On a dark, stormy night in 1983, something dramatic happened (okay, so I’ve always wanted to start a sentence with the words ‘on a dark and stormy night’. Sue me!), and it was not just the death of Mary Winchester. Instead, here we will focus on how the events of that evening led to the arrest of normal childhood development in Dean Winchester, thereby leaving him the developmental equivalent of a four year old trapped in the body of a twenty-six-year-old young man.
From the limited scenes of the Winchester home pre-demon attack, we have every reason to believe that Dean was a perfectly well-adjusted four-year-old boy. According to the theories of development posited by Erik Erikson (Erikson, E.H. Childhood and Society, Ed 2. Norton, New York, 1963.), the ages from 3-5 years of life represent the third developmental stage out of eight. Erikson’s stages of development are characterized by the predominant maturational crisis that arises during each period. Each crisis must be resolved in order to progress developmentally. The prevalent crisis in the 3-5 year age range is initiative versus guilt.
By the end of the third year in a normal childhood, the child is beginning to initiate activities, both intellectual and physical. If their intellectual curiosity is satisfied and/or they are granted physical freedom, then they progress through this critical stage towards more independent activity and play. However, conflicts over initiative, particularly in the form of guilt about self-initiated activity, will interfere with the child’s sense of ambition. Furthermore, by the end of this period, the child’s conscience (aka Freud’s superego) becomes established, particularly through the establishment of limits on aggressive behavior. If a child develops too strong a superego, then as an adult, he may insist that others always adhere to his moral code at the expense of the individual and society at large.
In the case of Dean, there is little doubt that John effectively crushed any self-initiated play or thought after Mary’s death. He was focused on keeping the boys safe and that meant complete obedience to “the rules.” Particularly once John started demon hunting, Dean had to follow John’s orders in order to keep himself and Sam safe. Case in point, in the episode “Something Wicked,” Dean takes the initiative to go out to play a game while John is out demon hunting. As a result of this initiative, Sam is almost killed by the shtriga, and John insures that Dean internalizes that guilt completely. Even though Dean is a much older child by the time of those events, it is clear that this is not an isolated incident. As such, Dean remains trapped in the conflict of initiative vs. guilt. As a result, the Dean that we meet at the beginning of the series is reluctant to initiate any actions without either an order from Dad or an understood, unspoken permission from Dad. This behavior is so prevalent that Sam comments on it in the pilot when he asks Dean about going on a hunt by himself. While Dean has a flippant answer for Sam, in fact, Dean was acting under implicit orders from Dad when he went on the hunt – find the bad thing and kill it. However, over the course of season one with its events and with his continuing interaction with Sam, we see that Dean is finally starting to deal with this conflict, as evidenced by him standing up to John in “Salvation”.
Dean’s conscience also remains locked in the realm of black and white that is a direct result of John’s parenting. While he demanded complete obedience from Dean, John also focused on training and focusing Dean’s aggressive behavior towards killing things that John deemed to be “bad.” While Dean clearly cares for people and wants to help people, his view of the world is quite black and white. For example, in “Nightmare,” despite Sam’s protestations, Dean is more than willing to kill Max, a human being, for his crimes. To Dean, Max’s childhood does not count as extenuating circumstances, and as he clearly states, Max is no different from anything else that they hunt and kill. Additionally, in the season finale, Dean tells Sam that he would do anything, including kill other human beings, to protect both Sam and John. On the surface that sounds like family dedication, but underneath it speaks to Dean’s inability to discern the grey in certain situations.
One of the other key issues of the toddler period can be sibling rivalry. The birth of a sibling during this age period (3-5 years) tests the child’s capacity for cooperation and sharing. Sibling rivalry is largely dependent on the child-rearing practices of the parents. If the new child gets special treatment for any reason, it can lead to angry feelings in the older sibling. This sibling rivalry may influence the older child’s ability to form meaningful relationships with his or her peers as they get older. In the case of the Winchesters after Mary’s death, Sam was clearly the focus of John’s need to protect his family. John’s interactions with Dean were often focused on the fact that Sam must be protected at all costs. This led to the sibling rivalry that we see between them throughout season one, but particularly in the episodes where either of the boys is not exactly in his right mind. For example, in “Asylum,” Influenced!Sam continues to taunt Dean with the good little soldier mantra, whereas in “Skin,” Skinwalker!Dean points out to Sam that “he sure has issues with you.” While you could argue the validly of the statements made by the boys in those episodes, there has to be at least a kernel of truth to those statements.
Thus, despite his chronologic age, Dean Winchester remains stuck in the developmental stages of a toddler as a result of the traumatic death of his mother combined with John’s dysfunctional parenting after Mary’s death. At the opening of the series, Dean stands before us as a young man who follows his father’s orders without question, who is overly aggressive, who sees the world as black and white, and who has “issues” with his younger sibling. However, during the first season, we see Dean finally begin to grow and move through these developmental stages for two main reasons: John is not present but Sam is. While Sam is hardly a normally adjusted twenty-something, he received the benefit of being the protected one vs. being the protector through his childhood. That, combined with his collegiate experience, allows him to model more normal development and behavior to his chronologically older sibling. Hopefully, over the course of the second season, we will continue to see Dean flourish and progress in his development now that the family dynamic has been changed. However, for now, we will all just continue to enjoy the little boy trapped in that sexy man’s body.