Arrested development has had an amalgam (multiple, mixture, blend) of meanings for over 200 years. Originally, arrested development began as a medical term in the 1830s which referred to the stoppage of physical development – as in stunted growth.
The Evolution of Arrested Development
In 1983, the term arrested development was linked to mental limitations or impairments relating to an individual’s intelligence or lack thereof. The term is no longer used in mental health in this way, though; as it was argued that someone’s mental state cannot be arrested or completely stopped, but that it could go on to develop or evolve in other ways.
However, there are others who describe arrested development as a state of socio- psychological growth in which the victim (person) has ceased to progress socially and intellectually. Moreover, arrested development is said to arise when a person is “stuck” at a beginning stage or phase of emotional development. It is believed that arrested development can result from trauma, grief, or neglect; which fits right into the place of logic I’m fixated on in the moment. Furthering the definition and understanding of the arrested development theory, scholars suppose that arrested development may occur when an individual, in their formative years, experiences circumstances they are unable to resolve naturally.
Comparatively, I’ll be using arrested development in a similar way throughout this writing. Rather than referring to stunted physical growth, I’ll be referring to stunted emotional and relational growth. Not only referring to the kind of emotional blockage that occurs as a result of children’s experiences, but also the emotional barriers that continue to present themselves in the lives of adults still dealing with the residue of the emotional distress. The damage – that though suppressed, ignored, and hidden – continues to plague both their maturity in certain areas and their relationships.
As I open up on this topic of arrested development, I also want to quickly refer to another term that should be familiar – Daddy Issues.
Though not an actual psychological term or condition, the expression Daddy Issues has become quite popular and familiar to common culture. Although it is most often linked to women and their lack of relationships with their birth fathers and then how that lack of relationship effects their ability to have normal healthy relationships with other men – the term is now one that has become regularly used by men to also explain why they too struggle in their relationships with women as well as with their children.
Last year in my blog, Our Fathers Who Art in Life, I tapped into my own daddy issues. I shared that though I experienced what I consider a very healthy and memorable childhood and upbringing (being raised by my mother and stepfather), I still longed for a meaningful and consistent relationship with my biological father. Some may also remember me sharing at a later time about my biological father experiencing stage four kidney disease and how I made a point to educate myself on its affects and treatment options, as to hopefully avoid full onset stage 5 kidney failure and dialysis for him as long as possible.
More memorably, in last year’s Father’s Day blog, I shared that a large part of my relationship with my biological father had been strained by the 15 years he spent in prison. I was 19 years old at the time and in the second semester of my freshman year of college. If you’re able to do the math, you can figure out that I was in my middle 30s by the time my father was released.
A Relationship on Pause
Yep! By the time my dad was a free man I had gotten a bachelor’s degree, enlisted in the Army, had a son, gotten a master’s degree, married my husband, and had become a commissioned officer. A lot happened in 15 years. Some I was able to share with my dad by letter or phone call, and some he would learn of later. What I didn’t know and understand all those years ago was that my father and I had been going through stages of arrested development. Stages in which neither of us could really build or grow in relationship because of his absence.
Truthfully, I chose the title of this blog for this very reason. I realized arrested development is exactly what happens every time a relationship with a child and their parent (usually fathers but in some cases mothers) is subtly or abruptly stricken by absence. The absence of divorce or separation, death, incarceration, work, or just emotional unavailability. Regardless of where absence or inconsistency stems from, the presence of arrested development begins to take shape.
We’re Under Arrest
Coincidently, in the last couple of weeks, I realized I was again in a state of arrested development. Not just for me this time, but also my children. You see, now at the age of 47, I just learned that my father was going back to prison for roughly 10 years. This time, I’m not the college freshman who sneaks off some weekends with my grandmother to drive over 2 hours to visit my incarcerated father. No, I’m the middle-aged mentor, minister, motivator who encourages intentional parent/child relationships, healthy marriages, women’s empowerment, positivity, forgiveness, hope and faith; who can’t believe I’m still dealing with my daddy issues. My dad…sixty-seven years old and sentenced to prison…AGAIN. Shocked, huh?! Imagine my dismay.
For the last month I’ve been in a daze. I found all of this out about two weeks before Father’s Day; which some followers may realize was during the exact same time of Dawn of a New Day 365, One -Year Celebration. Yep, here I was trying to give “sunshine” to everyone else and a dark cloud was lurking over me.
Honestly, initially, I had no emotion. I was speechless and in disbelief. Parts of me angry, disappointed, and frustrated. Wanting to do everything to somehow fix it, but then limited to doing nothing. The Friday before Father’s Day, though…it hit me. I became so overcome with emotion that I wept for three days straight. Crying myself to sleep and waking up sad. Trying to maintain my emotional distance from everyone so I wouldn’t have to talk about it. The safe space.
