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Understanding Addiction in Children and Adolescents | Participatory Awareness

Addictive behaviour has become one of the most critical socio-cultural problems of our time affecting children as much as adults. Never before has a civilisation been affected by addictive tendencies as is happening today, and never has addiction affected children as much as it is doing so today. It is a pandemic alongside cancer and HIV/AIDS, but when we look at human nature, we understand that addictive behaviour is in fact endemic to the human condition.

Needs and their gratification, both physical and psychological, are a normal part of human development. Just as we must drink when we are thirsty, so must we receive acknowledgement, approval, safety and security when required. 

A child will go to any extreme to achieve emotional gratification: she may avoid confrontation to feel secure and gain her father’s approval, or constantly draw attention to herself to feel acknowledged. Some children are terrified of a parent’s temper and may become shy and anxious in their avoidance of confrontation. Through an inherent genius that instinctively knows how to survive, the child’s physical and emotional discomfort will then determine a behaviour pattern that is set in motion at the earliest age when he or she learns what works to relieve internal distress. A subconsciously or consciously chosen behaviour pattern that brings gratification will invariably be repeated whenever the discomfort or anxiety appears because of the learned comfort value, and after many such actions it will become habitual, compulsive and reflexive. This pattern fulfills all the criteria that define addiction to substances or agencies (an agency is a substance or activity which feeds an addiction and may therefore be regarded as belonging to the same psychological dependency dynamic as any other addiction.) 

These addictive patterns are determined on the one hand by the type of child, on the other by imitating what she observes around her. A cautious and less confident child will avoid conflict and confrontations and this will be reinforced if the child observes her mother or father acting in a similar manner. On the other hand, an extroverted and willful child will express actively his inner needs which will be supported by a parent who is confident and assertive. Out of this learned behaviour a child will create his personality through long established needs and their gratification. This appears to be the pattern of development of every child and is the blue print for addictive behaviour. 

If the primary needs of love, warmth, being cared for and social approval are not properly attended to during childhood development, the psyche will continue searching later in life for ways of reducing the emotional distress or discomfort that was never addressed in earlier years. The child or adolescent will discover other activities, or gratifiers, that give at least temporary relief from discomfort. Gratifiers come in a host of different forms which cause dependency. They include: food; caffeine; alcohol; smoking; illicit drugs of various kinds; TV or other forms of entertainment media; electronic gadgetry such as computers, internet, games and texting on cell phones; unhealthy sexual practices such as pornography, promiscuity and prostitution; or activities such as shopping and gambling. These substitutes for the real thing never bring durable internal satisfaction. 

Further addictive behaviour patterns may emerge, including: bullying; violent behaviour; withdrawal; submission; perfectionism; a need to achieve, to drive oneself; or to keep working; to submit to fear, to self-doubt or to self-hatred. Deep down, behind all these tendencies, there is the subconscious feeling that something is missing. 

The teenager, in her search for relief from tension and anxiety, finds an effective substitute by eating small amounts and even withholding food. This puts her in control and makes her feel secure. Some even find that cutting the skin relieves the constant anxiety. The cause of this tension and anxiety may be the lack of inner protection derived in part from a stern disapproving father, for example, who withheld his protective support for his daughter. 

With our assistance, children need to find their own inner protection. This can only be done with full interest, respect and trust for their experience, gradually building up an effective communication and helping them to recognise their own powerful resources. Children must know that they will not find the missing link outside in another person, substance or agency but purely out of their own inner power and resources. Only then will they be free from the severe limitations and restrictions that their addictive behaviour created in them.