In recent times Dr Raoul Goldberg has become aware that certain childhood illnesses have become more prevalent and has wondered what this is telling us about ourselves and the times in which we live. In this article he explores these questions in the quest for a clearer understanding that may help us to find meaningful answers to some of the most critical issues that are affecting our children.
In recent times I have become aware that certain childhood illnesses have become more prevalent and have wondered what this is telling us about ourselves and the times in which we live. In this article I explore these questions in the quest for a clearer understanding that may help us to find meaningful answers to some of the most critical issues that are affecting our children.
Towards a common picture of modern childhood illnesses
It is well documented that over the past decade the incidence of a wide spectrum of childhood illnesses and disorders has increased significantly. In South Africa 1 in 5 – 6 children suffer from some form of allergic disorder and 15 to 20% of schoolchildren are affected by eczema.1 Childhood diabetes and obesity occur far more frequently and at younger ages than ever before.2 In the USA 15% of children are obese. In South Africa every third girl over 13 years is either overweight or obese and 1 in 5 girls have abnormal eating habits.
The autistic spectrum disorder including autism has increased 7-fold in the past decade, i.e. 1 in 150 children, and attention deficit disorder with or without hyperactivity (ADD/ADHD) is the most common and fastest growing childhood disorder in the USA.3,4 The incidence of mood and anxiety disorders in children is growing at an alarming rate and suicide in children has increased dramatically.5
At every level of society, child abuse is rampant.
There is general consensus that the illnesses listed below are those that have increased significantly in the past decade in Westernised and industrialised countries, even taking into account a perceived increase or more active diagnosis:
Hay fever, sinusitis
Type 2 diabetes
Chronic fatigue syndrome
Autistic spectrum disorder
This begs the burning question – is there any connection between these seemingly different conditions? On the surface we have a list of disorders that have been diagnosed by collating the individual symptoms and giving them by convention a collective and often arbitrary label. For instance, the diagnosis of asthma is made by recognising the well-established signs and symptoms of tight difficult breathing, wheezing, dry hard coughing and bronchospasm that can be reversed with a bronchodilator drug.
Similarly, a child with ADD is diagnosed according to very specific diagnostic criteria of hyperactivity, impulsivity and distractibility. At this symptomatic level there would seem to be no connection between a so-called asthmatic child and an ADHD child. If we want to find a deeper connection, we need to look at illnesses in a different way. One way is to connect with the deeper nature of the illness through our own inner experience and creative imagination.
Imagine you are having an asthmatic attack and like an actor in a play are able to demonstrate the experience: a tight constricted chest with restricted breathing protects against further invasion, at the same time there is the strong need to expel the irritant forcefully. How did the foreign agent penetrate your system in the first place? Your system has ineffective defences. You are lacking a protective barrier. As a result you are too open, feel vulnerable and oversensitive, and when the invading entity reaches critical levels you have to react forcefully to expel it, and at the same time you try to protect yourself from further violation.
In this way through our own creative experience we may arrive at the conclusion that asthma has something to do with hypersensitivity due to the lack of protective barriers. The outer phenomena (symptom complex) lead us to the inner reality. We discover through inner awareness and expressive gesture, a deeper story hidden behind the symptoms.
What do we find when we explore experientially a hyperactive child with ADD? We experience our bodies being driven around chaotically by a powerful will over which we have no control. ADHD activates our sense organs in every direction so that we feel flooded by sense impressions. We may also sense an intensity of feelings, insecurity, low self-esteem and vulnerability. There is no large measure of self-control, reflective thinking or self-protection. This lack of protective boundaries makes us feel vulnerable, oversensitive and as a result hyper-reactive, resulting in all the outer symptoms of ADHD. The lack of boundaries in such children is evident to even the inexperienced eye.
We discover an experiential picture diagnosis that in its essential nature is very similar to that of asthma.
