Monday, December 13, 2010

Surviving Childhood Trauma | Nature versus Nurture

So the other day, I read this piece titled "Children Learn What They Live" which lead into an interesting contemplation about Nature vs Nurture regarding how well an individual adjusts as an adult after a abusive / traumatic childhood. So, what does Nature versus Nurture actually mean? This is an essential issue in developmental psychology and describes the association between innateness and environmental influence in terms of the different aspect of development. This is frequently termed as “nature versus nurture” or nativism versus empiricism. A nativist’s view of development is one that is innate, meaning it is dictated by a person’s genes. From an empiricist perspective, development is acquired through an interaction with the environment. First, here's the piece:

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
Copyright © 1972 by Dorothy Law Nolte

A small discussion that proceed on a social networking site between myself & my friend who is also a mother where you can clearly see the viewpoint fluctuate from nurture versus nature:
  • me: Key words are tolerance, encouragement, praise, fairness, security, approval, acceptance, and friendship. May I also add: support (which goes along with encouragement above) and love as additional key words.
  • friend: So true and a great reminder of what we provide as an environment to our children makes them the people they will become.
  • me: My mother always said that the stuff kids endure during childhood does not have a bearing on who we are as adults. She said that we have a choice as an adult to be whoever, which to an extent is true; however, I do believe that an unhealthy environment has long-term consequences on who we are as people and how we deal with the world around us.
  • friend: I do have to agree with your mother also. My childhood was not the best and if I lived by the statistics I should be an abusive alcoholic. But thank goodness I chose in my life to be a much different person. So with that being said you could also say that an environment can have extreme result the other way. We can nurture all we want but in the end our children will decide what type of person they wish to be.
  • me: I know of people who came from the same parental / childhood experiences (nurture) and both turned out different. Personality (nature) plays a huge part in the equation, just as you said.
My friend's first comment reflects how nurture influences a child's upbringing whereas her second comment supports how nature takes over in who we are. After this little thread of communication, I started to think once again about the effects of both nurture and nature. Do children learn what they live or live what / who they are? First of all, I think Nature versus Nurture is much to simplistic thinking to what molds a person into who he / she is. I also think that both Nature and Nurture are influential as you can read in my post Blaming Parents for Our Past

How my brother and I have adjusted as adults after having the same upbringing is an interesting little case study. We were raised by the same parents but have starkly different lives. Our parents, an NPD Dad and a BPD mother who had a nasty divorce when I was 12 y/o and my brother 10 y/o, have been conditional with their love, selfish parents, and wielding of guilt. We were latch-key kids, thrust into ready-made families when our parents re-married shortly after their divorce, and basically left to fend on our own as our parents engaged in their new lives with their new spouses. Both parents were very selfish, focusing deeply on their own lives rather than raising their children. Both parents also placed the children into situations where they expect us to chose one parent over the other. Our mother was continuously emotionally abusive and our Dad was continuously selfish, pushing us aside on a whim.

As far as my personality and my brother's: I am optimistic, happy, and motivated; my brother is pessimistic, depressed, and highly unmotivated-- these traits could be seen from an early age. I have always been a high-achiever, one who aims to please, and an organized perfectionist. My brother? The complete opposite.

So where have our lives led us?
  • I have a Masters degree; my brother didn't graduate from high-school.
  • I lived independently as a single business woman until my mid-30's when I eventually got married and had a child.
  • My brother on the other hand has never lived independently, married young, divorced young, has had four children, and is still struggling to manage his life.
My personality definitely supported me through the abusive, challenging, and tough years. My self-confidence, optimism, and motivation kept me focused on getting an education, realizing the situations were created by my parents (not me), and that life will change (and I can make that change happen). Certainly I was affected by my parents selfishness (I have always sought their approval and love), guilt trips (I have had to overcome feelings of guilt throughout my life, especially inflicted by my parents), anxiety (worry and fear of what they were going to pull out of their hat of tricks next-- what situation will be created that I am the fault of?), and defensiveness (immediately being defensive when my Dad would come at me, which I found out I treated situations outside of my relationship with my Dad the same).

My brother, on the other hand, has always exhibited anger issues, depression, lack of motivation, and a defeatist attitude. Compound this personality with self-absorbed parents and traumatic experiences at a very young age, and this child who was seeking approval, attention, and unconditional love from his parents, spiraled further down into a bad spot. He should have had intensive therapy from a young age but he didn't. Then add the trauma of his parents divorce and the emotional torment of Parental Alienation Syndrome, and you have a nasty mix of bad nature and bad nurture.

