Behavioral-developmental challenges in childhood and addiction problems in adulthood are two sides of the same coin. Both constitute self-defeating patterns of reward-seeking behaviors—patterns that are often unintentionally encouraged by professionals who are meant to help.
Zach is a specialist who works with children in the Vermont school system with behavioral challenges—kids whose behavior is deemed unacceptable by parents, teachers, peers, or sometimes the law. Their negative behavior cycles stem from their difficulty adapting to demands placed on them (for a variety of reasons) in school, at home and by society.
Adults and professionals frequently make moral judgments about these children’s challenging behaviors. These judgments are often transformed into clinical, diagnostic labels—ones that can become self-fulfilling and limit life possibilities. Sound familiar?
While people often have difficulty understanding addiction experientially—preferring to attribute it to abstract biological causes—they are generally far more receptive to an experiential explanation of childhood developmental problems.
Our new book, Outgrowing Addiction, combines our respective specializations of addiction theory and child behavioral challenges to enhance our understanding of addictions. This understanding leads to the happy recognition of how, as with childhood development issues, people with addictions typically outgrow them. We call this the developmental model of addiction.
To underline the validity of this approach, let’s take a look at five key ways in which childhood developmental and addictive problems are similar.
Challenging childhood behavior: Kids’ behavior is challenging when they have yet to develop the skills and resources to meet expectations placed on them (often adult expectations). Those kids will do whatever they can to achieve the kinds of experiences we all seek—recognition, self-control, connection, purpose—despite negative reinforcement for the behaviors they employ to do so. They express the human impulse that it is better to seek and receive a short-lived and illusory “reward”—one. with negative consequences—than to get no response at all.
If nothing is done to address the root cause of this child’s behavior—if he or she is not offered an attractive alternative source of fulfillment—then the child will continue to pursue the problematic behaviors, from tantrums, to acting out, to isolating themselves, in a destructive cycle.
Dealing with the world this way may mean that the child expends enormous effort for narrower and narrower rewards, while detracting from his or her ability to generate meaningful experiences and rewards. The self-defeating behavior then grows to occupy a larger place in the child’s life and consciousness.
Addiction: People engage in addictive activities—whether using drugs excessively and negatively or engaging dysfunctionally in sex, shopping or eating—that provide temporary experiences and rewards when they are unable to achieve genuine gratifications through positive, sustainable life efforts. (Stanton and Archie Brodsky identified this personal deficiency model of addiction in Love and Addiction.) These artificially rewarding activities expand over time, making more difficult the fruitful pursuit of satisfaction and fulfillment.
Challenging childhood behavior: Adults, including many professionals, tend to believe recurring challenging behavior means that the child is manipulative, or else that the child is incapable of behaving otherwise. This is a false dichotomy that alternately leads to punishing children, or testing them for and diagnosing them with developmental disorders—conceived to be due to irreversible brain mechanics.
Addiction: People are told addiction is biologically determined, that (some) drugs are inherently addictive; that (some) people are genetically programmed to respond addictively to (some) chemicals; that addiction is a “chronic, relapsing disorder.”
Challenging childhood behavior: Adults respond to behavior in the heat of the moment and attempt to solve these problems unilaterally (through criticism punishment, incentives/rewards) rather than addressing the underlying problems leading to the behavior (insufficient affirmation, resources and skills).
When kids do not respond to this unilateral approach, the next step is for them to be tested and diagnosed with one of a range of childhood disorders, again to be dealt with unilaterally (pharmaceutically). This process results in labeling children, medicating them, and establishing—for themselves and schools and other institutions—that they have permanent character disorders, behavioral deficiencies, and enduring skill limitations.
Addiction: We treat people with addictions medically (more often mock-medically) with therapeutic approaches that reinforce the belief that they have a disease, focusing on their permanent limitations with the proscription that they avoid (some) substances, or else by providing them with safer versions of these substances. The latter is solid harm reduction 101, so long as the theory in support of it it is not presented as the person’s being a lifelong “addict.”
As with childhood behavioral challenges, the approach to adult addiction imbeds the behavior/addiction—instead of encouraging personal agency and change by practicing prospective planning and thinking, and learning new coping skills.
Challenging childhood behavior: Children naturally progress through a sequence of developmental stages and will, given normal opportunities, outgrow their labels and problems as they find meaning in later adolescence and adulthood. This is the normal developmental process once accepted as “growing up.”
Addiction: People outgrow their addictions through similar developmental stages, occurring later in life, to those that developing children undergo. Given normal opportunities, they typically discover covered-over values, skills, purposes, motivations, intimate relationships as they assume adult responsibilities in their work, family and community lives. By the age of 35, half of those people who previously qualified for substance use disorder diagnoses no longer do.
This process was once commonly recognized, accepted and encouraged. It is now being discounted, with disastrous societal mental health and addictive results. These negative consequences are universally recognized and lamented. But we are incapable of conceptualizing and addressing them—for instance, by devoting resources to allow people to expand their horizons and capabilities.
Robust clinical and epidemiological research indicates that both childhood and addictive problems are best resolved by working collaboratively with helpers to: (a) identify the underlying problems and life deficiencies waiting to be solved; (b) consider which domains of life must be improved in order to make headway; (c) discover existing skills and motivation and develop new ones; and (d) see the world, and the future, as being accessible, inviting and manageable—that is, as positive and exciting.
Most people facing problems—developing children and addicted adults alike—will find their way to the positive side of life’s balancing act, on their own, without professional help. Of course, life circumstances are more dire for many underprivileged people, who experience addiction at higher rates and more persistently. These people may require extra help and resources. But the principles for life improvement are the same for all human beings, young and old, privileged and under-resourced.
The best thing we can do for all groups is to foster an environment rich with opportunity so as to encourage them to develop in a productive and positive way. The worst thing we can do is to limit their ability to grow out of their problems—to actualize their problems by convincing them they lack this capacity for change.