Childhood Characters and Their Disorders

(From: The Times, Once upon a time on a therapist’s couch)

Extracted from: Tigger on The Couch: The Neuroses, Psychoses, Disorders and Maladies of Our Favourite Childhood Characters, by Laura James.

Winnie the Pooh’s irrepressible chum
Diagnosis: Attention deficit hyperactive disorder: Tigger’s continual bouncing, hyperactivity and irresponsible attitude cause problems for him and those with whom he lives, as well as those he interacts with in the wider community.
Physical presentation: Rarely sits still. He’s always running, climbing, or fidgeting.
Diet: Having tried – and firmly rejected – honey, haycorns and thistles, Tigger settles on extract of malt as his food of choice. While this particular substance is unlikely to exacerbate his condition, a more balanced diet would almost certainly benefit him and perhaps contribute to an improvement in his behaviour.
Family background: No information is available on Tigger’s life before his arrival at Pooh’s house. Nothing is known of his previous address or his family of origin, although it has been said that he is the only Tigger.
Patient notes: Tigger’s arrival at Pooh’s house in the middle of the night is evidence of his inability to control his impulses. A less disordered individual would have known that it is more appropriate to visit people during the day, especially when dropping in on someone one scarcely knows or has never met. Impulsive behaviour, interrupting and intruding are at the heart of Tigger’s problems. Soon after their first meeting, for example, Tigger suddenly interrupted Pooh, climbed on to the table, wrapped himself in his host’s tablecloth and brought everything crashing to the floor. When questioned by Pooh about his behaviour, rather than accepting responsibility for his actions, Tigger accused the tablecloth of trying to bite him. Tigger makes bold statements, such as declaring that he is only bouncy before breakfast. He proclaims impulsively that whatever food he is offered is what Tiggers like best, then gulps down large mouthfuls of the food in question, only to find he dislikes it very much. More evidence of Tigger’s recklessness and poor impulse control is displayed by his belief that he can do anything. He has no sense of fear or responsibility. This was apparent when he climbed up a high tree with Roo on his back before he had ascertained whether he was able to climb a tree in the first place. Inevitably, they then got stuck when he realised he had no idea of how to get down. On one occasion, Tigger grabbed Roo’s medicine from Kanga, which he proceeded to swallow, almost devouring the spoon as well. Obviously the medicine might have proved dangerous to him. Tigger never learns from his mishaps, bouncing back almost immediately after a frightening and potentially hazardous incident. As a result, Tigger’s behaviour causes concern to those around him. Living with someone suffering from ADHD can be trying. Perhaps this is why Rabbit suggested the rather extreme measure of taking Tigger into the forest and losing him in the mist. Rabbit and his friends believed the shock of being lost might cause Tigger to calm down a little on his return, a strategy that backfired, however.

The wicked fur lover from 101 Dalmatians
Diagnosis: Histrionic personality disorder (HPD): Cruella’s desire to be the centre of attention at all times is damaging to herself and those around her.
Physical presentation: Cruella De Vil uses her physical appearance to gain attention. Her hair, pulled back and parted down the middle, is black on one side, white on the other. She wears tight-fitting satin dresses and ropes of emeralds for quiet dinners at home and is rarely without a floor-length fur coat, sometimes even two at a time.
Diet: Cruella has unusual tastes. She likes all her food – even the black ice-cream she serves – to taste of pepper. She also appears to prefer her food to be unusually coloured, although serving dark purple soup, bright green fish and pale blue meat to dinner-party guests is probably an attention-seeking ploy.
Family background: Cruella is the last of the De Vils. Her early life seems uneventful, although she was expelled from school for drinking ink.
Patient notes Everything about Cruella is dramatic: the way she acts and speaks, direct and imperious, expecting everyone to comply with her demands; her provocative style of dress and taste in interior decoration, ermine sheets and red marble walls. All of it screams for attention. Even Cruella’s car is painted in black and white stripes to match her own colouring. She is overly focused on her own comfort, regardless of how this might affect other people. She feels the cold and demands that huge fires are lit, even though the heat is uncomfortable for others. Her penchant for pepper-laced food, served to one and all, is similarly egocentric. She feels no embarrassment in admitting that she married her hus band only because he is a furrier. In her transactions with other people she also shows little empathy or any sense of what is appropriate behaviour. Cruella lacks emotional depth and her relationships with fellow human beings, and even pets, are entirely based on what she can gain from them.

