A. Miller, (revised and updated, 1996). The drama of the gifted child. New York City: Basic Books Inc.
(Download this book review as a PDF)This book is about teenagers who try to be perfect, “skillfully reflecting their parents expectations” (to an extreme). Sensing a restriction on expressing their true feelings, they can grow up with an underlying sense of worthlessness. Repressed feelings can lead to depression and compulsive behaviors.
Can they be too good? Are they good for reasons other than great programming? Alice Miller, a German psychoanalyst, proposes that there are a whole batch of kids, particularly suburban kids, who are, in effect, approval junkies. They need approval and love, and are willing to work for it. And so their “good” behavior may be intentionally designed to get them the affirmation do not receive elsewhere. Alice Miller, in her book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, attempts to explain this kind of person. She identifies them as people who according to prevailing, general attitudes…should have had a strong and stable sense of self-assurance. But exactly the opposite is the case. In everything they undertake they do well and often excellently; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be-but all to no avail. Behind all this lurks depression, the feeling of emptiness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning. These dark feelings will come to the fore as soon as the drug of grandiosity fails, as soon as they are not ”on top,” not definitely the ”superstar,” or whenever they suddenly get the feeling they failed to live up to some ideal image and measure they feel they must adhere to. Then they are plagued by anxiety or deep feelings of guilt and shame. (pp. 5-6)
Not surprisingly, as a psychoanalyst, she locates a source for this experience in the child”s early relationship with one”s parents, particularly his or her mother. She suggests that for a child to grow into a healthy, vibrant adult, the child must have the freedom to express his or her sensations, needs, and desires. The child must have the experience of, for a time, being the narcissistic center. According to Miller, this is vital to developing one”s healthy self-esteem. The importance of this “unconditional acceptance” is that it allows the child to know that he or she is loved for who he or she is and not what he or she does or offers to another. It allows the child to feel a sense of belonging and value.
This healthy narcissism is the basis for healthy self-esteem, the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and wishes one experiences are a part of one”s self; and that one is free to express these, irrespective of whether he or she will be loved or hated for it. This ideally happens in the child”s relationship with his or her parents.
Unfortunately, for parents to provide this healthy, accepting environment, they must be very secure in themselves and unselfish. If parents themselves have been narcissistically deprived, then they will be searching throughout their own lives for “the presence of a person who is completely aware of them and takes them seriously, who admires and follows them…..the most appropriate objects for gratification are a parent”s own children. A newborn baby is completely dependent on his parents, and since their caring is essential for his existence, he does all he can to avoid losing them.” (pp.8-9)
So the child develops the ability to perceive and respond to the needs of the parents. This secures the love of the parent and guarantees the existence of the child. However, it leaves the child without accurate feedback as to how his or her self-expression impacts others. Generally, the child who is needed to affirm one”s parents is free to develop his or her intellect, but not his or her emotions, as the parent needs the emotional attention of the child.
Miller identifies three possible consequences for the child who makes this early adaptation to one”s parents:
- The impossibility of experiencing certain feelings (such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, and anxiety) in childhood or in later adulthood. Emotions such as these may result, in the mind of a child, in isolation or abandonment by the parent, their only source of life. Since emotion may only be experienced in an atmosphere of acceptance, it is not experienced at all. Several defenses frequently accompany this loss of emotion such as “intellectualization” and behavior designed to “measure up” to projected standards.
- The development of a personality that is composed solely of what is expected of them. To minimize the risk of abandonment, they reveal only what is expected, and then assume that as an identity.
- The development of “bond permanence,” the inability to operate apart from the expectations of significant others. The person “cannot rely on his own emotions, has not come to experience them through trial and error, has no sense of his own real needs, and is alienated from himself to the highest degree….he cannot separate from his parents, and even as an adult he is still dependent on affirmation from his partner, from groups, or especially from his own children” (p. 14). For the person who is in this state, the path to freedom lies in recognizing and mourning the loss of one”s childhood. That mourning may involve sadness, anger, depression, and making strong demands. In essence, it means going back and finding out if one is lovable when not “behaving.” This is a frightening experience for one who believes that his or her existence depends on the approval of others. But it must happen if these people are going to develop healthy and vibrant lives.
Miller also suggests that once one child has taken the role of affirming the parent, other siblings are more free to develop unencumbered. Often it is the first child who carries this responsibility as parents are less confident and more needy of affirmation for their parenting with the first. The bulk of the book then discusses the process of therapy that takes place, and outlines the various stages and pitfalls of the therapeutic relationship.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Do you think a child or young person can be “too good?”
- How might the membership of such a person(s) affect a class or youth group?
- What could you do for yourself if you realize you are an “approval junky?”
- As a leader or teacher, how would you relate to such a young person? What might you avoid and what might you, at the right time, suggest?
- How might parents help to break such co-dependency or addiction to approval?
- Within a Christian family, it is possible to communicate that a child is loved when they behave in a Christian manner. This is particularly true in light of the fact that one”s children”s faith may be taken as a reflection on the faith or righteousness of the parent. And so the child may first seek the approval of the parent, and then the Sunday school teacher, youth leader, parent, and finally God, by behaving properly and being good.
- The ”good” kids in one”s youth group may be approval junkies. They may be using their behavior as a way to get the affirmation they need. Even conversion can be for the sake of the youth leader and the resulting attention. This does not invalidate their faith, but it may mean that discipling them should take a different tone. They can and will memorize all kinds of Bible verses, bring new kids, and work on service projects-but for them this may be more of an exchange-like working for a paycheck-than expression of faith.
- Youth ministers love it when kids respond to programs, talks, and calls to faith. These kids know we love it. They are experts at figuring what adults want and giving it to them. Youth leaders may be especially susceptible to developing co-dependent relationships with these kinds of kids. Everyone gets affirmed, but no one is set free to live in faith.
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