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Childhood as an Impulse Control Disorder (Part 2)

Can "untamed" childhood impulsivity lead to addiction?

child jumping on bedPart 1 of this post focused on the normality--and dysfunctionality--of childhood impulsivity. This second part will relate "untamed" impulsivity in children to later addictive tendencies. It will also make an ardent appeal for parents to deal as compassionately as possible with their children when their really annoying impulses start getting on their nerves.

Impulsivity and Addiction

Impulsive behavior is most often maladaptive--whether it's exhibited by a child or adult. Certainly, most people would agree that the very word impulsivity rarely connotes anything positive.

I haven't yet read about any controlled research specifically linking a child's poor impulse control to later addiction. But I think it's safe to say that if a child's impulsivity isn't at some point brought under control, that child is at significantly greater risk to later develop an addiction.

True, just as the dynamic of childhood is much too complicated to describe it simply as a period when a child must learn better impulse control, addictive behavior involves a lot more than the inability of addicts to master destructive impulses. Nonetheless, the very core of addiction can be viewed as intimately tied to impulsivity problems originating in childhood. DSM-IV (the mental health professional's diagnostic bible) sums up the essence of adult impulse-control disorders by stating: "[They all represent] the failure to resist an impulse, drive, or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or to others."

Although this description is meant to characterize dysfunctional adults, does it not sound very much like what I've already described in Part 1 as relates to "normal" childhood behavior? And while this definition is for disordered impulse control rather than addiction as such, does it not define addictive behaviors equally as well? My point here is that unless children can be taught non-impulsive ways of dealing with everyday challenges and frustrations, they're inadvertently in jeopardy of later become addicts. In fact, a great deal of what typifies childhood behavior is also characteristic of addictive adults. To better understand this relationship, consider the following attributes of those "afflicted" with addiction. That is, similar to children, most addictive adults:

• Struggle to resist seeking immediate gratification of their wants and needs, unable to focus on the longer-term consequences of their behavior;
• Are motivated by irrepressible desires to experience pleasurable sensations;
• Display impatience, and a general inability to tolerate--or cope with--feelings of frustration or deprivation;
• Take risks, and lack the ability to calculate beforehand the possible costs of such uncertain (and quite possibly, hazardous) behaviors;
• Have problems dealing with feelings such as anger, anxiety, and sadness, and--without such emotional resources--have difficulty managing feelings generally;
• Demonstrate poor boundaries; and
• Lack genuine self-confidence, and betray a variety of self-image deficits.

Indirectly, almost all of these negative characteristics point to the paramount importance of parents' learning how to effectively--and humanely--discipline their children. For only then can their child's innate proclivities to act impulsively be subdued, and in a way that avoids harming the child's basic sense of self.

The Compassionate Correction of Childhood Impulsivity

John Bradshaw, a seminal figure in the Recovery Movement (i.e., "recovery" of self from having grown up in an abusive, dysfunctional family) emphasizes the concept of a "shame-based identity," which he views as a result of deficient parenting. His central contention is that the origin of all addictive behavior comes from individuals' not feeling okay about themselves. In consequence, they must look for something outside themselves (whether it be alcohol, illicit drugs, gambling, pornography, etc.) to lessen or hide their intolerable feelings of shame.

Although it might be argued that many people get into addictive substances, activities, or relationships more to control otherwise unmanageable stress than to obliterate painful feelings about themselves, the very ability to cope well with stress may in large part be determined by a person's sense of self and personal resources. And these fundamental aspects of self-regard derive primarily from parental messages received as children. In this respect, I might mention that I've long come to see the addict's compulsions (from excessive shopping to indiscriminate sexing) as essentially compensations for the love and caring they never experienced enough of from their caretakers.

None of this is meant to suggest that parents rigorous in their disciplining are somehow unloving--just that when children are negatively judged and found fault with far more frequently than they're shown affection, appreciation, respect and caring, they may well conclude that they're not really deserving of their parents' love, or that they're defective to their very core (which is precisely what Bradshaw's notion of a shame-based identity is all about). Moreover, children who, however unwittingly, have been made to feel ashamed of who they are (as in, "You should be ashamed of yourself!") will feel a compelling need as adults (or even teens) to do whatever they can to feel better--or at least less bad--about themselves. That's why it's essential that parents learn the admittedly difficult-to-master art of how to correct their children without actually criticizing them, or otherwise making them feel bad about themselves.

"Compassionate correction," as I like to call it, is a way of caringly teaching children how best to protect themselves from their own impetuous or imprudent impulses--as well as how best to adapt to the world they live in. It involves taking children "in hand"--rather than showing them the back of your hand. Its emphasis should be every bit as much educational as disciplinary.

I realize that children may in many ways resist such education-that they may see it as controlling, overly restrictive, or punitive. But over time, if parents are able to "get" at a deep enough level just how strong a child's impulses can be, and how very hard it is for them to restrain these impulses, they'll be able to approach the child with an understanding and compassion that can enable children to feel genuinely cared about and loved--even as they're being corrected. And most parents can testify how much the way they approach their children when they've done something wrong can itself determine the outcome of such necessary confrontation.

Obviously, this whole subject of parental discipline is well worth an entire book, and in fact a great many have already been written on it. Those interested in getting more ideas on parenting compassionately might wish to begin by following this link to, so that they might explore what other writers have had to say about this most vital--and challenging--topic.

© 2009 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.