Do we ever fully grow up? Why our childhood affects us as adults and what to do about it
There is the stereotype that therapy is just about lying on a couch and complaining about your parents, or that we can blame everything in our adult lives on our childhood. I wish it were that simple (well, actually the parent in me doesn’t like that logic). But our childhood was the single biggest experience where we were dependent on others for pretty much everything and our caregivers played the biggest roles in that scene. As such, our childhood has an extremely big impact on us as adults.
When we speak about childhood experiences, we are talking about experiences from very early on. There may be some memories that we can recall, but so much that we don’t. Just because we can’t remember certain times doesn’t mean it don’t have an impact on us. In childhood we create a blueprint or map in our minds of how we make sense of the world and how we fit into that world. As children, right from the start, we are absorbing everything, like little sponges. We take all these little experiences and try make sense of the big, scary world. Some of the main influences on our ‘blueprint’ include the experienceswe had with our caretakers, how our needs were met, the positive and negative experiences in our environment, how others seemed to view us and what reactions we got when we expressed ourselves.
The reason that we created this ‘blueprint’ is for survival. We needed to know what to do in order to get our needs met. We developed coping tools – ways that ensured more of the good experiences and less of the scary ones. Coping tools can be helpful in that moment but as children we didn’t always choose the more healthy or mature options. These became habits or patterns that the brain stores as automatic reactions.
However as adults we need to move beyond responding automatically –we need to stop and think if that’s the best option in this moment. When we experience emotional pain as adults, our brains go into panic mode, and we react as if we were that young child again- this could be related to love, work, parenting or in how we view ourselves and those same old patterns can repeat without us even knowing.
So while we can talk about our childhood experiences until we are blue in the face, the past has been. What’s more important is what we do about it now.
My top 5 tips for responding now, as an adult are:
Acknowledge it: The most important thing we can do is acknowledge what’s going on when we have intense reactions. When we notice what is going on for ourselves, we are able to prevent autopilot brain.
Breath: By pausing, taking a breath and asking ourselves, “What’s going on inside of me right now?’ we are choosing to respond instead of react and giving our brain a chance to use an alternative coping tool.
Be kind: It’s a process, it takes time and involves awareness and requires kindness towards yourself – you are in pain, and some of that may be very old pain and very deep pain, and it needs you to offer it kindness, not judgement.
Talk: Share with someone you trust, a friend, a family member or a professional. They may not have all the answers or say the right thing, but by sharing you are teaching your brain its ok to trust others and they may help you see a different side.
Care for yourself: If you were your own parent, how would you comfort your child in pain – you wouldn’t ignore them, or berate them for feeling sad, you’d offer them comfort while they go through that difficult time. Be the person you needed when you were younger.
There is no such thing as a perfect childhood, and we all experienced different challenges –some more intense than others. But as adults, we have the choice how we let our past affect our behaviours today and that is so very powerful and healing.
You can also watch the clip here of a further discussion on this topic that I recently had on Afternoon Express on SABC 3