Modern childhood illnesses reflect lack of boundaries, high sensitivity and high reactivity
All the allergic conditions including asthma, hay fever, eczema and food sensitivities are also known as hypersensitivity disorders. These conditions are characterised by two abnormal functions: a weakness of the normal protective barrier functions and an overpowerful reaction by the body’s defences to the invasion of foreign substances.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is likewise a picture of weak barrier functions leading to a collapse of vital living processes: digestive, liver and immunological barriers break down leading to leaky gut, liver overload and hypo-allergic states, allowing these living organ systems to be overrun by pathogenic substances (chemical, biological, immunological). However the adynamic state of the body’s immune protective system does not allow it to mount a counter-attack as in the above-mentioned allergic conditions, on the contrary it collapses and leads to recurrent infections, fatigue and depression.
In obesity and type 2 diabetes the child who chronically overeats and subsequently develops diabetes is usually a highly sensitive and vulnerable child who feels insecure, anxious and unsafe. She lacks a psycho-emotional barrier that inwardly protects her, and her eating behaviour is a reaction to these feelings as it helps her to control the way she feels.6
The above-mentioned psycho-emotional disorders are characterised by the lack of psychological, mental and ego boundaries that maintain self-identity and self-containment, and lead to a highly vulnerable and therefore highly sensitive child. In order to cope, the child then intro-reacts as in ADD, depressive mood disorders, anxiety disorders, anorexia, autism and addictive behaviour, or extro-reacts as in ADHD, disruptive behaviour disorders and bulimia nervosa.
Children with depressive mood disorders are highly sensitive children who lack the ability to protect themselves from their own negative thoughts and feelings, and react to outer or inner stimuli by turning inwards with variable loss of will (introreactive).5 A disruptive child is likewise a vulnerable child lacking protective barriers whose will is socially overactive and destructive (extroreactive).
The picture of a broad pervasive generic disorder affecting modern children that spans both physical and psychological spheres – the hypersensitivity spectrum disorder begins to emerge. What fascinates me about this range of illnesses is that all these children exhibit a particular soul condition whether the disorder manifests physically or psychologically. They are all vulnerable children who lack protective boundaries and whose varied reactions, inwardly or outwardly, are attempts to protect themselves from a perceived intrusion. I would venture to say that all these children, even those with physical symptoms such as allergies, food intolerances, asthma, etc. have a sensitive soul disposition, and if one looks carefully enough one will notice, acknowledge and treat this sensitivity in the broad management of the condition.
From the above description it would appear that the central problem in modern childhood illnesses is the lack or deficiency of protective boundaries, because the hypersensitivity and resulting reactivity seen in all these conditions appear to occur as a result of weak physical or psycho-spiritual boundaries. We need to explore this lack of protection, for if we can find ways to strengthen this activity we will be dealing with the core problem of modern childhood illnesses.
Protective boundaries – the integrative Self
To understand the nature of this protective sheath in the child, we need to know something about the higher self of the child. Within the inner world of the child’s psyche, there resides the higher Self or ‘I’, that core unifying element of the individual child’s body, soul and spirit. What do we know about this central part of ourselves?
When I reflect on who I am, I am aware that there is something permanent and enduring in the transient play of my life. Every 7 years all the cells of my body are completely replaced by new cells, yet in my core nature I am the same unique individual. Through the colour of my temperament and behind all the faces of my personality that may come and go as I grow, something constant and immutable is living. I open myself to this hidden source when I call myself ‘I’, the only word that refers to me and me alone. We can all call a tree, a tree, yet no one can use the word ‘I’ to refer to anything other than him or herself. I am aware that this invisible Self is a guiding and protecting power in my biography. A vast dimension and potential is embodied in this single letter and smallest of words – ‘I’, the ultimate source and reality of our being.7 Jung described the Self as ‘the context, the foundation and the goal of our evolution, the centre of the psyche and its circumference, both an individual and a universal identity’.5
A study of child development reveals how the ‘I’ connects itself step by step with the inherited body, progressively penetrating and interacting with the three other elements of the child’s constitution (physical body, life body and psyche).8 In the first years of life the Self is identified with the growing body and its needs, manifesting itself through the bodily nature. As the child develops emotional needs, the Self also identifies with the psyche expressing itself through many different phases: infant, toddler, preschool child (varying garments of identification), Robert, I, father’s son and different personality aspects, e.g. the tyrannical, angelic or fearful child.
