By Dr Raoul Goldberg
The phenomenon of addiction has become one of the most central cultural problems of our times and is undoubtedly a serious threat to the health of our children.
Never before has a civilization been affected by addictive tendencies as is happening today, and never has it affected the children of a civilization as it is doing in our age.
In a culture where children are exposed from the earliest age to quick fixes and instant gratification, we are seeing pandemic addictive behaviour and full-on addictions at younger ages than ever before. It is not just dependency on illicit substances that is creating this worldwide pandemic, but also addictions to food and society sanctioned substances (smoking, alcohol), electronics (cell phones, computer games), media (TV, cinema, videos) and violent and sexual behaviour (pornography, promiscuity, prostitution).
The prevalence of addictive eating disorders such as obesity, anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa has increased greatly over the past decade, especially in developed countries. In the USA at least 15% of children are obese, and in South Africa research suggests that 1 in 5 girls suffer from eating disorders.
Twenty per cent of American adolescents aged 12 to 17 years are smokers who are 8 times more likely to use illicit drugs and 11 times more likely to drink heavily than non-smoking adolescents.
Although the highest rate of illicit drug use occurs between 18 to 20 years (18%), 16 to 17 year olds are not far behind (15.6%) and 4.5% of 12 to 13 year olds are habitual drug users.1
In South Africa about 10% of high school children use crystal methamphetamine (tik) and adolescents constitute about one-third of drug rehab patients. It is estimated that between 25% to 43% of sex and violent crimes against children are committed by children themselves in this country – some as young as 6 years old!
What does it do to the psyche and ultimately the body of a child to watch TV for 2 to 3 hours every day, or to be able to wield the power of a cell phone constantly?
In the space of a few decades, addictive behaviour is changing the way children experience themselves and their world. On the one hand, the controlling nature of addictive habits is progressively alienating children from their bodies, nature, fellow human beings and their own true potential.2 On the other hand, this phenomenon may be seen as a natural part of human evolution in the inexorable striving of humanity towards self-determination and freedom.
This article explores the deeper nature of addictive behaviour in children and a rational approach to helping children with addictive tendencies. Subsequent articles will explore four specific addictive tendencies: food and substance addiction, media addiction, electronic addiction, and sexual addiction and sexual abuse in children.
The deeper nature of addictive behaviour
The dependency continuum – our struggle between gratification and self-control
The human being by his very needy nature is a dependent being. He is dependent on food nutrients, water, air and the right degree of warmth as essential requirements of his existence in a living physical body. His soul life is likewise dependent on the fulfilment of a range of psychological needs such as the need to be loved, cared for, acknowledged, to feel worthy, etc. In addition, on the spiritual level he needs to express himself as a unique individual, to be creative, discover who he is, find his life task and to serve others.
Maslow, a leader in humanistic psychology, described a hierarchical organisation of needs present in everyone. During the course of child development the more primitive bodily needs such as hunger and thirst are satisfied. The more advanced psychological needs become the prime motivators in later childhood. Later in adult life as these needs are addressed, spiritual needs become relevant.3
Therefore needs and their gratification on these three levels appear to be part of healthy human development, making use of different aspects of the psyche’s will functions. Physical needs work through instinct, biological needs work through drives, psychological needs work through desires and spiritual needs use capacities of will such as motivation, wish, intention and resolution for their realisation.4
The Oxford Dictionary defines addiction ‘as the condition of being dependent on something, of being unable to do without something’. It comes from the word addicere meaning to assign or appoint, i.e. the addict is assigned to something to which he becomes dependent. Although the term addiction is not considered a scientific term having become trivialised by common usage and stigmatised by the negative and emotive connotation it conjures up, I have chosen to retain the term to refer to that extreme form of dependence along the dependency life curve.
In exploring the phenomenon of addiction we are obviously not concerned with the dependency of the body on life-sustaining elements such as air and water, rather we are concerned with a dependency of the soul life that expresses itself through a compulsive urge, craving or longing to satisfy an inner need through some outer gratification. Yet who among us is not habituated to specific pleasures and enjoyments and to dependent patterns of thinking and feeling? Who has not experienced some degree of compulsive behaviour whereby our desire took on a life of its own and where for a period of time we were no longer directed by our more rational self?
Dispassionate observation will acknowledge that one part of our nature is hell-bent on gratifying our needs and desires, binding us in dependency, while another part has the ability to control these needs according to our rational thinking. We play out a lifelong struggle between our lower animal desire nature and our higher human one, an endless striving to conquer nature and transform the lower into the higher. One could say this struggle is the main game of human evolution and it is within this life spectrum of dependency that addictive behaviour needs to be understood.
