A few days ago, I pointed out that the girls who survived incarceration at Hephzibah House (HH) suffered both trauma/torture and spiritual abuse, and upon leaving, they struggle with unique problems including trauma reenactment, revictimization, and an inability to self-protect. Though some of this relates directly to the debilitation of the self created by the harsh conditions at HH, the roots of these related deficits are created in childhood. Many other fundamentalist and cultic evangelical groups share ideologies that predispose children to these common patterns of dysfunction. I believe that to fully understand the nature of problems such as problems with self protection, one must understand the root causes.
The Nature and Character of Children
To raise a child well, it gives to reason that a person should have a good understanding of the capabilities of children in order for parents to set reasonable expectations for children in terms of their behavior and their anticipated understanding. Many of the common problems seen in spiritually abusive religious groups begin with a misunderstanding of the capabilities (and needs) of children, and the misconceptions eventually produce patterns of dysfunctional thought and behavior in adults within the system.
Consider the three very obvious characteristics of children: they have incredible amounts of energy, they are very resilient, and because of the way the mind develops and learning takes place, children are very self-centered, initially aware of only their own experiences. In a recent post discussing levels of consciousness based on brain development, this self-centeredness can be understood as a physical limitation as a child first learns “how to be” before he learns how to fit into the world around him. The child eventually grows beyond this self-centeredness developmentally (both physically and psychologically), but their first standard of comparison of how to be in the world begins with the self as a standard of comparison. Parents teach the standard to their children by modeling the standard for the child and by serving as a mirror in which the child can see themselves so that they can understand their own behavior.
Expectations of Parents
These considerations are all quite philosophical, and they aren’t of primary importance to parents while they are overwhelmed with the management of the practical needs of the newborn or the tiring busyness of a rambunctious two year old. Just the “battle fatigue” of raising young children alone can frustrate parents, and this might lead them to feel frustrated by that endless energy and that adaptability of children, too. A parent may not stop to consider that the child needs that energy and that ability to bounce from experience to experience in their self-centered ways in order to grow effectively into adulthood.
In that respect, the child’s self-centered nature, their busy energy, and their resilience are the vital and necessary gifts that they are given to accomplish the monumental task of growing up. But consider that the parent who punishes a child for these traits or abuses their child for having these traits depletes these needed gifts and energy, stealing them from the child. The child pays the price for this diversion of their resources, and as adults, it is up to them to go back to master the development that they may not have achieved.
Common Misconceptions About the Immaturity of Children
One pitfall that often takes place within Christian fundamentalism is the punishment of the child’s self-centered nature. There is a time and a purpose for everything under heaven, including this aspect of a child, but an inexperienced or a demanding parent (who may be uncomfortable with balancing their own wants and needs) may expect too much Christian oriented self-sacrifice from a child too soon. A parent may also expect the young child to have few needs – and young children are especially needy! The parent with unrealistic expectations may teach a young child at an early age that they should have no needs at all, God-given or otherwise. They may also teach the child to feel guilty if they ridicule or criticize the chld for having needs or if the parent complains about having to statisfy both wants and needs. The parent may misinterpret the child’s need as greed, failing to see the balance and the difference between needs and wants, misinterpreting both as sinful indulgence.
One of the developmental tasks of the self-centered child includes the development of healthy self-esteem which begins with the child’s learning to love themselves. Jesus implies that this is essential to properly relating to others and includes appropriate self-love as part of the two greatest commandments which encompass the Law and the Prophets. However, many Christians fail to take this self-love into consideration and interpret it as conceit.
Some misinterpret Paul’s admonishment to “esteem others better through lowliness of mind” as a cause to have less than appropriate or low esteem for oneself. “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister” can also be misconstrued into feelings of shame during seasons of need. Bill Gothard extends this idea which confuses humility and shame, teaching that all should should actively submit to all suffering without protest to develop humility. He takes the principle of generosity and compassion too far out of balance, claiming that God requires His followers to relinquish all personal rights of justice by denying the appropriate balance of forgiving tolerance between mercy and justice. This promotes the development of a lack of respect for the self and results in a disrespect for the image of God in the person.
Ultimately, problems of this type stem back to the parent’s lack of proper esteem for others, and among those others for parents come their children. They may believe that children should serve their parents as opposed to serving God by raising them, being good stewards of the precious people God has placed in their care.
And ultimately, the child learns balance from the parent through all of these things which require the parent to exercise self-control. If the parent has difficulty understanding the difference between needs and wants because of their own maturity issues, they cannot give to their children what they lack themselves. The parent may understand that they have no rights or may be made to feel guilty for their own God-given needs, so they lack the perspective of balance and cannot pass that on to their children. They may suffer from a “shame-existence bind” themselves, believe that they shouldn’t have needs, while knowing that they cannot endure life without help from others. Human beings require a healthy level of interpersonal dependence, because we cannot meet all of our needs by ourselves. We are interdependent creatures, but if the parent lacks this understanding or has learned shame regarding their own needs, how can they pass that on to their child?
And the parent may also have unreasonable expectations that the Christian life and parenting as an experience that is largely free of tension or pain. Balance is not a state of floating bliss. Balance is the artful skill and dynamic process of managing two competing forces at the same time. That requires effort, and sometimes it is nothing short of very hard work. The child also learns this from the parent, and as an adult, that child may gravitate towards extremes because this their parent taught them through their own example. They may see frustration as sinful and may be uncomfortable sitting with their frustrations and the internal discomfort that maturity requires. If their parent lacked frustration tolerance, it is likely that they required their children to pay the bill for their own needs. We see this pattern in the behavior of men like Voddie Baucham and Michael Pearl who tolerate no repeated error in their children, asking of them more than God asks of adults. Child of such families grow up and very likely pass this along to their own children by being intolerant of their immaturity.
At the heart of love is respect, and at the heart of respect is balance (self-control), the willingness and ability to tolerate frustration. Either due to lack of maturity or due to aberrant religious ideas that result from poor interpretations of Scripture, some Christians understand their faith in terms of being unbalanced, unable or tolerate diversity. If the parent lacks balance, then their sense of respect for themselves and others suffers, and respect of a person’s personhood is the minimum requirement of real and healthy love. Quite often, the parent with lack of balance, respect, and love translates those issues into unreasonable expectations for their children, and they pass their discomfort and frustration on to them. The child then pays the price for the parent’s lack of maturity and mastery of the tasks of adulthood.
In the next post,
we will look at more specific characteristics of children
that contribute dysfunction when their weaknesses are
Cynthia Mullen Kunsman is a nurse (BSN), naturopath (ND) and seminary graduate (MMin) with a wide variety of training and over 20 years of clinical experience. She has used her training in Complementary and Alternative Medicine as a lecturer and liaison to professional scientific and medical groups, in both academic and traditional clinical healthcare settings. She also completed additional studies in the field of thought reform, hypnotherapy for pain management, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is often associated with cultic group involvement. Her nursing experience ranges from intensive care, the training of critical care nurses, hospice care, case management and quality management, though she currently limits her practice to forensic medical record review and evaluation. Most of her current professional efforts concern the study of manipulative and coercive evangelical Christian groups and the recovery process from both thought reform and PTSD.