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Page last updated at 00:39 GMT, Saturday, 27 June 2009 01:39 UK

Can Michael Jackson's demons be explained?

No one knows exactly where Michael Jackson's problems stem from. But in the eyes of those who study behaviour, feelings and motivations, his unorthodox upbringing could go a long way to explain his troubled adult life.

Michael Jackson, who has died at 50, is known to have been a man who struggled with a host of inner demons.

Here, psychologists weigh up how the extraordinary childhood experiences of someone such as Jackson might shape a person in later life.


Michael Jackson's father Joe admitted to the BBC in 2003 that he whipped his son as a child.

Jackson Five in concert, 1972
The child star at work in 1972...

Violence occasioned by a parent on a child leaves lasting psychological and physical impact, says Peter Sharp, chartered psychologist at the British Psychological Society.

"Young people in receipt of physical violence have difficulty forming and maintaining long-term relationships," he says.

"They're 'anxious-avoidant', which means they will often take on what they know they can be successful in, therefore avoid challenges outside their comfort zones and may try to provide their worth by excelling and over-excelling in one particular area."

If that person thinks that to have affirmation and validity, they need to be successful at something, he adds, there is a risk that this is the only thing about them they define as worthy.


Peter Congdon is a psychologist who works with extremely intelligent or gifted children.

"It's well known that the best preparation for growing up is to live fully as a child. Parents of clever or talented children shouldn't forget this."

Michael Jackson, 1970
...and at rest

Accelerated mental development, for example, can slow down social and mental growth, says Mr Congdon, and the result can be a lop-sided and maladjusted individual.

Parental expectations bring undue pressure on children - one of Mr Congdon's clients is a boy who is being groomed to become an actor and already he is talking about buying his parents a house.

Another man took his teenage child to the swimming baths every day at 4am in an effort to make her an Olympic champion, but it was making her unhappy.

Sometimes the pressure can be overwhelming, he says. "Philosopher JS Mill was taught Latin at three, Greek at four, wrote his first history book at 16 and aged 19 had a mental breakdown."

Jay Belsky, director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck College, University of College London, says: "With a gift, the issue becomes 'Am I loved because I sing and dance or because I'm worthy of being loved?'

"I think the child figures that out, not necessarily in a conscious way but does it register? Certainly."


Children vary in their sensitivity to things, says Prof Belsky, and you might think of Michael Jackson as one who benefited from being impressionable.

"You might think of him as a kid who was highly malleable for better or worse. Better in the sense that he could take advantage of the musical lessons and dance lessons and that kind of guidance, where for another kid it might be water off a duck's back."

But this same quality may have counted against him when he took alleged comments about his appearance to heart, he says.

Young people who have issues about their appearance often take those hang-ups into later life, says Mr Sharp.

"One of the things about teenage years is that young people frequently define themselves in terms of image and if they don't negotiate the transition to adulthood successfully then they take these concerns about the way they look with them."


Research into childhood fame is still at an early stage, says Kairen Cullen, but from her experience as an educational psychologist, the route to fame seems to be key to how well individuals deal with the effects.

"If fame is sought, either directly or vicariously, as in the case of parents for their children, frequently difficulties, usually of an intra-and inter-personal nature, develop.

Police hold back Michael Jackson fans outside Madame Tussauds, 1985
Public adoration and private isolation

"Relationships with others can be problematic because the individual develops an exaggerated sense of self, their importance in the world and their effect upon others.

"Processes of idealisation can unfold and the individual can find it very difficult to live up to others' expectations and projections."

For those youngsters with unique talents who are "discovered", they are not living out the dreams of others, but realising their unique selves, so discovery could actually enhance their psychological health.


As the seventh child in a large family, Michael Jackson was not lacking in the company of other children. But big families can multiply sibling rivalries, which need not be detrimental to a child's development.

"You can have a healthy sibling rivalry in which the older child is someone who you can compete with and reach for and as you struggle to do so, he or she is encouraging you and enabling you," says Prof Belsky.

"But if the sibling is demeaning and bullying, then what could be wonderfully facilitating can be destructive."

A child with an older sibling can be inspired by his or her accomplishments in music, dancing or basketball, for example, says the psychology professor. The child may want to be like that or better.

A skilled parent should monitor this sensitively, using the gap in their abilities as a way of motivating the younger child rather than mocking it.

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