South London, all terraced houses, 24-hour newsagents, and run-down council estates all crushed in cheek by jowl, has, this week, resembled a war zone. As an Adult Child this is not a scenario I’m unfamiliar with. Dysfunction? Home territory. Intensity? Check. Excitement? Oh yes. As I lay awake at night the sound of sirens and police cars drown out the sound of my child’s gentle snoring coming through the baby monitor and it feels like home.
But there is another more distinct dimension to the parallels between London August 2011 and life as an Adult Child … this specific ‘war’ has been started and promulgated by gangs of ‘feral thugs’ from our notorious underclass (think Compton, Bronx, South Boston but with BMX bikes and knives rather than cars and guns) who are, in my book anyway, adult children by any other name. They are straight out of ‘The Wire’ and even borrow from its lexicon, calling the police ‘feds’ and themselves ‘bros’. Invisible, vilified, demonised, ignored and dehumanised. They are society’s ultimate nightmare and they won’t go away quietly.
“By society’s conventional standards, there is nothing I could possibly have in common with the delinquent youngsters now hauled up in front of London’s courts for multiple counts of looting, theft, and violent disorder.”
Does any of this sound familiar? Well, it should. I wasn’t brought up on a drug-ridden council estate, at the mercy of gangs. I had two parents and neither one was a prostitute or junkie. I’m law-abiding, successful, and solvent. By society’s conventional standards, there is nothing I could possibly have in common with the delinquent youngsters now hauled up in front of London’s courts for multiple counts of looting, theft, and violent disorder.
Right? Right?Well, take a cursory read of Janet Woititz’s defining characteristics of adult children of alcoholics and then at those of these kids. Take, for example, no. 13: Adult children of alcoholics are impulsive. They tend to lock themselves into a course of action without giving serious consideration to alternative behaviors or possible consequences. This impulsively leads to confusion, self-loathing and loss of control over their environment. In addition, they spend an excessive amount of energy cleaning up the mess.
Just that one statement crystallises in microcosm the chronic addiction intensity, underpinned by all sorts of trauma, that, in my view defined the terrible behaviour we saw this week on the streets of London and other English cities. These abandoned children are, I believe, on the extreme end of the spectrum of adult children. I’m resolutely on the co-dependent end. My fear of authority and transgression is so great that the violence tends to be inner-directed. My tendency is to loot my own soul, then haul myself up in front of the court of my own history, only to give myself the harshest penalty possible.
“Children don’t have to earn their rights. They should have them come what may.”
It is my sincere belief that these children – and they are almost all children – are acting out out of rage for a childhood they never had, against a nation and state (the parent?) they feel has abandoned them, and in desperation for a voice they have consistently and systematically been deprived of. There had been much talk this week of ‘rights having to be earned’. Well, that’s news to me. Children don’t have to earn their rights. They should have them come what may. And they should be honoured. Come what may.
Does any of this sound familiar? As a child I was simultaneously the lost child and the star performer. What I didn’t have was a voice, somebody to voice my frustrations, fears, doubts and dreams to. As teenagers going through the UK justice system are meted out 6 months in jail for stealing a bottle of water during the riots I am reminded of my childhood. I too had plenty of judgment, punishment, and discipline. I too got told I was ‘bad’ and suffered horrible institutional treatment, in my case dysfunctional schooling. What saved me (from myself) wasn’t discipline, reform, boot camp, tough love (mmm, that’s sure gonna work with an infant!!), pulling myself up by the bootstraps. What worked was a consistent recovery programme, a belief in spiritual restoration, and, above all, therapy. I guess it doesn’t matter what kind of therapy you experience but in my case it was therapy centred around self-exploration, healthy attachment, and intensive work on the co-dependency that had threatened to ruin my life. I wonder how many of the children passing through our courts on their way to jail sentences will benefit from this powerful combination or indeed any therapy at all?
“We need constant feedback, not least because we are so terrified of our own wisdom and intuition.”
So what’s really needed? If the solution is mainly political there is much we can do personally, for ourselves as much as others. To heal we have to help others heal too. We have to reach out and offer our help and love. Ghandi said ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. I’d add to that: adult children don’t need admonishment, punishment and vilification. We’ve had enough of that already, from ourselves as well as from others. We need (to show) understanding, empathy, tolerance and patience. We need (self) nurturing, structure (different from discipline), (again self) parenting, almost constant teaching and learning. We need space, a voice and we need to be seen. We need constant feedback, not least because we are so terrified of our own wisdom and intuition. We do not need to be judged because we’ve done that to death. We need to know we have gifts as well as weaknesses, in particularly an almost unbearable sensitivity to others’ pain and vulnerability. But above all. Above all. We need to give. And receive. Endless kindness and love.