The Three Bears’ uninvited guest
Diagnosis: Antisocial personality traits: Goldilocks behaves in a reckless and destructive way that violates the rights of others.
Physical presentation: Goldilocks appears physically healthy. Her most notable feature is her long, blonde hair, worn in ringlets and neatly tied with ribbons.
Diet: Other than a preference for porridge of a certain temperature, nothing else is known of her diet.
Family background: There is little information on Goldilocks’s background, although evidence points to a family unit within a widespread rural community in which the younger members have considerable freedom to roam.
Patient notes Goldilocks behaves in a selfish and reckless manner. She shows a disregard for the law and refuses to face the consequences of her actions. For example, she broke into the secluded woodland home of a family of bears, ate their food, although there is no evidence that she’s denied sustenance at home, broke their furniture and tried out their beds. In doing so she was guilty of trespassing, theft and vandalism. Such disregard for other people’s property indicates that Goldilocks lacks empathy. She treated the Three Bears’ house as if it were her own and when she broke a chair – even one clearly designed for a child and therefore likely to cause greater distress if it were damaged – she made no attempt to repair it but simply moved on to wreak further havoc in the upper floor of the house. This insensitivity towards others is also evidenced by the way she then tried out all the beds, a particularly gross invasion of the Three Bears’ privacy. Goldilocks will not acknowledge quite how violating her actions were. Moreover, not only was the act of “violation” committed once in each case but repeated, seemingly out of a sense of perfectionism that something should be neither too hot nor too cold, neither too hard nor too soft, but “just right”. On finding that Baby Bear’s bed met her criteria, Goldilocks fell asleep in it, demonstrating a remarkable ability to relax in circumstances that most people would have found intensely stressful, as the Bears could have returned at any minute. It also provides further evidence of her lack of concern for the family’s feelings. When the Bears finally appeared, she didn’t stay to explain her actions or apologise for her behaviour. Instead, rather than facing their possible anger and any punishment that might follow, she ran away.

The original rags-to-riches heroine
Diagnosis: Approval addiction Throughout her life: Cinderella has pleased everyone but herself. In doing so, she’s lost touch with her emotions.
Physical presentation: Cinderella has a nervous demeanour. Her voice and facial expressions are childlike. She is well dressed, as befits her newly royal status, and is believed to have a penchant for unusual shoes, her only indulgence.
Diet: Little information is available on her diet, although she was deprived of food when living with her stepmother and had to survive on scraps.
Family background Cinderella’s very early life was happily spent with her parents. After her mother’s death, her father remarried a woman with two daughters. Although Cinderella was not accepted by her stepmother and stepsisters, she continued to live in this new family unit until her marriage.
Patient notes: Cinderella was born to affluent parents who enjoyed a good relationship. But after her mother’s long illness and subsequent death, everything changed dramatically for Cinderella, and evidence suggests that she felt deep grief but was unable to express it as she didn’t want to upset her father. It would seem Cinderella’s father found his wife’s death difficult to talk about. Significantly, it was around this time that his daughter’s people-pleasing tendencies began to surface. Although a child would be desperate to talk about his or her mother and make sense of her untimely death, Cinderella intuited that this would be too painful for her father and resisted expressing her feelings. When her father remarried, Cinderella was initially positive. His new wife, however, had no time for his daughter. She was banished to the servants’ quarters and made to work long hours in the house. Cinderella took her stepmother’s rejection hard, but it was her father’s reaction to this that perhaps caused the most serious damage. He refused to stand up to his new wife, allowing her to behave in an abusive manner towards his daughter. Having been an only child, Cinderella was initially excited at the idea of having stepsisters. However, she became bitterly disappointed at discovering they were apt to be as cruel as their mother. The somewhat naive young girl, having up to this point experienced only kindness, was shocked and bitterly upset by their behaviour. She internalised her feelings, however, believing that the treatment she received from her new family must have been in some way her fault. The abuse Cinderella suffered at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters may have led to a sense of low self-esteem and caused her to question her every action. Essentially, she had a poor sense of self and craved the approval of others. Cinderella’s life changed suddenly and significantly after attending her first ball. Until this point in her life she had obeyed her stepmother’s wishes and had not had any social contact outside the family. Rather than confronting her stepmother with the unfairness of the situation, Cinderella chose to go to the ball secretly. It was while she was at the ball that she met the Prince, who was to become her husband. Although she was initially attracted to him, again she was unwilling to face her stepmother head on and left the ball suddenly without telling the Prince that she was going. He tracked her down, however, and asked her to be his wife. In accepting, Cinderella agreed to marry someone she had met only twice – he was the first man who had paid her any attention – and the wedding was arranged for barely a week after their initial meeting. Cinderella perhaps confused love with a desire to be rescued from an unsatisfactory family life. It is possible that she has been guilty of “splitting” (seeing things either as all good or all bad) in casting her mother as “always good” and her stepmother as “always evil”. She has also created a drama triangle: she plays the role of the victim, casts her stepmother in the role of persecutor and the Prince in the role of rescuer.