I had many talks with my mother about my brother, which she gets very defensive saying she did all she could for him when he was a child. My main point to her is that he desperately needed stability and therapy. Her response is always that the stuff my brother endured in his childhood should not have any bearing on who he is as an adult-- that who he is as an adult is his choice. Well, in my opinion, the situation is not that simple. My brother needed medical attention as a child and didn't get it. The medical attention (therapy) would have provided tools and mechanisms that my brother could have used to manage his life and deal with the idiosyncrasies of family life and more. Additionally, both my Dad and my mother did not offer unconditional love and support for my brother during his teenage years. Rather they cast him aside when his behavior became too tough to handle.

So, on one side you have the biology (nature) of the child: personality, genetic psychological disorders, emotional disorders, and drugs / alcohol effects from the mother's pregnancy. On the other side, you have children effected by nature: emotional & physical abuse, divorce, Parental Alienation Syndrome, being latch-key kids, parents with personality disorders / alcoholism / addictions, and more.
  • A child could have positive nature with negative nurture and turn out okay (me).
  • Or you could have a child with negative nature with negative nurture and turn out not okay (my brother).
Or you could have negative nature with positive nurture and turn out not okay as seen in the case with California case: a few years ago a case in California was a headliner and was profiled on the show "60 Minutes". A teenage boy was adopted as a baby, and his adoptive family was very loving and stable by all accounts. The boy had a happy and normal childhood but, unfortunately, when he was 18 y/o he snapped. He raped and murdered a 7 y/o girl, which completely shocked his adoptive parents. From background research into the boy's biological family, his parents suffered from schizophrenia and other severe psychological disorders. The adoption agency hid this from the adoptive parents. Even the boy admitted in an interview that his upbringing or his parents was optimal and that he just had something wrong with him. He blamed himself 100% for the crime.

Some psychologists agree that Nature and Nurture are both major influences to behavior development. Psychologist Robert Plomin said, "But the genetic influence on traits and behaviors is only partial: Genetics account, on average, for half of the variance of most traits. That means the environment accounts for the rest." Nurturing and our environment can alter the effect of our nature (our genes we inherited) if the influence is strong enough. Nature and Nurture mingle and influence traits of everyone. Our genes are important because what we have inherited is essentially the basis of what kind of person we are, but the environment can alter and develop a person even more.

In my opinion, without positive nature (meaning the child is negatively effected by nature), enduring and coming out okay after negative nurture is going to be a very challenge battle. However, if the child has a positive nature, developing into a productive and well-adjusted adult is less of a challenge. And as you saw in the example of the adopted boy in California, nature has a significant impact even if the nurture was positive.

With as much as my parents think that my brother can just make a choice to turn his life around, I believe his mental illness combined with post-traumatic-stress-disorder from the childhood trauma make managing his own life virtually impossible. And on the flip side, people are always asking me how I came out so well-adjusted, happy, and positive after all the trama I have been through with my parents, and I always answer that I have been happy since birth... and that I thank God for allowing me to know I was not responsible for my parents' actions.


  1. I have been reading your entries and find so much in common with my own mother. I am almost 39 years old and have barely moved away from her with my husband. She's had control over me all of her life and even in my thirties I'd have to report how much I spent on things and where I was going or coming from. I feel as if I have lived in a concentration camp all of my life. This however has not changed the fact that she is still trying to control me. She still expects me to email her every day and if the email is not long enough or frequent enough she becomes annoyed. She is also always making up excuses why I have to come back to the USA (I live in Canada). She has tried to come up with at least four reasons so far why I need to go back in the ten months I've been living up here. She never considers that it would mean leaving my husband, losing my health insurance, and basically living like a child again in her house. Borderlines are just freaking crazy people. If I had no conscience it would be very easy to ignore her or cut her out, or maybe I'm just guilt-ridden and can't deal with the guilt. My sister basically ignores her, which is why my mother places so much importance on communication with me. Her latest rouse is that I have to come back because one of the dogs I had (which she wanted to keep because she said she would "die" without the dog) needs medical attention and that I need to come back right away. Now, I live in Northeastern Canada and she lives in Southern California, so it's a bit of a stretch. I told her no, and to please stop trying to force me to do things that are giving me anxiety. Even to this day when she harasses me I get these horrible symptoms of anxiety, headaches, etc. that I always got whenever dealing with her. Anyhow, I have come to the conclusion that these people are not just mentally ill but they are possessed by some sort of demon or evil. This is coming to you from a person with a degree in psych who worked in a mental facility and has lots of experience and knowledge of disorders like AsPD. There is just no rational reason behind these people -- they are just evil.

