from abuse and even the horror of war.

June 4, 1999 | We do not arrive in this world as a clean slate. Every new baby comes with a history of its own, the history of the nine months between conception and birth. In addition, children have the genetic blueprint they inherit from their parents. These factors may help determine what kind of a temperament a child will have, what inclinations, gifts and predispositions.
But character depends crucially upon whether a person is given love, protection, tenderness and understanding or exposed to rejection, coldness, indifference and cruelty in the early formative years. The stimulus indispensable for developing the capacity for empathy, say, is the experience of loving care. In the absence of such care, when a child is forced to grow up neglected, emotionally starved and subjected to physical abuse, he or she will forfeit this innate capacity. While I ascribe immense significance to the experiences of infants in the first days, weeks and months of their lives to explain their later behavior, I do not wish to assert that later influences are completely ineffectual. Rather, if a traumatized or neglected child can later come to know what I call an “enlightened” or “knowing witness,” he or she can deal positively with the effects of that childhood trauma.
We know today that the brain we are born with is not the finished product it was once thought to be. The structuring of the brain depends very much on the experiences of the first hours, days and weeks of a person’s life. In the last few years, scientific studies led by neurologist and child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce D. Perry have further established that traumatized and neglected children display severe lesions affecting up to 30 percent of those areas of the brain that control our emotions. Severe traumas inflicted on infants lead to an increase in the release of stress hormones that destroy the existing, newly formed neurons and their interconnections.
These latest revelations about the human brain might have been expected to bring about a radical change in our thinking about children and the way we treat them. But old habits die hard. Many people now believe that it takes at least two generations for young parents to free themselves of the burden of inherited “wisdom” and stop beating their own children, two generations until it has become sheerly impossible to give one’s child a slap “inadvertently,” two generations before the weight of newly acquired knowledge gets in the way of the hand raised to deal the “unthinking” blow.
We are often confronted with the belief that the effects of corporal punishment are salutary rather than detrimental. But the only thing beaten children learn is to fear their parents, not to drive carefully or stay out of trouble. They will also feel guilty and learn to play down their own pain. Being subjected to physical attacks they are defenseless to fend off merely instills in children a “gut” conviction that they obviously merit neither protection nor respect. This false message is then stored in the children’s bodies as information and will influence their view of the world and their later attitude toward their own children. Such children will be unable to defend their right to human dignity, unable to recognize physical pain as a danger signal and act accordingly. Even their immune system may be affected.
In the absence of other persons to model their behavior on — enlightened or knowing witnesses — these children will see the language of violence and hypocrisy as the only really effective means of communication. Naturally enough, they will avail themselves of that language themselves when they grow up because adults normally will elect to keep already-suppressed feelings of powerlessness in a state of suppression.
The trauma experienced by Kosovar children can be overcome if these children receive the proper attention of their parents, or, in the absence of parents, from another adult. These children need to know that they are loved and that someone understands their fears. War — a trauma that is shared by an entire community — doesn’t drive a child to destructiveness if he can share his feelings with somebody. What makes a person dangerous in later life is the isolation of pain and fear, the failure of parents or other caregivers to see and understand how badly a child feels. With the Kosovar children, the parents perfectly understand the distress of their children and can try to help them because they are experiencing the same pain themselves. In fact, the whole world seems to be eager to help; everybody is aware of the traumas. On the other hand, the isolation of an infant in pain within a family can leave traces in the brain that are linked to violent or aggressive behavior later.
Protection and respect for the needs of a child are surely things we ought to be able to take for granted. But this is far from being the case. We live in a world peopled by individuals who have grown up deprived of their rights, deprived of respect. As adults they then attempt to regain those rights by force (blackmail, threats, the use of weapons). Society seems to regard hatred as innate, that is to say, God-given. It is a society that refuses to see that we keep on producing hatred by inculcating models of violence into our children, behavior patterns that can prove stronger than anything they may learn at a later stage.
The United Nations has been called upon to declare the years 2000-2010 the decade for the culture of nonviolence. This cannot be achieved by fine words alone. We need to set an example for our children — those who will decide what the next generation will look like — and show them that coexistence and communication without violence are actually possible. I believe there are a great number of parents who are already aware of the far-reaching implications of their own behavior. It is realistic to hope that this knowledge will lead to an increase in the number of knowing witnesses and hence to a swift improvement in the treatment of children everywhere.