We come to this world helpless, depending on our family for food, shelter and emotional support. We also need them to teach us what it means to be human, learning from their specific instructions as well as by watching their behavior towards us and towards each other. During this process we gather information to fill in the details. At first we gather information by touch and sight, but soon we learn words, and the words we learn from our parents build our understanding of the world. Their complaints, blame, and mockery affect us differently than words of praise, safety and enthusiasm.
Out of all this learning emerges the story we tell ourselves, a story that deeply affects us in many ways. If our story contains generous portions of hope, confidence, and trust in others, we will behave and feel differently than if we are filled with fear and self-hatred.
Curiosity and limits
In childhood, all knowledge is new knowledge, and behind every door lays a possible adventure. There are no rules. In this raw state, children have two primary tasks. One is to learn caution and fear, to avoid the pitfalls of life. The other is to learn skills and knowledge and to fearlessly conquer life’s challenges. These two tasks run at cross purposes.
With kids poking their fingers into electric outlets, running near cars and demanding endless attention, they frequently hear the word “no.” When the “no’s” are intense and fearful they erode self-confidence, and smother our curiosity. When our caregivers also keep in mind the other task of childhood, they praise our curiosity, and share the joy of our discoveries. When we grow up in an environment that rewards learning, we retain a lifelong thirst for new input, a willingness to learn from our mistakes and to boldly navigate through the surprises of life.
Control versus responsibility
We also need a mix between guidance and freedom. We need guidance to keep us on track, and we need freedom so we can develop our own ability to make decisions. Few of us grow up with a perfect balance between these two needs. Imbalances become especially important during our teen and young adult years, because as soon as we start making our own decisions, we are at the mercy of the skills we’ve learned as children.
Long angry lectures, too much input
When kids make a wrong choice, the parent must correct the child and give him the best feedback to help him learn from his mistakes. The problem isn’t letting the child know mom is upset. Kids quickly grasp her emotion from her facial expression and tone of voice. It’s harder to communicate to the child exactly why and how to fix the problem.
To get information into the child’s mind, the parent must communicate simply and clearly. That’s hard enough to do when the parent is calm, but when upset, it’s almost impossible. The exasperated parent leaves gaping holes in the communication, emphasizing her bad mood, and providing complicated information or none at all. A parent shouting “you’re supposed to know,” does not help a child who doesn’t know. The anxiety and frustration of this lecturing upsets both parent and child, and as emotions flood the child’s attention, it’s harder for him to listen and understand. In fact, the original misdeed may get lost in the angry avalanche of words.
Long, angry lectures and harsh punishments stimulate the child, arousing intense emotions. Later, he’ll remember the stimulation, rather than the spoken words. Instead of teaching him how to stay out of trouble, this pattern creates a sense of excitement. Later, this child in his loneliness and boredom may break rules or start arguments in order to get that sense of stimulation. Adults who grew up in such an environment feel obligated to give their own kids and mates long angry, harsh rebukes.
On being seen and heard
Every child cries out “hey, look at me.” To an adult this cry seems strange. What’s the benefit to the child that we see and hear her? But to the child, being seen and heard feeds an important need. Throughout childhood, each of us is hard at work developing a sense of our own identity. When our caregivers reassure us, we use that information to chart our course.
If we don’t feel our caregiver’s reassurance that we’re loved, we grow up feeling empty and seeking approval in a variety of ways. Our craving for approval fuels adult desires such as seeking fame, accumulating wealth, or engaging in promiscuous sex. To cover up the feeling of emptiness we may seek emotional surges from workaholism, gambling, or danger-seeking. Drugs dull the emptiness, while overeating tries to fill it. We can increase our satisfaction in life by making peace with our deep emotional needs, and channeling these needs into the most constructive outlets possible.
Deep within our psyche, we may loathe some aspect of ourselves. While shame often centers around sexuality or bathroom functions, we may also be ashamed of our color, religion, economic status or even our very being. Feelings of self-hate typically stay in the background most of the time. But on occasion, they erupt and we may turn against ourselves and try to tear out and hurt the part we hate. Shame undermines us, making us feel weak, helpless and worthless. Upon closer introspection, we find the seeds of shame were planted in the raw unformed mind of our childhood. When we were criticized, humiliated or abandoned, we incorporate memories of worthlessness into the marrow of our being, developing ideas about ourselves that are filled with shame and self-hatred.
The antidote to shame is love. Children are thirsty for praise, for unconditional love, and for family harmony. These experiences establish a healthy foundation that resists shame and builds self-esteem. If we’re missing out on a sense of being loved, later in life it’s harder to back-fill our emptiness, but it is possible. Everyone who is determined to come to terms with such feelings can benefit from a persistent search for inner peace.
When an infant cries, her caregiver hugs and nurtures her, coos gently, and rocks her. These experiences teach the baby that her inner turmoil is going to be handled effectively. When she’s older, her caregiver gives her information about her feelings, using ideas to reassure her that everything is going to be okay. First through physical reassurances and later through verbal ones, the child gains the confidence and skill to calm herself.
