How Jehovah’s Witness Teachings Can Damage Brain Development in Children
In my decades of work with helping those born into high control groups, the effects are usually quite devastating. Despite the conditions in which young people are raised, I have also seen remarkable courage and resiliency to overcome their childhood trauma, especially if they can receive proper support and counseling. I have blogged before about the trauma caused by corporal punishment. The Watchtower encourages its members to use physical discipline and it causes grave harm. There are also serious emotional and psychological abuses. I also blogged about a twenty-seven-year-old who left her child motherless because she followed the Watchtower indoctrination and refused a blood transfusion. She was trained to believe if she chose to live by accepting medical intervention, that she would betray Jehovah and her entire family and friends in the group would shun and disfellowship her. In my opinion, her indoctrination since birth and the social pressure by her husband and other members interfered with her natural instinct to live and mother her child.
I was sent a post on facebook written by someone who was raised in the Jehovah’s Witnesses and who has done a great deal of research. Sam Fade is a pseudonym who is an ex-member who has great experience studying abuse in children. I think this article has so much merit and since Sam does not want to be known and it is not directly on the web, I got permission to share it.
I decided to put this blog up because ex-JW and counselor Steve Guziec appeared on Dr. Phil briefly. Since this 2016 interview with me, Steve shaved his beard, has lost weight, gotten a promotion at his full-time job. After the show was taped, Steve informed me that he wished to take his life in a new direction. He, therefore, is no longer working with us at Freedom of Mind. We wish him the very best in his academic and life pursuits.
In the years since my book first came out, I heard from hundreds of ex-Witnesses and former Bethel Elder Randy Watters was the first person to teach me how my BITE model fit the Watchtower policies.
Please read and share the below article.
How Jehovah’s Witness Teachings Can Damage Brain Development in Children
by Sam Fade*
We have established that the Jehovah’s Witness religion systematically and pathologically disregards the basic human rights of children as laid out in the United Nations Charter on the Rights of a Child (see the article, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Rights of a Child). I want to address the next topic of how this organisation fails and damages children in another way. This is in the way of brain development.
A child’s formative years are a crucial part of their development. Ask any teacher, scientist or psychologist these years form the foundation for who a child will become. During those early years, a person’s moral compass is set, brain pathways are developed, relationships, resilience, community, and a sense of familial ties. The list is endless. Interactions throughout these formative years shape the child into the person they will become. Sure, we may grow as adults, but a lot of what shapes us as the person we become transpires throughout our childhood.
What happens in these years is of critical importance. Children from countries that promote early childhood education see a significant return on investment for dollar spent Nobel Laureate James Heckman from the Heckman Equation Organisation widely publishes figures and information showing a 13% ROI (return on investment) on an investment in education. Dr. Lynn A.Karoly and also Dr. Larry Schweinhart have published findings that an ROI on early childhood learning can be as high as nine to twelve dollars on every dollar spent.
Why have I included these figures and what bearing does it have on Jehovah’s Witnesses? What does it have to do with the children of Jehovah Witnesses? How is it linked to brain development?
I included the aforementioned statistics to express the importance of early education in the development of who a person becomes. Education plays a key role in a person’s contribution to society at large. Scientific studies demonstrate that such outcomes are fundamentally linked.
What does this mean? It means that the information going into a child’s brain profoundly effects its development. Likewise, a lack of information or the wrong information may be extremely detrimental.
The following will outline how this relates to Jehovah’s Witnesses in numerous ways.
Exposure to Adversity
American paediatrician, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, has been hailed as a pioneer in her field for linking adverse childhood experiences with toxic stress levels, which leads to harmful health outcomes later in life. She is an advisory council member for the Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Clinton Foundation’s, Too Small to Fail campaign. She’s also the Founder and chief executive officer of the Centre for Youth Wellness. Her work has been featured in Paul Tough’s book, How Children Succeed. See also, https://centerforyouthwellness.org/. Exposure to ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) not only affects brain development, but it can also affect the hormonal system, immune system, and even DNA. The more ACEs a child is exposed to, the more likely the risk of developing cancer and heart disease. I personally took the ACE test and got 6/10. Many others who have left the Jehovah’s Witness organisation also report high ACE scores.
Adults who were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses end up having higher ACE scores than those of a random sampling of the community. How are we able to recognise this as fact, rather than personal theory?
The ACE score test is a tally of exposure to different kinds of abuse, neglect and other childhood trauma or dysfunction. At the very least Jehovah’s Witness children will ALWAYS score a 2 on the ACE test. Most, like me, scoring way higher due to strict corporal punishments, abusive parents, mental illness, sexual abuse etc. The two ACE components that Jehovah’s Witness children are always subjected too, sometimes without parental knowledge, are emotional abuse and emotional neglect.
Emotional abuse comes in the form of severe indoctrination, restrictions of freedoms, constantly being in the flight or fight mode due to doomsday teachings, restrictions on freedom of identity and pressure to conform. Again some of these deprivations of liberty go against the United Nations Charter on the rights of a child. These all add up to an emotionally abusive atmosphere.
Emotional neglect is the other ACE score witness children will always have. This is again due to severe adherence to doctrine to the detriment of a child’s identity. Parents are focussed on witnessing, meeting attendance, control and compliance of their child to do exactly what the rules of the organisation state. This blind adherence fails children’s emotional needs; it doesn’t allow them to freely express themselves without fear of repercussion.
