Dr. Anthony Dallmann-Jones is the director of the 100% online Master of Art in Education in At Risk and Alternative Education at Marian University. Here Dr. DJ explains his concept of Shadow Children and how teachers, leaders, and parents can recognize common traits of at risk youth. Read more about Shadow Children in his bestselling book, HOW TO CONNECT WITH STUDENTS AT-RISK – Creating Learning Environments for Teacher and Student Success.
I admit to unintentionally creating confusion around “shadow children” terminology in the book, How to Connect with Students At-Risk. My goal for creating this term was to make at risk youth who are often invisible, visible. I want to focus awareness on what we were previously unaware of, to draw to the foreground that which was formerly in the background, and to bring into the light a significant population relegated to the shadows. These are the Shadow Children, the children who have been placed at-risk. They are often easy to miss, convenient to ignore, and yet desperately in need of being seen and serviced. The cost, on so many levels, of continuing to ignore this segment of our population is staggering.
The Shadow Child Syndrome is a condition that occurs as a direct result of being raised by non-nurturing caregivers and/or in deprived environments. Children develop usually more than one of the eight personality traits listed below as a means of surviving abusive and/or life-threatening environments. Shadow Children carry these adaptive traits through their growing years and often unnecessarily into adult lives that become limited by these same strategies.
More often these traits lasting in adulthood are legitimized in various ways rather than being viewed for what they are – pieces of handicapping, unfinished business. Having thus been rationalized, they naturally go unaddressed, and then become normalized and easily perpetuated across and down through many family layers. In other words, this life-strangling insidiousness can become an accepted part of a family’s legacy passed on to its children for many generations as a most unwelcome and handicapping gift.
NOTE: In a future article, I will address these eight characteristics of the Shadow Child Syndrome in consideration of the educational environment. Although some, if not all, of these eight are always present, they manifest themselves differently in different environments. Because of the intensity of schools, symptoms of the syndrome often are exhibited sideways or are camouflaged, and then just labeled as “discipline problems” as opposed to a coded message asking for help and understanding.
Survivor Traits of Shadow Children – Adaptive Traits of At Risk Youth
NOTE: Because you are an adult, take notice of how any of these behaviors are exhibiting themselves in others or yourself.
Growing up in unstable and unpredictable environments creates chaotic feelings and uncertainty. (American Medical Association) One learns to be watchful and cautious in order to survive. One learns to control emotions, thoughts, and behaviors through suppression and denial, hoping this will help control the self, others, and the world. (English, Widom, and Brandford) One feels he or she must have some control in order to have predictability in an unpredictable world. (Woititz) Violations of the child during Erikson’s Trust vs. Mistrust Stage (from birth to 1 year of age) create such a mistrust of the world as a safe place that control seems imperative in order to survive.
The dysfunctional training that children receive instills a denial of their feelings: “Don’t trust any of your emotions to benefit you and ignore what your senses tell you” (Seixas 1985). When adults show emotion, it is often associated with abusive situations, and children assume a direct cause and effect relationship (Fischer). The message is, “Don’t trust others and their emotions, and don’t trust your own emotions either.” (Farmer)
Inability to Grieve to Completion
Especially noteworthy of dysfunctional family survivors is their inability to grieve losses to completion (Farmer). The “tunnel of grief” has four sequential stations: (1) shock and denial, (2) anger and/or fear/bargaining, (3) sadness, and (4) acceptance and/or gratitude. Inability to grieve means that with each need-to-let-go situation, one gets stuck in one of the stations and never reaches the stage of acceptance. Changes are constant in life. With each change usually comes the death of an attachment, whether it is leaving a bad relationship for a better one, quitting cigarettes, letting go of one’s youth, losing a job, or leaving home. Inability to grieve to completion means that there are many Shadow Children in perpetual states of shock, denial, anger, fear, and/or sadness.
Guilt from Over Responsibility
The guilt carried in the core of the dysfunctional family survivor stems from feeling overly responsible for caretakers’ actions and feelings. (Woititz) The Shadow Child may even feel guilty for the abuse suffered and perhaps for any punishment that siblings received.
Shadow Children carry to school and into eventual adulthood the habitual and overwhelming pattern of feeling the need to be a caretaker to others. (Farmer 1989) Whether they do it or not is another thing, but if they do not act it out, then they will act it in. This means internalizing the lack of action as feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Either way, no matter how much caretaking they do or don’t do, it will never be enough. That is because this is compulsive behavior, and with compulsive behavior, as Janet Woititz aptly states: “If what you want is not what you need, it will never be enough.”
