By Gavin Sharpe
As a psychotherapist, this is one of the first questions I ask every new client. You might expect that a large number of people seeking therapy for the first time would report some childhood trauma or early challenges. Not so.
As the saying goes, if I had a penny for every time a new client responded that their childhood was happy, I would be on my private yacht now. The typical range of answers I hear to this simple question is:
- I had a great childhood, thank you.
- My childhood wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t the worst either.
- My parents did their best.
- I knew lots of other kids who had it worse than me.
While it is entirely possible that their childhood was great, in my experience when we have mental health struggles in our adult lives there is often a correlation to our past. More often than not, our childhoods were on some level unhappy.
So why the seemingly incongruent reply to a simple question? Why do we find it difficult to recall our childhood memories accurately?
Broadly I find it helpful to view childhood in one of three ways (even though the reality may be more nuanced):
- Our childhood was good.
- Something bad happened in our childhood.
- Nothing bad happened in our childhood, but there was an absence of something (consistently) good.
Let’s explore these.
The Good Childhood
Fortunately, many children have parents or caregivers who were emotionally and physically present for them. Children like these grow up with a sense of self-worth, feeling loved. They typically seek out and form healthy adult relationships. Their response to my childhood question is accurate.
So why the need for therapy? Often, they have experienced a difficult loss such as the death of a loved one. Here I apply the legal “but-for” test, which is a test commonly used in law to determine causation. But for this loss/event, would the client have come to therapy?
For those who had a happy childhood, the answer is usually no. The wheels of their lives were going round nicely until a life event caused them to come spinning off.
Typically, therapy in these circumstances is time-limited, and clients are able to work through their grief or difficult feelings. Life soon returns to how it was before, albeit with new insight about the event that brought them to therapy. The wheels start moving again after they’ve been lubricated with a bit of therapy.
The Bad Childhood
You’ve probably heard the phrase that sometimes bad things happen to good people. I like to think children come into the world good, ready to be shaped by us nice adults. Sadly, the adults sometimes screw it up and bad things happen to these children. Maybe a parent dies when they are young or a child falls victim to sexual and/or physical abuse. The list of potential harms is a long one.
Why would someone coming to therapy who has experienced this sort of trauma claim that their childhood was good when the opposite is true? In short, it’s a coping mechanism. We can’t walk around with so much pain and for such an extended period of time. So we unconsciously re-write the script of our early lives to make it bearable.
We tell ourselves: It wasn’t that bad. Others had it worse. There was food on the table. We had some good times. My brother got beaten more than me. I am the lucky one.
We minimize our pain. In doing this, we get to avoid the pain.
That said, children usually feel responsible when bad things happen in their lives. A child’s thinking goes something like this: It can’t be the wonderful parents or caregivers whose job is to love me, so it must be my fault. There must be something wrong with me.
Nobody wants to carry the shame of their trauma, especially when they feel it’s their fault. Who wants to feel damaged? Better to edit out the bad bits.
The problem is that this script revision can last through to adulthood, to the point when we believe the revised script and end up in a therapy room believing and telling our therapist that we had a good childhood and any problems were our own fault.
Put another way, traumatic events can be overwhelming for a child to process. So unconsciously they don’t. They park it. The memory of the bad stuff is put away in a box somewhere. And as adults, they don’t realize those unprocessed emotions and memories are intruding into their daily lives and are the catalyst for coming into therapy.
(It is also possible, in certain cases of extreme trauma, that we are not able to consciously recall the trauma.)
The Bad Childhood That Looks Good
Some people remember their childhood as good partly because on the surface it was. There were no deaths of loved ones. No abuse. No divorce. These clients come to therapy saying things like: I should be more grateful. I should be happier. I should feel different but I don’t. It feels like they had good childhoods because nothing bad points to the contrary.
I usually discover these are the clients who reveal facts like they were never hugged by their parents or they never heard the words “I love you.” Yet their parents were well-meaning people who did their best. Maybe either or both parents were very strict or rigid in how they raised their children and there wasn’t much love or play to balance the family rules and expectations. Mum might have been depressed for a few years or Dad might have been a workaholic. Maybe there were several other siblings and Mum had her hands full with trying to keep the household running. In all these cases, the emotional needs of the child were not met. Mum and Dad truly did their best, yet no-one really saw these children for the unique and special beings that they were.
The point is that nothing bad happened per se, but one or both parents failed to be emotionally present in these individual’s lives due to circumstances. This is actually a form of trauma and abuse known as emotional abandonment and/or neglect. It is more covert than what we typically think of as abuse. Thus, these clients don’t consciously see themselves as having been abused and traumatized. Yet children raised in these types of families were abused and traumatized.
Think again: What was your childhood really like?
It makes perfect sense to me that many people enter therapy with a view of their past that doesn’t reflect reality.
So as therapists we tread lightly. Clients coming to therapy for the first time don’t want some stranger to clumsily tear up the carefully woven stories they have told themselves about their past in order to survive it. What they might want, however, is someone to help them make sense of their past. To re-frame it. To offer a compass so they can safely navigate back through their childhood terrain but with a new perspective.
If, as you read this article, memories come back that contradict what you have told yourself about your childhood, be gentle with yourself. You’ve probably held onto your version of reality for good reason. Be curious about any incongruence between what you’ve told yourself about your childhood and any feelings that reality might be different. Maybe chat with a friend. Seek out a therapist. Travel back in time if and when it feels safe to do so, and only with someone that honors that safety.
The problem with childhood is that we only have our own. By that I mean that growing up we don’t know any different. We normalize everything because it’s our normal. We don’t get to live someone else’s life for a bit to realize that what happened to us was not acceptable or healthy. By the time we realize that, we are often in a therapist’s office wondering why we are being asked the question: So tell me, what was your childhood like?
This blog post was originally posted January 4, 2019, on Medium.com. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission