Child development research such as Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development and The Life Model’s levels of maturity reveal that critical beliefs and emotions about self, others, and the world begin as early as infancy. Feeling consistently safe, joyful, important, or lovable throughout life can depend on the whether the basis to do so is established by the age of three.
According to Shepherd’s House The Life Model: “babies that do not see joy on their mothers’ faces become full of fear. If they attach to a parent who is afraid, angry, or distressed–they learn to watch for threats.”This process extends beyond mothers: “Infants need someone who is paying attention to them and will help them feel joy, or they will fail to thrive. In fact, they do not explore or even seek trails that lead back to joy.”
The result, from the first three months of life, is that “they develop fear bonds and fear-based identities” rather than love bonds and joy-based identities. Learning fear so early in life can lead to pattern of avoiding others or drawing attention.
The next stages of development, which occur as early as two or three years old through pre-school years, are achieving autonomy to address personal needs and being encouraged to take initiative. Without sufficient support and approval during these stages, shame and guilt become familiar emotions. During elementary school, confidence in one’s ability to become competent in new tasks and skills should be developed.
Without maturity (reaching full developmental potential) during these stages, the false belief of being flawed, inferior, or even “bad” can set in—which become elements of identity. Adopting an identity of limited capabilities to learn or perform dampens the desire or ability to seek or accept challenging opportunities for growth.
Childhood histories of abuse, neglect, poverty, dysfunctional homes, and other traumatic experiences can manifest into an underestimation of their own value and capabilities. “System-involved” youth, those who have been in the foster care or juvenile justice systems, are often deprived of the factors essential to reach full maturity in these critical stages of child development. So their belief systems—such as who they are, how they should be treated, what they can achieve, and what they can expect in life—can become distorted.
These conditions and resulting beliefs make youth especially vulnerable to child sex trafficking. A review of 432 youth in Alameda County at risk of or victimized by commercial sexual exploitation by the District Attorney’s office revealed that 63% of them were currently or previously on juvenile probation and 40% were currently or previously in the custody of social services.
During trafficking victimization, distorted conclusions and expectations about themselves, relationships, and life are exacerbated. Their exploitation prevents discovering the truth about themselves and jeopardizes the likelihood of doing so later. What is at stake is ever learning how valuable and lovable they are, how worthwhile their initiatives are, and how skilled they can become.
In trafficking survivor after-care, assessing personal belief systems and what they reveal about the extent of their childhood development can help inform recovery. Correcting distorted beliefs about self, relationships, and life can defuse psychological-sabotage that was set in motion when childhood development was derailed.
The resulting foundation for recovery will be more stable and durable for future success. When resistance to take initiative and reluctance to pursue new endeavors are removed, opportunities for education and vocation are more likely to be undertaken, completed, and maximized rather than avoided, abandoned, or abbreviated.
Grasping the truth of who they are opens wide the gate to how far they can go.