Idealization and Devaluation of the Child
By Paul J. Hannig, Ph.D.
Many parents idolize and idealize their kids, that is they worship and adore them. The child is seen as perfectly wonderful, special and even messianic ... capable of great and wonderful things.† "My child is going to change the world and make it a better place".† This belief is strong for the parents of such a gift from heaven, but it does not necessarily generalize to the whole world.
A child who is worshipped and idolized will internalize this as "I am adored and idolized person". However, probably in late adolescence and early adulthood, s/he will go through a period where s/he slips from parental grace by acting in ways that crack and crumble the parentís idealized image of him or her.† A latent, dark or even destructive side of the personality begins to emerge and the tumbling from the pedestal takes place.† It seems as if the inflated pedestal is too difficult or even undesirable to be maintained.† Eventually, god-like status has to be replaced by a more balanced and integrative personality that is mixed with more humanness as well as the divine.
It is difficult for many divine personalities to stand or even maintain the unreasonable peaks of Everest-like worship.† To compensate, they swing unmercifully down into the chaos of demonhood.† Many borderline states witness this catapulting from the divine worshipped side of the personality into the pits of demonic despair and destruction.
One only has to watch closely to see how a young person simultaneously possesses a personality that contains god-like worshipful qualities and devilish destructive qualities.† These personality qualities are more obvious in some children than in others.† When I was a kid, certain neighbors thought I was a demon, a brat Ö someone destined to become a criminal.† Others, including family members, adored and loved me as a wonderful, "good" child. The process of being worshipped and adored by one group of people and devalued and disliked by another affects the personality. If that person has been the object of idealization and devaluation, s/he will probably adopt that mode of relating to others. Peer group idealization and devaluation also plays a part in personality formation. The way in which children respond to each other has a lasting and profound effect on the way one feels about self and others. A child that is highly valued by peers will feel valuable. When peer devaluation is also present, oneís internal interpersonal responses will be structured according to the idealization, devaluation dimension.
Folklore, mythology, religion, theatre, motion pictures, literature, and the archetypes that are derived from them, hint at the human need or propensity to worship children.† Parents, shepherds and wise men worshiped the baby Jesus.† Ordinary as well as royal people came to worship him at his birth.† Notice also the presence of the "evil" King Herod who decreed and seemingly destroyed Bethlehem's smallest citizens because he saw them as an evil threat to his throne. This, of course, points to the relativity of idealization and devaluation. Human beings tend to be arbitrary when it comes to assigning idealization and devaluation. It all depends on the eye of the beholder. One merely has to look at the international political scene in order to appreciate how arbitrary and relative idealization and devaluation can be.
The child as threat and possible future Messiah king seems to have a very powerful archetypal hold on the unconscious mind.† Such a child is also seen as evil to the established order and authority.† Though some see him as heavenly, he is also seen as a worldly threat, a destructive danger to the controlling adult authorities.† He is perceived as the one who can bring down the present order in order to establish his own more perfect kingdom.† This notion is furthered by the anticipation of his future coming, promising a more perfect world.
The archetypal "ideal" world carved deep in the human mind can be seen as being hugely instrumental in the actions of those who behave as if they are correcting some perceived "wrong".† The idealized, worshipped baby goes through all the stages of development, one of which is the moratorium or "bum" phase of the late teens and early adulthood. Notice that Christ did not begin his ministry until his early thirties and we have very little knowledge of his early adult years.† Did he go through a normal "bum" moratorium period where he behaved less than perfect while raising his parent's eyebrows?† Or did he consistently maintain his god-like images in his mother's eyes, albeit withstanding the absence of his father Joseph in the written record?
On a personal note, I don't know if I was worshipped as a baby. I believe that babies possess certain qualities that elicit worship and adoration from caregivers. Without my babylike charm and good looks my family might have sold me to the neighbors (kidding).† But given that, I think I received my share of adoration and love.† I do know that I adored and idolized my father but I relinquished that as I got older and began to accept him as a less than perfect, flawed, and sometimes dysfunctional man.
Since perfection was never an option for me, it was easily discarded as the world knocked me on my ass a few times and gave me a great reverence for the power of healing through fully feeling my emotional pain.† Accepting one's evil nature as well as accepting one's total human being is necessary for living a more balanced emotional and spiritual life.† I'm sure that I did not fulfill my father's idealized image of what I should or could have been.† He probably wanted me to be rich, while my mother would have liked me to be very popular, admired and well liked.† But that's what they wanted for themselves and they may have projected their own self-wishes onto me.† Even though I may not have achieved what my parents wanted, what I have achieved is beyond my earliest wildest dreams. Life is full of great victories and wonderful achievements.† Life is also filled with unfulfilled dreams and ambitions.† I did not achieve the Messianic hope of my people, but I did so on a personal level and I am content with that.† In fact, I feel very lucky for what I did achieve in my own small way.
So, in conclusion, there is a propensity for people to project divine, angelic as well as demonic, devalued feelings onto children.† To idolize and worship children is as normal as ascribing evil, demonic traits to them.† Perhaps certain children possess certain traits at birth and parents as well as others respond in kind to those traits.† After all, disposition, intelligence and temperament have genetic roots.† But that does not rule out how those traits are combined and synthesized in the genetic pooling experience.
The way that caregivers relate to that emerging child is also extremely vital in the development of the inner emotional being of that child.† Verbal and non-verbal messages certainly have a profound effect on the molding of personhood.† Fortunately and unfortunately as you prefer, we are subject to our unconscious desires, styles and manner of message sending.
Cher stated on television that at 16 she thought "the sun rose and set on Sonny Bono's ass".† Obviously as time went on Sonny Bono slipped from grace and Cher pulled him off the pedestal that she put him on originally.† What started out at age 16 as idol worship eventually ended in the all too common divorce court.† What happened in between?
The answer lies in the gradual erosion of Cher's original idol worship of Sonny Bono.† In all probability, children need to idealize and worship a parent only to lose that worship in the service of aging as they adopt a more realistic picture of that parent.† It's not that the idolized parent had feet of clay.† It is more likely that life experiences present a more human like picture of the parent to the child.
It is possible that some people allow the original idolization to tumble too far down the devaluation ladder.† It is also true that people tend to repeat the idolization, devaluation cycle in later relationships.† In fact, the idealization, devaluation phenomenon may repeat several times before an individual matures enough to establish a stable view of people.
If a child has been related to socially as an object of both idealization and devaluation, s/he may well adopt an interpersonal style that includes the mechanism of idealization and devaluation.† The question arises as to whether idealization and devaluation are inherent psychosocial needs or are they simply socially learned adaptations.† Curiously speaking, it seems fruitful to study the stimuli that trigger the perceptions, emotions and hormones involved in idolization and devaluation.
Perceived positive qualities seem necessary for triggering idealization, while the decrease of perceived positive qualities leads to the eruption of negative emotions that can result in devaluation.† That being said, we could speculate that idealization and devaluation are enduring traits that persist over a lifetime, subject to some modification.† Humans can be remarkably fixed or flexible in the shaping of supposedly instinctual responses.
One may speculate the presence of mutual idealization turned to devaluation in the Ike and Tina Turner relationship.† In her youth Tina may have idolized and worshipped Ike and he may have reciprocated in kind.† As stress entered their relationship they were unable to sustain a reasonable amount of worship towards one another.† With considerable strain and their ideal bond deteriorating to abuse, Tina assumed the familiar victim role and Ike appeared as the monster.† For such dynamics to occur, it seems that the demons of provocation and overreaction had to prevail.† When such love killers enter a relationship, it is almost impossible to halt the downward devaluation cycle.