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Developmental Model of Addiction and Recovery Implications

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

Psychologists are concerned with distinguishing normal human behavior from abnormal behavior. In order to make these distinctions psychologists study human development. This makes intuitive sense. A normal behavior for a five year old is usually quite different from the normal behavior of an adult. For example, it is normal for a five-year-old child to believe in Santa Claus. The child eagerly anticipates the Christmas gifts Santa will bring. It is certainly not normal for a 40-year-old adult to hold these same beliefs.

According to the developmental model, immaturity or developmental arrest causes addiction. While human development occurs across the lifespan, the most significant portion of this development occurs during childhood and adolescence. As human beings mature, they increase their capacity to: 1) defer acting upon immediate selfish desires and emotional impulses, 2) use rational thought to make wise choices, and 3) consider their actions in the larger context of their relationships and society as a whole. Conversely, a lack of development results in an immature pursuit of selfish desires, difficulty making wise choices, and a failure to consider the "big picture." The capacity to understand ourselves in relation to a larger context (i.e., the big picture) is what "develops" in development. That capacity is at the root of all motivation to overcome addiction.

The acceleration of developmental maturity expands the capacity to understand self-in-relationship-to-the world.  This mature capacity enables us to make wise choices that ultimately benefit both our fellow human beings and ourselves.  If someone only focuses on the immediate pleasure or value of the addictive behavior, the decision to continue or discontinue is obvious- Yes continue!   It is by focusing on the larger context that a different choice emerges.  What happens after the high? What happens to the people I care about?  What happens to my projects and activities in life? What happens to my health and my future?  In other words, our appreciation of the larger context in which we live allows us to rise above immediate gratification.  This appreciation is central to recovery from addiction.

Questions for personal reflection from the developmental model: How do my choices reflect maturity or immaturity? How often do I consider the "big picture" when choosing to engage in addictive behavior? Would my choices be different if I had a greater capacity to consider the effect of my choices on other people? What choice would I make if I considered the effects on my health, well-being?