The vulnerability of needy children can lead to addictive behaviour
As described above, there are fundamental needs that belong to the growing and evolving human being. We never stop growing and we never stop having real needs. Growing and needing seem to be inextricably bound up with each other. Yehuda Tagar, founder of psychophonetics, compellingly described the soul dynamic whereby unfulfilled needs become subverted to addiction.5
By their very nature children want and expect their fundamental needs to be satisfied and suffer acutely when these are not met. A hungry child will tell you in no uncertain terms that he needs to eat. The body needs food to grow – biological wisdom knows that without food the body perishes. In the same way a neglected child will feel the intense discomfort of an absent mother and will also act out her discomfort in some obvious way.
The psyche also knows that it needs the soul nourishment of being nurtured and protected in order for it to grow in a healthy way; it will wither if it does not receive this and many other soul needs such as love, warmth, safety, touch, acknowledgement, etc. The child in his different sheaths is embedded in the environmental sheath of parental home, school community and social grouping which should provide the natural and healthy means of fulfilling these needs.6,7
However, so often the child’s environment does not fulfil these needs; it is very painful for the child to be deprived of these core needs. At some point in time, the child must suppress these needs to stem the pain and thus an original block is created. The acute pain may be appeased but the block causes a kind of congestion in the psyche leading to soul discomforts such as anxiety, craving and negativity of various kinds.
The child may attempt to deal with this by making use of defence mechanisms such as avoidance and compensations of various kinds. Or, they may adopt a secondary substitute, in the form of a substance or behaviour that gives relief to the discomfort. For instance, the child who misses being held and loved because of a strict and uncaring mother feels that something is innately missing, she aches for this something and discovers that food gives her momentary relief, because she cannot attain the real need for love and warmth, she blocks her need for love and finds a substitute in food.
The needy child will search for any means to gratify her needs and can easily be sucked into whatever gives comfort to the needy soul. Thus the addiction to some substance or activity is found which now attaches to the will where gratification of needs resides, taking over the instinct, drives, desires and motivation, and the more the child feeds it, the bigger it becomes. Whereas real needs are always eventually satisfied and governed by a sense of moderation and proportion, acquired needs can never be satisfied and can never satisfy the real needs. Acquired needs become invasive and controlling like some foreign soul parasites, using the energy of the real needs to achieve their goal.
All addictions, whether they are illicit substances, media or electronic addictions, manage to get in and take hold because they are able to soothe or numb the irritation of the basic needs that are not being met. Children do not have the psychological resilience to resist gratifying their needs nor to distinguish healthy from unhealthy gratification. The grave danger is that these needs can be claimed by other forces that latch on to these needy children. This is why children are so vulnerable to addictive substances and behaviours.
The development of dependency
• Unfulfilled real need
• Blocking of the need
• Ensuing pain
• The finding and adopting of a substitute gratification
• Appeases the pain
• Secondary need
The environment of addiction
Why has addictive behaviour in children become so widespread today? The environment of modern urban children has changed dramatically reflecting the evolving nature of humanity. The present times are characterised by a search for self-identity and self-determination. Even in their need to conform modern adolescents feel themselves as individuals searching for their rightful place in the world.
Today the child is losing at an ever-earlier age the natural environmental support of parents, community, religion and traditions. He no longer has role models that appeal to his sense of truth. He seeks elsewhere for his support and gratification of his needs.
He finds comfort and satisfaction in his social peer group, in the virtual reality of the world media and in the power and seduction of the electronic age. His peer group provides him with a sense of belonging where he can safely explore his self-identity and determine his particular way of gratifying his personal needs. It is here that he will frequently find the moral justification for his protest against the modern world, his healthy need to liberate himself from his parents and his longing for the intoxication of threshold experiences such as drugs, sex, violence and extreme sports that cut through one-sided attachments to the material world.
The world media creates a readymade sensational virtual reality of life through which he tries in his fantasy to satisfy his deepest inner needs. In addition the electronic age provides the child with a megalomaniac sense of his own power – he can create and control his reality and gratify his desires instantly through the press of a button. It is into this seductive environment that lonely and insecure children who have underlying emotional issues such as self-doubt, poor self-esteem, anxiety, etc., compounded by environmental stresses such as poverty, abuse, parental separation and unemployment, family death or illness in the family, will find refuge.
A large proportion of children will explore the exhilarating freedom of these three fields of experience as the natural adventurism and cultism of youth. The unhealthy nature of many of these experiences is usually not seriously damaging to health. However some children whose inner needs are so great and who find constant gratification in substitutive substances or behaviour patterns are hooked into a potentially highly damaging way of life that threatens every aspect of their lives.
Towards a solution
Understanding the nature of addiction
Addictive behaviour is invariably a cry for help. It is a statement that the child’s real inner needs are not being met forcing him to look elsewhere for his fulfilment. This fundamental understanding is the firm platform upon which other information about the dependent behaviour and all future management of the addicted child is based.