The narrative that I experienced as a child should be rewritten by now. Shouldn’t it? Yet here we are. He’s been arrested, found guilty and sentenced; and in some way…so have I. Arrested development in its purest form. The continued development of our relationship is on hold until further notice. I mean…the relationship isn’t over; but it’s hard to move forward in building trust and familiarity, growing a present relationship, and creating new memories when the memories of the past linger so near and still render their stench.
This is Us
Understand, I’m not sharing this so that anyone can feel sorry for me. I’m sharing this because when I started DND365 I vowed to share my truth to help other people normalize life…and this too is that truth.
Last year I shared how I was continually working on my relationship with my father; acknowledging him and honoring him apart from his indiscretions. But now…I won’t lie and say that I didn’t want to altogether write him off as my defense mechanism to not own my feelings. I’m human and scarred. And anytime there is a scar or wound that’s touched or reinjured we flinch and brace ourselves because we already know how this feels. So here I am.
Yes, I hope that by sharing even this truth that others will further comprehend the human experience. Not everyone’s story is the same. As we face our own individual trials, there are others sharing in those that are similar to yours or far different. Our job is not to compare stories, but to respect each other’s journeys. Further, my goal in sharing my truth is to hopefully help someone else recognize and work through their own issues.
Putting it in Perspective
I’m not the little girl I once was who had to try to decipher my father’s decisions and if I in any way caused them, would be affected by them, or repeat them. No, I’m the now adult who has been stroked by God’s immeasurable grace to work through this to find the strength and the lessons. This particular lesson is one of my lemons. I had no idea when I was writing about the benefits of life’s lemons last month that I’d be experiencing a squeeze soon, but that’s usually how it happens.
So, with this lemon, I hope to possibly share some lemonade with some young people who are or have been affected by the results of arrested emotional and relational development; even if the said young person is now an adult. And I also hope to help some mothers and fathers who may realize their contributions to a child’s arrested development. If that’s you, stay tuned. It’s not personal, it’s necessary. As my husband always says,
“We don’t just want happy children, we want healthy/successful adults.”Elder Leon J. Green, Jr.
So here are a few factors I want you to consider and keep in mind:
6 Points to Help Prevent or Work Through Arrested Emotional Development with Your Child
- Any absence has an effect. Subtle, abrupt, and even temporary absences of a parent (typically a father) very often stifle the emotional growth of a child. Remember these absences can be the result of divorce or separation, death, incarceration, work, emotional unavailability, and I’ll even add deployments, foster care, and adoption to the list.
- Children left behind in failed or forcibly absent situations don’t form their normal emotional bonds with their absent parent. This not only affects the parent/child relationship but it effects future relationships. Children learn coping and engagement from their parents’ examples. If a parent is emotionally unavailable, one or two things is bound to occur: 1) the child will take on the emotional behavior of the parent and lack presence, or 2) the child will act in the complete polar opposite manner, as an act of rebellion or coping. Children need emotional bonds to help them mature into adults who care about other people; but when those bonds are broken that maturity and emotional behavior can be stifled. You’re probably thinking about some adults who fall in this category, aren’t you? There are more than a few you can think of, I’m sure.
- Acknowledge the emotional vulnerability of the child and allow them to grieve absences. Just as the adults in these circumstances must make adjustments, so do the children. Just because they may not be able to verbally articulate themselves about their feelings does not mean they aren’t mentally and emotionally processing it; and they may even fault themselves for the absence. When children are not afforded the opportunity to transition through loss, they take on the responsibility of whether they were the cause or not. Even with the healthy relationships I had and witnessed growing up, not having that emotional bond with my father still caused me to have these thoughts at times. This can affect children’s future attachments; as they typically will either shy away or sometimes sabotage relationships from fear of being rejected; or attach inappropriately to unhealthy relationships for the same reason.
- Be honest, but be kind. Though difficult, don’t ignore or avoid the obvious conversations. Children understand more than we give them credit for. The awkward silence that may follow is a part of the processing. Find a way to answer even the hard questions; but try to answer them in a kind manner, remembering that the absent parent is just as much a part of who the child is as the present-parent.
I believe children should have a sense of pride and respect for who their parents are. If the absent-parent is referred to as “no-good” or “worthless,” the child internalizes that as how they are viewed. So, remember the good parts and strengths of the absent-parent, even when you may have to mention some faults. At the end to the day, the faults make the person human, not villainous.