Inconsistencies, surprises, and terror perhaps were the norm in the childhood of Shadow Children, so when things are calm and stable, Shadow Children may feel deadened or bored, thereby necessitating an urge to stir things up. (Whitfield) Although they may complain outwardly about chaos, Shadow Children may be uncomfortable deep inside when it is not present. Some Shadow Children develop an excitement addiction and will generate an uproar if things are too serene. Often, this appears as sabotage in school, business, or relationships. They just can’t stand success might be an applicable phrase for some Shadow Children.
Guessing at Normality
What is normal? Since the home lives of most dysfunctional family survivors were extremist in nature, no standards were established for the concept of normality. As they grow, Shadow Children are constantly confused as to what is healthy and normal. (Woititz) They frequently feel unsure inside, although they may have complex strategies to portray themselves as otherwise. (Crespi)
Being abused and neglected delivers the message, “You are not good enough the way you are.” When self-adjusting brings the same response again, one perceives, “The truth is that no matter what I do, I am not good enough.” (Teicher) Thus, the core of shame overshadows the pristine self, and Shadow Children gradually regard themselves as defective or irretrievably damaged. It is impossible to develop a benevolent self-concept in this soil. Shadow Children find many ways to reaffirm the belief that they are, indeed, always “less than” in thoughts, words, and actions. (Steinglass) It is this self-validating, internalized assumption that delivers the crucifying mandates by which Shadow Children often shape their lives. (Wegscheider-Cruse)
One of the earliest evaluative scales we all learned as infants was pain vs. pleasure. Human beings avoid pain and seek pleasure. The psychological pain of being alienated from the true self is one of the most intense, confusing, and enduring possible. It resembles an incurable migraine of the soul. (Whitfield) Compulsive behavior of any sort offers an irresistible anesthesia for the psychological pain as well as a pleasant diversion for the body. One can be compulsive about almost anything: alcohol and other drugs, work, gambling, food, shopping, hoarding, sex, exercise, relationships, religion, particular emotion look-alikes (rageaholism, sadaholism, phobias), power, money, violence, and so on, ad infinitum. (Kellogg)
Conclusion: How do we Reach At Risk Youth?
Survivors of abusive/neglectful families have heard one message over and over – “You are not good enough the way you are.” Sometimes a child is told that outright, sometimes they feel it, and sometimes the message comes in the form of abuse and neglect that always contains the message that “You are not okay the way you are.” The more dysfunctional the family, the more persistent and frequent this message is delivered. When a child grows up internalizing this message, they begin to believe it, and then they begin to act it out. Negative, disrespectful, critical, and angry verbal behaviors are often the child’s way of exhibiting that their belief is a fact: “You will never be good enough.”
We as parents, teachers of at risk students, authority figures, and youth workers may not know exactly what to do, but we should at least know this: We do not want to pour gasoline on a fire to extinguish it. Schools are often based on a deficiency model, constantly telling the child he or she is low in this, behind in that, insufficient at this, and poor at that. All this does is, again, reinforce the child’s false belief that he or she is not good enough, undesirable, and unwanted. Then what happens is the child redoubles his/her efforts to prove that it is true. Human beings often show they would rather be right than almost anything else, even it if the thing to be right about is unpleasant and/or uncomfortable.
American Medical Association (AMA). (1995). Diagnostic and Treatment Guidelines on Mental Health Effects of Family Violence. Chicago IL.
Crespi, T.D. (1995). Adult children of alcoholics: The family praxis. Family Therapy, 22: 81–95.
Dallmann-Jones, A. (2020). How to Connect with Students At-Risk: Creating Learning Environments for Teacher and Student Success. NY: Amazon Press.
English, D.J., Widom, C.S. and Brandford, C. (2004). Another look at the effects of child abuse. National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Journal, 251: 23–24.
Farmer, S. (1989). Adult Children of Abusive Parents. Los Angeles: Lowell House Legacy.
Fischer, J., Wampler, R., Lyness, K. and Thomas, E. (1992). Offspring codependency: Blocking the impact of the family of origin. Family Dynamics of Addiction Quarterly 2: 1–12.
Kellogg, T. (1990). Broken Toys, Broken Dreams. Amherst, MA: Brat Publishing.
Seixas, J.S., and Youcha, G. (1985). Children of Alcoholics: A Survivor’s Manual. New York: Crown Publishers.
Steinglass, P. (1987). The Alcoholic Family. New York: Basic Books.
Teicher, M.D. (2000). Wounds that time won’t heal: The neurobiology of child abuse. Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, 2(4): 50–67.
Wegscheider-Cruse, S. (1989). Another Chance: Hope and Health for the Alcoholic Family. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
Whitfield, C. (1991). Co-Dependence: Healing the Human Condition. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Woititz, J. (1994). Live workshop, Holiday Inn, Madison, WI.