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Sunday, February 20, 2011

We Are All Accidents At Birth

I just heard Bill Withers, the great musician and songwriter, say, "We are all accidents at birth." He went on to explain how no one has any control of the conditions into which he or she is born. Of course, one's environment, even from conception, affects the life of the individual. Whether the environment is overwhelmingly negative or positive, its composition is largely circumstantial for the child.

This random victimization seems unfair, yet Withers explains that a time in life does emerge when a deprived individual discovers certain talents may lead to choices -- choices that can foster self-improvement. Even outcomes of the natural evolutionary processes such as gender, sexual orientation, skin color and ethnicity are not automatic entitlements to lifelong victimhood.

Is a child's behavior dictated by genes? Is a child's behavior dictated by the environment? This is the classic argument of Nature vs. Nurture. It seems more likely that a child is the product of an interaction between both genetic predisposition and environmental stimuli. Simply put, risky genes will likely be activated and developed within a negative environment, but not likely within a positive environment.

This theory proposes that even if a child is genetically predisposed to negative and violent behaviors, these behaviors are only activated by an insecure or violent environment. A positive, nurturing environment in early childhood is most sure to produce a well-adjusted, happy child, despite genetic predispositions. "Nature works through nurture, and nurture through nature, to shape our personalities, aptitudes, health and behavior," summarizes Mark Henderson of The Times of London. ("Nature v Nurture? Please Don't Ask," March 28 2009)


What directly results when children experience negative stimuli? Dr. Dan Olweus, research professor of psychology from Norway, is often considered the pioneer of  bullying research. The interaction between antisocial or criminal behaviors activated by violent or insecure environments is also validated by his ongoing research on bullying behaviors. Olweus's research (D. Olweus, 1980, 1993) shows students who reported that their parents used (violent) physical discipline strategies when they broke a rule at home were more likely to report engaging in bullying behavior.

The Worst - Addiction

A child's cerebral cortex -- the brain's center for memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness -- starts out larger than that of an adult, but shrinks as the brain differentiates during the first two decades of life. "The brain of an adult is much more connected than that of a child," noted Nora D. Volkow, M.D., director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

"The frontal cortex -- critical for using cognitive control to regulate desires -- is the last part of the brain to fully differentiate," said Volkow, which helps explain why adolescents are especially prone to risk-taking and experimentation. "As the brain advances on its 'developmental trajectory' it can be strongly influenced by environmental factors," she said. (Bob Curley, "Research Shows Parenting Can Prevent Drug Use, Aid Brain Development, NIDA Chief Says,", December 4 2009)

It is believed that half of all vulnerability to addiction can be traced to a person's genetic background, but that hardly means that a child's fate is sealed if they have a family history of addiction. Rather, Volkow said that addiction is, in many ways, a developmental disorder that is intimately linked to the maturation of the brain from childhood through adolescence and into early adulthood.

Children who are genetically predisposed to addiction rarely suffer from drug problems if they have parents who are actively involved in their lives, according to researchers. Those who have both genetic vulnerability and absent or uninvolved parents have a "very significant increase in drug addiction," however, according to Volkow.

"Even though kids may be born to very adverse environments, the plasticity of the brain now gives us a path forward in terms of identifying interventions to help reverse the changes caused by these stimuli and increase the likelihood that kids will be able to stay drug-free," said Volkow. 

In the United States, 85 percent of state caseworkers listed substance abuse as one of two top contributors to child abuse. Child-welfare authorities consider parental substance abuse to be a major risk factor for child abuse. In other words, when parents abuse drugs, they are more likely to engage in child abuse as well.

Under the influence of alcohol and other drugs, adults are less inhibited—they feel free to act on their desires and wishes. They lose a sense of good judgment and emotional control. For these reasons, some adults who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to hurt their children or behave in harmful ways. (Taken from "Child Abuse and Drugs,", Rosalyn Carson-Dewitt, Drugs, Alcohol, and Tobacco, 2001)

Common Features Identified Of Families in Which Child Abuse Occurs and Families in Which Substance Abuse Occurs: 
  • Parents often have poor parenting skills—parents spend little time with children, speak harshly and critically to them, discipline them in extreme ways or not at all.
  • Family disorganization—the family members do not communicate with each other, the children's needs are not met, and there is frequent conflict and possibly violence.
  • Parents are more likely to resort to criminal activity, often to obtain illegal drugs.
  • High rates of mental illness, such as depression, psychosis, and antisocial personality disorder.
  • High rates of physical illness due to chaotic lifestyle, lack of health care, and the risks of intravenous drug use.

What Needs To Be Done?

1. Drug treatment agencies should routinely ask their clients if they have been or are being physically or sexually abused. 

2. Child welfare agencies should routinely investigate whether substance abuse by a parent or caregiver is contributing to the maltreatment of children.

3. Because it is not possible to remove all children from risky family environments, both government-funded and private agencies must find other ways to protect children. 

4. Caregivers and professionals can help maltreated children learn how to avoid abuse. 

5. Social welfare agencies need to teach parenting skills to addicted mothers and fathers, who must be made to understand that their chaotic street lives damage their children.  

6. Parent-and-family-skills training programs must be initiated.

7. Parents must locate good early-childhood education for the child.

8. Some parents must consider foster care or adoption.

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