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Child Development

Can Our Childhood Really Predict Our Future?

Six myths and facts about how our childhood impacts our adult life

I am not a believer in the "blame the parents" approach to life. I do believe that our childhood experiences, which include parents, combined with our own personalities, our reaction to siblings and peers and the context of our lives send us off on a path with a particular set of beliefs and patterns that have a huge impact on our future relationships.

Maria, for example was an oldest child and only girl in her family with three younger brothers. Both of her parents had difficult childhoods and were eager to get away from their mutual family problems, Mom's father was an alcoholic and Dad's father was physically abusive to his mother. They found a quick exit when they discovered that they were going to have a child, Maria, which provided her then 19 year old parents with a reason to get married and take a fast track into adulthood.

Her personality was one of a natural leader with a loving nature. From the age of 3 she sensed her parents' weaknesses and began helping out where she saw a need, believing that if she could make her parents feel better they would be more stable and she would feel more secure at least temporarily.

Over the years, she became increasingly anxious and vigilant with her parents, siblings, and friends. Maria believed that the best way to get love and feel secure was to give the love and help she hoped to receive. She eventually became worn out when she found herself surrounded with people who needed her but gave her very little. She was sick of the cycle and finally asked for help. When she started therapy her major concern was her pattern of choosing unavailable or abusive partners and she was certain her childhood had something to do with it.

Maria didn't remember her early years but the facts alone provided enough information for her to explore how her current relationships may have been affected by her early childhood experiences.

For Maria and many other clients the childhood connection is a mystery which is often misunderstood. Here are a few of the myths and facts about that connection.

6 Myths and Facts about the connection between childhood and adult problems

1. Myth: If you don't remember your childhood it must have been bad.

Fact: The first 5 years of life can be the most powerful force in our development especially when it comes to attachment. Most of us don't remember much from that period of time even though it is so important. Not remembering doesn't mean it was bad. Our present day feelings and patterns may be a better indicator of the health or dysfunction in our past.

2. Myth: Not having bad memories of childhood means it was good.

Fact: Many of the damaging events and interactions in our early childhood are invisible or very subtle. Our family life may look better than it actually is when the problem is more about what we did not get rather than what we got. A lack of consistent attention, reassurance, comfort and love through early years may be more damaging than one incident of physical abusive. Emotional neglect can exist in families where all physical needs are met. That neglect sets up patterns in how we seek attachment and comfort that are unconscious and may last a lifetime.

3. Myth: If there is something wrong with the way you handle relationships it must be your parents' fault.

Fact: When we start blaming we have to consider the fact that whatever our parents may have done did not start with them. Generally, patterns exist across generations and believe it or not, we may be passing our dysfunction on to our children who will also blame us. The important point is that it may make us feel a little less shame about our dysfunction but blaming doesn't change anything in the long run. It may be important to acknowledge our pain and wounds and feeling angry is part of that but we eventually need to own our issues and take responsibility for changing them. Blaming can keep us stuck if we don't let go and move forward.

4. Myth: If you can find out why you are the way you are you will be able to change it.

Fact: It is never one thing that made us who we are. Some of it is biological but also personality, temperament, strengths, and talents. It is in part the context of our childhood - poverty, war, death of a parent or sibling, losses in the family etc. Identifying a particularly damaging event makes us aware and possibly more forgiving of us and others but again, it does not change the pattern.

5. Myth: It is important to uncover memories before we can change childhood patterns.

Fact: Memories are not required for healing to take place. Looking in the mirror as an adult may begin to open the door between the past and the present. Regardless of specific events of childhood some common truths prevail. When we are born our singular goal is to find our "person" usually a parent, and stay attached for both our physical and emotional survival. If our environment is such that our parent is not stable, available or equipped to provide consistent, secure connection for us, we begin to find creative ways to manage our anxiety and to attach in any way that seems to work.

The result is a pattern that can be a called a "survival decision". The more painful the situation the more necessary it is. Some children become extremely good, others decide to withdraw and deny any needs. We may become rebellious, helpful, fragile, or competent. It is an unconscious personal choice and there are many variables that enter into that choice. Although most of us are unaware that we have developed this pattern, in some cases it will doom us to repeat adaptive behaviors over and over as adults when they no longer serve us. Maria's story illustrates that as we grow, the methods we used as children can become a dominant pattern in who we choose and how we maintain our primary relationships. They tend to remain unconscious until our frustration or the frustration of those around us, leads us to ask "What is wrong with me?!"

6. Myth: People can't change.

Fact: People generally can't change who they are but they can change how they are. Our personalities, tendencies, gifts, and vulnerabilities remain the same throughout life but how we use them can, with effort, change substantially. If our "survival decision" in childhood required that we give up, or more accurately, hide our innate sensitivity, openness, joy, or talents because they were not welcomed and understood by our caregivers, we can re-discover and develop the things that have been repressed or denied. If in our efforts to attach we had to over develop certain qualities such as our nurturing (becomes compulsive caretaking, worry and controlling), our spirited personality (becomes rebellion), our independence (becomes avoidance and isolation) we can through self exploration and sometimes therapy, begin to surrender our need to survive and replace it with authentic living. This shift not only feels better but begins to change our relationship patterns on a deeper level.

About the Author
Ann Smith

Ann Smith is the author of the books Grandchildren of Alcoholics and Overcoming Perfectionism.

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