Children also learn by watching their caregivers. If caregivers respond to agitation by running straight for a drink, or by acting out impulsively and aggressively, the child learns that this is normal behavior. If, on the other hand, the parent goes for a walk, takes a few deep breaths, or uses words to ease tension, these lessons too are learned by the child.
Other life experiences also provide insights that help us overcome frustration and turmoil. For example, getting good grades, making the varsity team or playing in the school orchestra can give the child the self confidence to get through difficult situations. Children may draw strength from extended family, religious affiliations, volunteer groups and clubs.
If we grow up without healthy ways to soothe ourselves, childish feelings throw our decisions off target. When we encounter obstacles we may react by pouting, complaining, or running away, behaviors we learned when we were children. These childish reactions make life situations seem overwhelming and to block out or distract ourselves from those unwanted feelings we may stimulate ourselves with self destructive activities or alter our consciousness with drugs.
Siblings, birth order, blended families
Our family unit consisted of more than just ourselves and our parents. We were also profoundly influenced by the interactions among our siblings. Youngest children have a very different family experience than the oldest. Youngest children grow up watching their older siblings. In one sense this is an advantage because they can learn by watching others, and later in life turn to others for guidance. The disadvantage is that the older kids seem so darn smart and competent, and the younger one always feels he is a few steps behind. In fact, the younger ones are typically treated like “babies” and given the impression they need someone to look after them. Because family patterns persist through life, the family may continue to baby the youngest children through adolescence and even into adulthood.
Contrasted to these experiences, older children know how to speak while the little one is gurgling, and they know how to tie their shoes while the little one must helplessly wait for mom. Because they are one step ahead of the little ones, and have responsibility for them, older kids feel a sense of authority, and later in life feel empowered to give orders and take control. Until the next sibling is born, the oldest children is the only child, taking center stage and bearing the brunt of his parents’ intense expectations for their first born.
Blended families represent special problems for siblings, who suddenly must change gears and share the stage with a new set of brothers and sisters. Their life experience is radically altered by such complex factors as a change in birth order within the blended family and the differences in the way they are treated by their biological and step-parents.
Because childhood is a training ground for life, these relationships affect the way we see ourselves and the way we relate to others. As we seek to understand ourselves and to grow, we should keep in mind our relationship to our whole family unit, in our past as well as in the present.
Orderly stages of development
As we grow, our brain capacity develops along predictable patterns. These stages of development define the pace of the child’s ability to understand ideas, and to understand her own emotions and needs. A newborn, still in the crib, recognizes her caregiver’s face, and begins investigating sights and sounds, trying out new toys, checking out the movement of its own toes. When she starts to crawl, real exploration begins. She moves from one place to another, touching and tasting everything, while checking in with a caregiver to make sure everything is under control. As the child develops a little further, she is now able to separate from caregivers, knowing that their support and safety will be there for her when she needs them.
Caregivers who are sensitive to the stages of childhood development can pace their expectations appropriately. They make realistic demands and express compassion at the child’s age-appropriate mistakes. Such a parent shows the child how to do it better next time, and lets the child know she is a worthwhile person who is operating within the limitations of her own body and mind.
However, if caregivers don’t understand the development of their child’s mental and emotional capacity, they may be confused or disappointed with her behavior, even when the child succeeds at tasks appropriate for her age. For example, a parent may think she has “clearly” explained a rule to a child. If the rule is too abstract or complex for the child to understand, the child may not obey the rule. The parent then may be disgusted by the child’s failure, and assume the child is being willfully disobedient. The child recognizes the disappointment or disgust in the caregiver’s expression and experiences a sense of failure. Such an interaction undermines the child’s self-esteem, making it more difficult for the child to listen and understand.
Pressed into adulthood early (“parentified”)
There are many situations that cause children to take on burdens faster than their capabilities allow. The weight of the family may fall on their shoulders, because of illness, alcoholism or divorce. Or seemingly innocent early dating can put the child into sexual and emotional situations for which she is not yet prepared. More subtly, perhaps mom or dad feel needy and look to the child to provide emotional support.
Children may also take burdens upon themselves. For example a child may form the fantasy that his parents’ arguments are his fault, and if he only could behave differently everyone would be happy. Compassionate parents who understand the dangers of these childhood fantasies communicate the real situation as clearly as possible to help the child resist the natural temptation to blame himself.
While kids need challenges and direction, sometimes ambitions get out of control. When kids are expected to be sophisticated entertainers, geniuses or athletes they may get good at what they do, but don’t yet have the emotional tools to handle the pressure. Challenges need to be paced with emotional capacity.
Caregivers’ emotions go up and down for many reasons. They are busy earning a living, or caring for other siblings, or struggling with their relationship with each other. They have hormonal swings and moods. They may give mixed signals, praising us one day, and then the next day being lost in their own world and barely noticing us. As children, we were sensitive to their needs and wants, and so we tried to learn what to do to make them happy. We may have learned that the best way to get their attention was to be clever, or to work hard, or to be cute, or even to be needy and sick.
