Mental Illness: The Bruising Effect of the Dysfunctional Childhood

C8F07157-DA22-404E-BA55-957F4BD28933In my next couple of posts, I’m going to share in simple terms what I’ve learned about the two major contributors to emotional illness – a dysfunctional family life during childhood and natural temperament.

I hope that by spending a few minutes reading this you will be able to get a better understanding of how mental illness develops, and that this will help you to have greater compassion for others and for yourself if you are suffering from mental ill health.

So let’s start by looking at childhood development and how a dysfunctional family setting affects this.

Building the Boat

Since the beginning of civilisation, philosophers, healers, prophets and more recently psychologists, have put forward important theories about the connection between child development and adult life.

This can be summed up in a quote attributed to Saint Francis Xavier, the founder of the Jesuits, who said “Give me the child until he’s seven and I’ll give you the man”.

Universally accepted is the need for unconditional love.

Dr. Charles L. Whitfield, in his book Healing the Child Within, identified 21 basic needs of the child, needs which if not met affect the growth of the child and as a result it’s ability to navigate adulthood.

Just as widely accepted is the fact that the absence of this love, in the form of neglect or abuse, can be a major contributing factor in the development of long-term mental and emotional illness.

It isn’t difficult to see how this happens.

To use an analogy, good parenting provides a sturdy well provisioned boat with a competent captain who can use the navigation system to steer the boat to its destination. The parents work with the child in the building of the boat, so that the child understands how the boat was constructed.

Neglected or abused children have frail boats, with holes that let water in, ripped sails, and no supplies. The captain of the boat has never sailed before and simply doesn’t know how to read the compass.

Put simply, either the parents build a boat without the child being involved (controlling), or the child has to build the boat itself (neglect). As a result the child lacks the skills and resources needed for the journey.

I’ve met enough people, both in churches, 12 step recovery rooms, and in my work as a hospital chaplain, to have it confirmed that most of us who suffer from mental and emotional illness have had poor childhoods in dysfunctional families.

By poor I do not mean materially impoverished. Neglect and abuse knows no social boundaries – it affects children of all backgrounds, not just the less well off.

No, by neglect, I mean a failure to provide the nurture and structure that is needed by every child – whether that be material, emotional, psychological or spiritual. Or worse still, active abuse where the child has been purposefully harmed.

In my own case, I grew up in a materially secure home. However, my emotional and spiritual needs were neglected.

My mother was depressed and highly medicated with Valium during most of my childhood, as a direct result of a stroke during my birth. And my father was a workaholic who was totally focused on his business and had little time for me.

For the first four years of my life, I had no social contact with children of my own age. Most of the time I was left to my own devices.

To continue the analogy of boatbuilding, I was left to build the boat on my own, without any skills or instructions. The only person I could depend upon was myself. I never really bonded with either of my parents. On top of this my parents often argued with each other. There wasn’t a lot of joy in our home.

The lack of nurture and structure in my childhood has left me with long-term mental health problems. The constant conflict modelled to me an unhealthy attitude towards relationships, and helped to create within me a highly sensitive temperament. I never learned what it means to self soothe, and to this day find it almost impossible to relax.

Coincidently, my brother who is 11 years older than me grew into a confident and mature adult. He doesn’t recognise any of the issues that I’ve just described – it’s almost as though we had two different sets of parents.

This is understandable when I consider the different challenges my parents were dealing with themselves at the time of my birth and the different temperaments we have.

My Reflections

• We are created in the image of God….in love, with love and for love.

• We are born into an imperfect world where many have become separated from the love of God.

• When parents try to raise children without Godly love, neglect and abuse can ensue.

• Many people are raised with neglect or abuse…..we are not alone.

• Even people who think of themselves as people of faith can neglect or abuse their children.

• Neglect and abuse can lead to mental and emotional illness.

• This can be passed down from generation to generation if healing of the relationship with God doesn’t take place and children continue to be raised without Godly love.

• God sees all of this and has compassion on those who turn to him in their suffering. He sees the harm caused and longs to heal us or simply hold us in our suffering… short to have a relationship with us. But he rejects those who are proud and refuse to accept his offer of unconditional love.

• He sent his only son Jesus into the world and allowed him to suffer and die on the cross so that we could be reconnected with him…

Relevant Bible Verses

You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20:5-6

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:3

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.



A Song of St Anselm

Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you; you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.

Often you weep over our sins and our pride, tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement.

You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, in sickness you nurse us, and with pure milk you feed us.

Jesus, by your dying we are born to new life; by your anguish and labour we come forth in joy.

Lord Jesus, in your mercy heal us; in your love and tenderness remake us.

In your compassion bring grace and forgiveness, for the beauty of heaven may your love prepare us.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.


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