Why talk about your childhood experiences in therapy? What does that have to do with you as an adult?
What role did your childhood experience/parents play in the development of your depression? anxiety disorder? eating disorder? relationship problems?
I was prompted to write this post by a recent online conversation I observed. A therapist writing about family contributions to the development of eating disorders sparked quite the controversy and received some vehement opposition. It reminded me that that which I take for granted as a given is not shared by the public at large. Namely, that it is just about impossible to escape our childhood unscathed. Along the path to becoming an adult often lies wounding great and small. By that I mean, even families with the best intentions will experience empathic failures and disconnects. They will succeed in many ways and they will at times fall short of the mark. There are countless daily experiences of frustration and separation which in addition to times of feeling understood and connected combine to make up who we are. Secondly, that the understanding of this within ourselves and the acknowledgment of this between parents and adult children can be powerfully healing.
We all (hopefully) get that overt types of trauma such as childhood sexual and physical abuse impact the developing child. I almost added emotional abuse too, then realized how that gets defined and understood is much more nebulous and can be harder to grasp. The issue of intent can also be confusing. And painful. It can be difficult to realize that even parents with good intentions can respond in ways that negatively impact their child’s development and self.
Examples of less obvious childhood experiences that can have a negative impact include but are not limited to:
- parental perfectionism
- high levels of competition
- family prohibition against expressing certain feelings (for example sadness or anger)
- witnessing violence
- parentification of child: child acts in an adult role, for example in single parent families or with many younger siblings
- child used as confidante by parent
- child as caretaker of parent: common in families where a parent is alcoholic, for example
- emotional unavailability of parent due to own depression, anxiety, unresolved trauma history or physical illness
- attitudes about gender: for example, shaming a feminine son or tomboyish girl
- attitudes about sexual orientation: expressing belief that anything other than heterosexuality is inferior, sinful, pathological impacts the developing self of a non-straight child
- attitudes about weight and body image: directed at yourself and your child
- boundary issues: too distant or too enmeshed can be problematic
- not allowing any privacy: for example reading a child’s diary, listening in on phone calls
- conditional love: expectations about what a child will do in terms of hobbies, careers, interests. Approval conditional on meeting parents’ expectations
As a psychodynamically trained therapist, I am operating from the belief that much of who we are is formed early and within the context of our primary family/care taker relationships. As a trauma informed therapist I am aware that traumas (big T and small t) can actually impact and change brain structure and chemistry. So in the great nature vs. nurture debate within the field of mental health, I am much more apt to focus on the nurture side of the equation. I see the individual and her/his psychological problems as more often than not created within the context of early family dynamics.
Sometimes this gets misunderstood as an attempt to find fault or place blame upon parents. I see it instead as about seeking a broader understanding of the individual in the context of the family and early experiences. With understanding can come more compassion for yourself. Too often I see clients presenting feeling “crazy”, as if something in them is inherently bad or flawed. Putting their lives and experiences into context can be empowering. In fact, I firmly believe that knowledge is power.
In my view, we develop a healthy self when our parents/caregivers provide “good enough” responsiveness to our critical emotional needs. What is “good enough” varies depending on the individual child. This is where I see some “nature” stuff like temperament playing a role. Some children do indeed seem to be more highly sensitive than others from day one. This may provide more challenges in attunement for certain types of caregivers. For example, a parent who is not comfortable with his/her own range of emotions may not be able to empathically respond to the child’s. The child may then grow up feeling they have to deny or split off certain feelings in order to be loved.
Of course I get why many resist this approach. It is incredibly painful as a parent to consider that you may have contributed to your adult child’s psychological problems. I understand the denial and defensiveness may spring from a need for this to not be so. However, I have seen what it can do for both when a parent can listen non-defensively and acknowledge the ways he or she inadvertently wounded their child. One of the greatest gifts parents can give their adult children is to be able to tolerate this and model the awareness that none of us are perfect . That includes parents. Successful relationships of any kind are not about being 100% empathically attuned and connected, but about how we do the repair work when there are inevitable ruptures.
How have you grappled with these questions in your own healing work?