Assessing the degree of your child’s addictive behaviour
It is essential to obtain an accurate idea of the nature of the child’s addiction. Many children go through fads and fashions without getting harmfully addicted. Each addiction has its own physical, psychological and social expression and in future articles a more comprehensive description of each addiction will be given. However, in general one will need to be attentive to a deterioration in physical health, e.g. tiredness, changes in eating and sleeping patterns, weight changes, etc., and/or a change in psycho-social behaviour, e.g. withdrawal, irritability or agitation, loss of motivation, etc. One would like to know for example when and how frequently drugs are taken, what is the duration and frequency of TV and computer usage, does the child have access to pornographic websites, etc.?
We need to change our attitude to the addicted child
When we realise that we all have dependencies of one kind or another and that the child’s addiction is an extreme along the life dependency curve, we will have more compassion and understanding for his unfulfilled needs. We will be able to accept the child without accepting the addictive habit. There is no place for judgement or condemnation and feelings of parental shame and guilt need to be dealt with.
We need to acknowledge that the child has the right to expect that his environment must provide his life needs. Are we providing what the child needs? Is the child’s addiction telling us something about our own obsessive or fixed character? What inner changes do we need to make before we can expect the child to change? Can we change our attitude to meet these children who are growing up so fast in a world so different from the one in which we grew up?
Understanding your child and his needs
It is helpful to try and gain some understanding of the child’s nature. A melancholic child will respond differently to unfulfilled needs compared with a choleric child. The Waldorf School literature offers a wealth of insight into the child’s constitution.8-10
Every attempt should be made to engage the child in open and honest conversation about the addictive behaviour. However this usually is only possible if the child feels respected, heard and understood. Some guiding principles in this regard were offered in a previous article entitled ‘Essentials in communicating with stressed children’.11 They need to be challenged to face themselves critically and responsibly with initiative and freedom. They also need to be clearly informed about the nature and dangers of the addictive behaviour.
The first step in managing an addictive problem is to create a partnership with the dependent person. He or she must be motivated to engage in the process of managing the problem. For a successful outcome one always has to:
• Engage the higher truth and conscience of the child. Therefore one has to work with trust, commitment, contracts, structure, accountability and realistic time frames.
• Where possible involve the whole family, community and school.
• Clinical and detox management: the programme offered by the Syringa Child Clinic, a holistic child clinic for sensitive children/ adolescents and their reactive syndromes, includes individual dietary and nutritional interventions, individually prescribed natural and dynamic medication, and a range of therapeutic options, the details of which go beyond the scope of this article.
• Counselling: ideally the parents and child need to be actively involved in the counselling process. There are different schools of thought and practice regarding childhood counselling. My experience in counselling has come through the methodology of psychophonetic counselling and life coaching developed by Yehuda Tagar, an expression-based self-development counselling modality based on the work of Rudolf Steiner.12 Essential to this approach is the:
• Exploration and discovery in a safe environment of the real unfulfilled suppressed needs leading to the adoption of the substitutive dependency response
• Facing and exposing the hostile nature of the secondary addictive response no matter how painful the process
• Finding new, creative, healthy, real inner resources for addressing these underlying needs
• Energetic and consistent implementation in life of these newfound resources as a powerful alternative to the addictive habit.
• Referral to specialist care and rehab centres. This may be unavoidable in cases where there is no motivation to change, in uncontrolled addiction and in devious addictive behaviour.
In the ultimate analysis, the challenge of addiction is the struggle for inner freedom. Addictive behaviour is a force in our time that prevents the striving human being from finding his true identity and meaning in life, numbing, distracting, deluding and imprisoning him through the illusion of self-gratification and false empowerment. The pandemic addictive behaviour in today’s children is an expression of this struggle in our culture. Our children, especially the vulnerable children who become addicted, need to discover the joy and freedom that emerges when the higher self can overcome this adversity with the help of their adult role models.
1. Sadock BJ, Sadock VA. Kaplan and Sadock’s Synopsis of Psychiatry 8th ed. Baltimore, Maryland USA: Lippencott Williams and Wilkins, 1998.
2. Vogt F. Addictions Many Faces. Stroud, UK: Hawthorne Press, 2002.
3. Louw DA, Van Ede DM, Louw AE. Human Development 2nd ed. Cape Town: Kagiso Publishers 1998.
4. Steiner R. Study of Man. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1981.
5. Tagar Y. From the literature of Persephone Institute SA.
6. Goldberg R. Enhance the developing child’s potential. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2001; 3: 47-49.
7. Goldberg R. The three births of childhood. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2003; 11: 44-46.
8. Steiner R. Education of the Child. London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1975.
9. Harwood AC. The Recovery of Man in Childhood. Spring Valley, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1982.
10. Harwood AC. The Way of a Child. London: Rudolf Steiner Press,1974
11. Goldberg R: Essentials in communicating with stressed children. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2005; 18: 62-67.
12. Tagar Y. Advanced Diploma in Psychophonetic Counselling and Coaching. Persephone Institute.