The boy who never grew up
Diagnosis: Unhealthy narcissism: Peter’s grandiose ways and lack of care and empathy make him a danger to himself and to others.
Physical presentation: Peter appears healthy, although he is small. It is difficult to judge his age from his appearance.
Diet: There is evidence of an eating disorder. Peter can eat if it is part of a game, but not just to “feel full”. Many experts believe eating disorders can stem from a desire to stay a child.
Family background: Peter was born in London. Little is known of his parents. He ran away from home the day after his birth having overheard his parents discussing what he might be when he became a man. This distressed Peter greatly since he wanted to stay a child forever, so he left to live with the fairies in Kensington Gardens.
Patient notes Peter is unwilling to grow up and take on age-appropriate responsibilities. He wants to remain a young boy forever and retains a childlike egocentricity. He refused to tell Wendy his age when asked, suggesting that he feels uncomfortable confronting the whole issue of ageing. He also finds it difficult to admit that he might have any weakness. When Wendy met him for the first time, sobbing on the nursery floor because he couldn’t reattach his shadow, he denied that he had been crying, soon persuading himself that he had never cried. Peter uses “splitting” – dealing with emotional conflict by seeing things either as all good or all bad and not recognising the grey areas in between – as a defence mechanism. On meeting Wendy, for example, he declared that mothers are “very overrated” and that he had “not the slightest desire to have one”, although his vulnerability was all too apparent. While denying his need for a mother, he appears on a deeper level to realise he and the Lost Boys – a group of male children who have fallen from their prams and ended up in Neverland – need some kind of nurturing relationship, one that traditionally a mother would provide. He manipulates Wendy into playing this role by suggesting that girls “are much too clever to fall out of their prams” and that “one girl is more use than 20 boys”. It is interesting to note that in making such comments he was appealing to her vanity – a trait that is strong in him – to persuade her to go to Neverland, a place where there are no responsible adults and the children run wild. Peter requires a lot of attention and is easily bored, causing those around him to become exhausted by his demands. Evidence suggests that when Peter is not present, everyday life functions much more normally. In Neverland, the fairies spend more time on themselves, the beasts look after their young more effectively and the conflict between the pirates and the Lost Boys is all but forgotten. Wendy and her brothers, too, were far safer and more settled before Peter’s arrival. Peter dislikes routine and can be quite contrary; something he would find amusing one day becomes tedious the next. This is common in individuals with destructive narcissistic traits. It leaves those around him feeling confused, as what will please him one day may enrage him the next. Peter did once attempt to return to his family home, but found the nursery window locked and barred and a boy in his place. While he doesn’t admit it, it’s likely he found this very hurtful. Often, when there are strong narcissistic traits in a person, there has been a disturbance in their early care. This is more usually to do with adoption, divorce or illness.

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