The permanent nature of the ‘I’ unites these different aspects, revealing for those who can see its hidden nature. There is a special moment when the Self, for the first time, comes to experience its own nature as an individual self-contained source of power and inner guardianship, and expresses this outwardly. This occurs in the third year, when in a glorious moment not to be missed, the child names himself ‘I’.
This is the source of that protective guiding power that expresses itself throughout life in many different ways:
• Physically through physiological systems that preserve self and destroy foreign nature, i.e. non-self, namely digestive and defensive functions in the widest sense, and those systems that maintain healthy function, i.e. self-regulating homeostatic systems such as the cardio-respiratory system, regulation of blood sugar, salts, blood pressure, etc.
• Psychologically through acquiring self-identity and erecting extraordinary emotional and mental constructs and boundaries to preserve this self-identity, e.g. a strong sense of self-worth, self-acceptance, self-reliance and self-capability.
• Spiritually through the tenacious will to keep going no matter how difficult life is and to stay alive at all costs, enabling children to survive the most hideous abuse and to heal from the most dangerous illnesses.
It is the power of the Self holding everything together that the child experiences as a being of body, soul and spirit that guides and protects the child through a potentially hostile world.5 Just as the body requires certain fundamental nutrients for its optimal health, so too the child’s higher Self requires certain essential nutrients for its healthy development.
What are these essential nutrients that the Self requires for its future self-reliance and self-containment? The Waldorf School educational methods are founded on a knowledge of those principles that nourish the child’s Self:9
• During the preschool years (the first 7 years), the child’s Self grows in health when it receives goodness from its environment. I feel protected by the good will, generosity, kindness and friendliness coming to meet me. The world of the good is the world of morality.
• During the primary school years (from 7 – 14 years), the loving authority that flows from those around him, will help to build-up a strong Self. I feel protected by the clear guidance of someone who loves me, is interested in me and wishes to care for me. This is a world that is filled with beauty.
• During the high school years (from 14 onwards), the principle of truth and the respect for people who stand in their truth, strengthens the adolescent’s Self. I feel protected by the honest and true guidance of someone who I know speaks out of his own real life experience. This is a world of truth.
Cultural erosion of the ‘I’
These true human principles of goodness, love, beauty and truth, which have guided humanity from the beginning of time, are gravely lacking in our civilisation. Fundamentally this has to do with a loss of understanding and hence respect for the soul-spiritual nature of human beings which alone can experience goodness, beauty, love and truth. Tragically it is only the physical-material nature of things that has value for our culture, and with the advance of technology this attitude of soul has become steadily more pervasive.
Therefore today’s children are exposed from the earliest years to variable expressions of immorality, cruelty and hostility that will engender fear and hardness in their souls. Many experience unloving and uncaring guardians that create in them an inner world of ugliness and lack of self-worth. In addition today’s youth, who hear the expressions of untruth from adults in their immediate environment, the world media and computer technology, are filled with confusion, self-doubt or mistrust, or enslaved by the lie, and they turn to addictions, cults or false prophets.
I have shown that the childhood and adolescent illnesses prevalent in our times arise from a lack of protective forces in the child. It seems highly likely that this is a reflection if not the direct impact of a culture lacking the protective power of goodness, beauty, love and truth that can support and nourish the child’s Self until it is mature enough to stand on its own. If we wish to help sensitive children, it is essential that we draw from the self-containing, unifying, guiding and protective forces of the Self within us, to build these same forces in the child.
1. The International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood Steering Committee (ISAAC). Worldwide variation in prevalence of symptoms of asthma, rhino-conjunctivitis and atopic eczema. Lancet 1998; 351: 1225-1332.
2. Goldberg R. Understanding the allergic child. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2002; 7: 29-31, 92.
3. Goldberg R. Awakening to attention deficit disorder. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2004; 15: 54-59.
4. Goldberg R. Depressed children, hear their cry. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2006; 22: 56-60.
5. Jung C. Two Essays on Analytical Psychology. Collected Works. Princeton University Press, 1966.
6. Goldberg R. Highly sensitive children part 2 – care of the sensitive child. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2005; 20: 40-44.
7. Goldberg R. Enhance the developing child’s potential. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2001; 3: 47-49.
8. Steiner R. Theosophy. New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1971.
9. Steiner R. The Education of the Child. United Kingdom: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1965.