I hesitate to put in physical abuse even though it’s rampant. It should be noted that parents are encouraged to be physical with their children and this is a culture within most congregations. It is not unusual to see a minor child being dragged out to a back room for a flogging due to failure to sit through a meeting. This culture is encouraged through the patriarchal structure and adherence to the doctrine that you spoil the child if you do not administer the rod.
Exposure to stress has profound effects on the developing brain of a child. In particular, extremely fearful events affect the areas of learning and emotions. The hippocampus and the amygdala are the two main areas of the brain that are affected by stress and trauma. The Amygdala determines whether something is threatening and the hippocampus which is responsible for your memory links the fear to its context of the event occurring. This, in turn, triggers a fear response. The brain releases neuropeptide S which increases alertness and anxiety. The brains of young children are programmed with the flight or fright response and also have a limited capacity to manage overwhelming stress and experiences. Extreme stress can affect the brain development in areas such as self-regulation, resilience, and a child’s attachment to relationships. The relationships children have with caregivers play a pivotal role.
Young children under chronic stress often fail to develop those secure relationships with their caregivers and then do not have a basic sense of trust or security in the world (Cohen & Walthall, 2003; Osofsky, 1995). Jehovah’s Witness children are under chronic stress at all stages of their childhood. One of the key doctrines of the religion is that of Armageddon. Magazines, books, their door to door preaching, online content and talks from the pulpit are all focussed on the impending doom and mass genocide that is coming. Their literature is littered with pictures of this mass genocide. These pictures are confronting for adults and children. The organisation places great importance on emphasising that this impending doom is coming any day or right around the corner and to “live in expectation of it” these are all common phrases used in the literature, online videos and from congregation meetings.
So this constant stress is not normal, while the fight or flight response when triggered appropriately is great especially in life or death situations. When this is stimulated on a daily occurrence it makes learning difficult as the stimulated senses are not those associated with deep learning. For example, you can’t learn algebra when you’re being chased by a zombie. Children subjected to this chronic heightened sense are adversely affected. This heightened stress reaction short circuits other brain functions like self-control, impulse control, memory, and reasoning. Children then do not have the capacity to think for themselves, and logically determine their own belief systems. Their brains are short-circuited to accept all doctrine pushed in front of them, as they are unable to attain those critical thinking skills that are so necessary in life. This, in turn, keeps them trapped in the organisation. Leavers of the organisation often talk about the lack of critical thinking or higher thinking skills.
Lack of Critical Thinking
As touched on in the previous paragraph this stress state in a child’s brain impairs the critical thinking skills. Again as an example its harder to make smart well thought out choices when you’re being chased by zombies. While this is an exaggerated example it illustrates the mental fight going on in the brain. Indoctrination is one of the major roadblocks to critical thinking. According to the Association of American Colleges & Universities, teaching students to be sceptical will “help them see through the distortions of propaganda, and enable them to assess judiciously the persuasiveness of powerful emotional appeals.” Dr. Stephen Camarata Ph.D. in his article “Emerging Crisis in Critical Thinking” explains that as a society due to many factors this is emerging and common problem. In the Dictionary of Psychology by Arthur Reber the dictionary defines critical thinking as a “cognitive strategy consisting largely of continual checking and testing of possible solutions to guide one’s work”. So looking for flaws or errors and then adjusting your perspective or thinking based on what you learn. This doesn’t happen when you are in a part of an organisation that believes in indoctrination and blindly doing what is told of you.
An example of the dismissal of critical thinking on the part of this organisation can be found in its teachings. Consider the next example from The Watchtower Nov 15, 2013, paragraph 17 “(3) At that time, the life-saving direction that we receive from Jehovah’s organization may not appear practical from a human standpoint. All of us must be ready to obey any instructions we may receive, whether these appear sound from a strategic or human standpoint or not. (4) Now is the time for any who may be putting their trust in secular education, material things, or human institutions to adjust their thinking. The elders must stand ready to help any who may now be wavering in their faith”. Another example is a song straight from their songbook entitled “Listen, Obey and Be Blessed.” Numerous more citing’s could be listed to reiterate similar sentiments. All doctrine from the WBTS (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society) must be strictly adhered to and all dissent is apostasy and faces extreme consequences. These consequences again put stress on a member which again dissuades critical thinking.
This extreme dismissal of critical thinking is encouraged. Straight from their publications, congregants are instructed that no matter how illogical or unpractical the instruction is that congregants must blindly obey. This kind of indoctrination happens to a child from a young age then the natural progression of this is that critical thinking skills are not developed. People then blindly follow along with what they are taught. Congregants are told that critical thinking can cost them their life, to be a sheep and follow along meekly and this is what children are being daily indoctrinated to believe also.
The severe and systemic flaws in this organisation are contributing to a culture where children’s development is greatly disadvantaged. You can see the failings that have been outlined. The sad thing about this is that most parents raising children in this organisation do not realise the damage they are doing to the development of their children. Parents are being damaged. A lot of Jehovah’s Witnesses are also generations in or born ins as they call it, so from childhood they have been disadvantaged also the same way they are now doing to their children. I do not think that the WBTS will change the doctrine contributing to this anytime soon as it will result in congregants leaving or diminished control. Highlighting of these issues may help others heal or realise and make changes, stopping the cycle of abuse. This should be of paramount concern to everyone. As the amazing Maya Angelou said “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better do better”. It is my firm hope that knowledge will give current and former Jehovah’s Witnesses the power to do better for the precious children entrusted to them.