  2. Reading your comment gave me chills, especially with the "expects me to email her every day and if the email is not long enough or frequent enough she becomes annoyed" statement. Exactly how my mother was: she expected to get together every Monday and if I cancelled, I was put on a guilt trip. The control aspect is amazing. Have you read, "Understanding the Borderline Mother" by Lawson? I had SO MANY "ah-ha!" moment on every page. I highly recommend reading it (and the corresponding reader comments on Amazon too).

    Stand firm with her manipulations. You have your life going on, and she needs (must) respect your boundaries (you are married, in another country, leading your own life).

    I completely understand the anxiety. I have felt that as well, and the anxiety can literally make you sick. Backing away from your mother's toxicity and giving yourself some space will help. Does your husband give you support and help with validating your experiences & feelings? That will help with the anxiety too. Also, if you take your space, and your mother gets onto you for this & that the following time you communicate, don't make excuses. Just let her know that you have been busy and that you are simply leading your independent life-- which is nothing you should apologize about :)

    I wish you all the peace and happiness... keep trying to break-away from the dysfunction and control. You will feel so much freer-- and the anxiety will dissipate. Let me know if you ever want to chat. I am here :) Thanks for contacting / commenting.

  3. i have to agree w/the anonymous comment above. im studying to be a psychologist mainly to try to understand my narcissistic mother but sometimes i wonder if maybe im wasting my time doing that because there must be something more to it..and i definitely do think its demonic and controlling them because sometimes the evil and control is simply overwhelming and compels you to perceive its not them and that they're trapped n a sense. it sounds insane to people but..ive had experiences w/ that and i can tell you its very maybe the last option u may have in life. God will help you if u come to Him and He will deliver you from those evil spirits, and to try to help another person free too. i read "when pigs move in" by don dickerman and it is awesome. i
    i know its sometimes very, very hard to try to trust God after all you've been through but u have to know that He loves you sooo much. i became an atheist practically after dealing with my narc. mother because i unconsciously thought God was evil like so happy and relieved to say He's not!! and He slowly showed me He is love..and He cn do the same for you..God bless

  4. I agree with much of what you wrote in your post, Gretel.

    Somehow I understand what the two commentators are saying about the innate evilness of their BPD or narcissistic parents. But I just don't believe the innately evil, or predestined by genetics, theory. At times it feels like religion and genetics give people too simple explanations.

    I don't know if I'm completely naive, but I do believe that a child of two schizofrenics is more likely to suffer from certain mental problems, which does not mean that these problems manifest themselves in killing or raping somebody. It's really hard to say how close the boy was with his parents based on media reports. No doubt part of the problem was that the adoptive parents had no idea about his background. I haven't seen the articles or 60 minutes interview.

    I started thinking about the young men at war who adapt to the circumstances in different ways, but some of them make some bad choices that they cannot justify in civilian life. 'Remember My Lai' is a good documentary about this, but pretty rough. For example, in My Lai there was only couple of soldiers in the platoon that were able to defy the orders. The rescue helicopter team tried to stop the massacre, but they weren't part of the group dynamics that led to the massacre.

    I think the somewhat disturbing conclusion is that under pressure and under certain situations it is possible that many of us would do 'evil' things that we normally wouldn't. In situations like war, it's really difficult to analyze whether it's nature or nurture creating the setting. What about group dynamics and ability to handle pressure? I think we miss a lot of the big picture if the focus is just on the individual and her temperament (and its possible risk factors).

    I guess we all make moral decisions on what kind of survival methods we use. However, it's not set in stone that because one is easily bored or adventure seeking one will become a criminal. It might be that the adopted daughter whose birth parents are petty thieves ends up doing smth unmonotonous but legal as a profession.

    Perhaps your brother did not have the right environment to develop his potential and temperament, but I would not go so far as to say that he has a negative personality (nature) from the beginning. There's plenty of unvalued characterics, like introvertedness or cautiousness, that may actually become strenghts of a person if the environment allows it.

    But let's say what would have happened if you had had a normal childhood: Would he basically be the same personality with opportunities to express himself in a constructive manner? It's still possible that he'd have made wrong choices, I'm not denying that, but I guess I'm trying to state that in a different reality he might have found a positive outlet. I guess your childhood wasn't the perfect environment for anyone, but you just had some good luck and the right kind of temperament for the time and the place?

    I have no actual authority (nor PhD in genetics or psychology) to back up my views. I'm just wondering these issues at the moment.