Even parents who don’t like each other, remain cordial in front of the child. Obvious conflict between the parents causes internal conflicts for the child and puts them in the middle; feeling like they have to choose in order to please parents. Don’t put that type of pressure on a child.
- Seek outside support and counseling if needed. Processing through transitions or failures can be difficult. When unsure of how to approach certain matters or how to communicate effectively, seeking help from others who have gone through similar circumstances, or from trained professionals or spiritual leaders, may be necessary. But failure to process effectively could have residual effects, and eventually or at times yield unwanted behaviors. I’ve heard it said, “Untreated wounds bleed on other people.”
- It’s not the child’s fault. What the child needs to know is that whatever the issue may have been was not a direct reflection of anything they did. Just because adults have emotionally detached, are angry, or have severed ties does not give us the right to sever the emotional ties of our children. We may think children are doing well because they are acting as children, but many of us know adults who seemed like normal children who are still processing through the conflicts of their childhood experiences and relationships.
- Go for investment over spending. As the absent-parent, showing up occasionally or regularly doesn’t just solve the problem; especially if you’re only showing up to look and not showing up to learn. It’s not enough just to see what the child is doing, what team they’re on, or how their grades are. The absent-parent needs to also learn what the child actually likes, what they’re good at, and what drives them. Otherwise, you’re just checking the block. The emotional connection holistically still may not be there. And even as much as the tendency might be on both ends (present- and absent-parent) to let gifts and money be the answer…gifts and money don’t build relationships. They create debt. You’ll never have enough money to pay for emotional wholeness. A child is like a mutual fund. They require investments from multiple parties.
When one invests in a thing, calculated time, effort and energy are focused in an area; to ensure proper maturity over time. Money spent does not equate to maturity in finances, and the same is true in relationships. Investments require not only consistency, but insight and timing. This is especially true for the parent/child relationship. Absent-parents must be consistent and intentional about creating this time with children; to help mature their emotional wholeness. Present-parents have an obligation to help foster this process. Otherwise, the present-parent is just as guilty as the absent-parent of stunting the child’s emotional growth and putting them in a state of arrested development.
I just realized within the last few weeks that I too have gone through my own share and stages of arrested development with an absent parent. Fortunately, these arrests haven’t quite affected my other relationships as much as they have affected the lack of consistent growth in the personal relationship of my father and I. I’m grateful that I had some emotionally whole and strong people around me growing up; to help me press through difficult times like the one I just experienced. Those like my mother, step-father, grandmothers (now deceased), siblings, aunts, cousins, and now my husband and children. Those who make me feel loved, wanted, seen, and valued. But more than them, I am grateful to have my faith; which allows me to acknowledge my frailties and tap into a deeper source of support and strength. It’s going to be ok.
No Love Lost
Despite it all, I love my father. My heart does hurt for the weaknesses in him. The things that have allowed him to over time miss so many great opportunities for relational connectedness. Those things that thwarted his view from being able to see the bigger picture of how the universe puts people together for the purpose of making them stronger. I’m in the process of finding out what I need to still have communicate with him; as well as what type of visitation requirements are necessary to see him. My prayer is that his health will sustain him throughout this stint; and that God will keep us both emotionally secure, until we see each on the other side of the bars that currently separate us.
As I end this, I think of a message I spoke to some young people a few months ago; when I encouraged them to shift their mindset concerning expectations. I said something like this…
I guess I learned this from my dad. It was apart of one of my lessons in arrested development.
For Adults Still Plagued by Arrested Development
If you too are an adult realizing the effects arrested development has had on your life, I’m going to actually put the ball in your court. At this point, you may not have parents who are able to acknowledge or understand how what they did or didn’t do affected how you’ve maneuvered through life and relationships. It’s ok. Begin today and be for them what they were unable to be for you. You can’t get back time, so make the most of the time you still have.
My previous points probably won’t matter for you because they come from the point of the parent taking the lead. Now that you’re in the lead, do your best to engage and invest in the relationship. Help to bring about as much maturity as you can in the time you still have. Be honest, but kind. Your parent may have unresolved issues too. Remember, they too are human. Lastly, render a measure of grace and forgiveness. Life, though sometimes complicated, is short. Of all that has already been arrested (seized, stopped, stunted, and slowed down) …give permission for your wholeness to be released. ~Dawn ☀
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This devotional was written with the intent of helping women develop and deepen their faith walk; providing both a method and a message for those who are new to daily devotions, or those who need help strengthening the habit. I also hope to help those needing peace and clarity in life; as I delve into understanding and expecting God’s peace, strength, joy, and love while seeking His presence daily with intentionality. Get a copy for you and a friend.
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