If we grew up in a family in which expressions of love were especially confusing or scarce we became confused about how we were supposed to behave. We felt desperate to earn what little love we could, and our emotional world was built with confusing principles on shaky ground.
Life long learning
As adults, we may find that we are missing pleasures that seem to come easily to others. For example, we notice other people seem to enjoy each other’s company, while we tend to feel uptight. Or we realize that our endless worrying about some future fear seems out of proportion to the circumstances, and our constant worry feels like a ball and chain that we can’t let go.
As we long for more wisdom and maturity we bump up against the limitations in our childhood training. Instead of feeling trapped by those limitations we can move forward, and learn skills throughout life. Life-long learning includes more than just academic skills. New skills can help us become more emotionally stable, relate to others with more energy and flexibility and fill the emptiness of the soul without resorting to self destructive activities.
If we’re lonely or feel isolated, we can learn to get along with people, in new, more intimate healthier ways. One of the most powerful ways adults can improve their connection with others is to learn the art of listening. When we learn how to listen, others open up to us. It’s that simple. The life-skill of listening opens up many doors. In addition to listening, we can also learn healthy ways to reduce arguments and resolve conflict. Many of us were taught that it was selfish or rude to let others know what we need. Later in life, unable to express our needs, we feel pushed around or ignored. By acquiring the simple, yet powerful life-skill of speaking up, we can improve the quality of our lives.
These interpersonal skills form a platform from which we can build a healthier life, because as we improve our relationships with people, we strengthen our mutually supportive social network.
Filling in gaps our emotional nurturing
New skills may not combat deep feelings of emptiness, unworthiness, loneliness or chaos that seem to emanate from deep within our soul, and we may find much of our life-force devoted to overcoming these feelings. To learn more about who we are, we can dive beneath the surface and find lost treasure in the memories of childhood. Regaining childhood memories helps us home in on mysterious feelings, and reconnect with part of ourselves.
Reviewing our childhood may seem odd at first. Since we lived through it, we think we know enough about it. But once we start unraveling the story of our childhood, we realize how little we have consciously explored. It turns out that at every stage of our development we were anxious to look at the next step, and took little time to review the past. Children are proud that they are no longer babies. Teenagers look forward to adulthood. Young adults quickly forget the turmoil of their teen years. It’s only as adults that we have the mental tools and the motivation to review our origins.
We can use many tools for this personal archeological dig. We can talk about memories with our siblings, aunts, uncles and parents, remembering not just the fun times, but the tension, problems and harsh realities. We can watch the way our parents respond to young children, and gain intuitions about the way they probably responded to us. Visiting old schools, neighborhoods, or friends can give us more insights, even if we do our visiting in fantasy. Through journaling, art therapy, and talking through issues with a counselor, we gradually raise awareness of the influences that shaped us.
By processing our formative experiences, we gain more intimate understanding of our own feelings and this knowledge gives us opportunities to reassure and comfort ourselves. While we remember the past, we don’t get stuck in it. Rather, our goal is to learn how to put together a healthier, happier more effective story of ourselves that will serve us now and in the future.
Grieving lost childhood
It would have been nice if our parents had cared for us more and had more time for us, if our lives had not been disrupted by illness or death, if there had been more harmony in the house, and if we had grown up in a more vibrant community. However, we can’t turn the clock back and now we must face the sadness and even tragedy of our actual childhood losses. Our work as adults is to face these emotions in all their fullness accepting a rich spectrum of emotions, from sadness, to anger, fear and loneliness. By honestly and openly facing the circumstances of the past, we discover the complexity that we had locked away in our child-mind. By processing our emotions and memories, we remove some of the horror, the denial, and the forgetfulness, and can begin to fill in the blanks. By becoming more aware, we become more complete, and help ourselves heal in the present.
While childhood is the time when we form as individuals, few of us have easy access to our early thoughts and memories. By leaving that period of our lives unexplored, we create holes in our story, holes we don’t even know we have. To grow, we need to fill in those holes. The material we need to find lies in our past, in those experiences that made us who we are. As we learn more about ourselves, we discover valuable pieces of our identity, and develop a deeper richer, more resilient identity.
When we realize that our adult needs and fears are remnants of feelings we had as children, we add this insight to our growing wisdom about ourselves. Learning how to soothe our childhood agitation, and revising fantasies so they no longer limit our possibilities, we can push beyond obstacles to add depth to our role in life.
Revisiting childhood is only a step on the way. We don’t revisit it to get stuck in blame or sadness. We conquer regrets and loss by facing our memories, exploring them, understanding them and then letting go.
As we learn about the way childhood experiences shape us, we also gain deeper insights into how we want to treat the children in our life. We discover the many ways that our behavior influences theirs and learn to take more time to listen to their feelings.
As we unravel the knots of our past we also work to change patterns in the present. We can improve our self-soothing skills, increase our communication with loved ones, and shape our beliefs and our story in ways that can give us the healthiest life, rich with choices.
See also: Child abuse, Child within, Counseling, Identity, Story, Teenagers
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