Childhood influences adulthood - It matters more than you may think

By: Tom Cloyd - 4 min. read (Published: 2024-04-23; reviewed: 2024-04-23:1736 Pacific Time (USA))

“The task as a grown-up person is to realize what garment you knit for yourself to survive as a child, in the winter of your childhood. But when you’re in the summer, so to speak, of your adulthood, you’re boiling hot and you can’t figure out, “Why am I so f–ing hot all the time?”

“And it’s because you can’t take off this garment that you knitted for yourself as a child that you no longer need. You can’t realize, you don’t realize that this way of behaving, this functional way that your brain taught you to behave, to survive, it gets in your way now.” (…attributed to Sally Field)1


This seems incredibly elementary - that was my first thought upon reading this statement. As a psychotherapist who specializes in psychological trauma, most of my clients experienced a seriously challenging childhoods. They, and I, think about childhood a lot. Who in the world doesn’t realize the importance of childhood, I wondered.

My perspective changed when I stepped back from my work a bit. Surely most people in the world have at best a dim understanding of how important childhood is for determining the quality of our adult life. Freud saw the importance of childhood, but he missed some of the most important points that we now consider, and threw into his discussion some nonsense that has no evidence backing it and is now all but ignored.

Childhood really matters - for the rest of our lives, and in ways that are not obvious. For most us, this is the takeaway from any serious consideration of the findings of contemmporary psychology. This has two very clear implications: first, you really should look at your childhood and ask yourself what it was like to be you, back then. What did it feel like? Who supported and nourished you, and who helped you stand up when you fell? And, then, who just ignored you, or, worse, was the reason you fell?

Looking at your personal history must happen, if you seriously want to change the course of your adult life. When you do ask these challenging and often painful questions, the people who come to mind may surprise you. The truth of the matter, however, is always more helpful, for solving any problems requires that you see it as it is.

In my own childhood, there was a supportive mother and a hostile and emotionally injurious father. It was a combination that fostered a peculiar craziness in my head. It’s taken me a lot of work to unravel that significantly. Given that I have huge advantages over most people, that gives you some idea of how formidable a task this can be. For people who suffered through clearly traumatic experiences, as I did not, it’s much worse.

People gravely compromised by their childhood are easy to find. When you see a homeless person, you could well be looking at someone who’s had a childhood experience that left them staggering, and they are still staggering. Many people in prisons qualify for inclusion in this category. And do not think that just because a certain kind of experience happens to many people that negates the effect of it. That’s ridiculous. There are entire populations that are traumatized by war, refugee experiences, or natural disasters. That everybody is affected changes nothing. It is still a personal disaster.

We must recognize and reject simplistic solutions. There are far too many people who want others to simply “let it go” or who preach forgiveness or some other irrelevant and ineffective response to such personal disasters. If it were possible to just “let it go” people would! Sadly, it’s not that simple.

Serious progress does get made in mental and physical illness, but it can take real time. It’s taken us at least 150 years to get a pretty good grip on infectious disease, but major challenges remain. Genetic disease is a more profound problem and we have not made as much progress there. Mental illness is very much in the same situation. In some areas, we’ve done remarkably well. Trauma psychotherapy is very much one of them. In others we’re still struggling. Depression can be seriously challenging as can the schizophrenia spectrum of disorders. And then of course there are addictions, of which there are a wide range and a large affected population.

Taking your childhood seriously will yield progress, if done right. Mental health is a major challenge and not just for a minority of people. As a society, we’re only starting to give appropriate attention to this issue. For many individuals, “getting serious” means looking thoughtfully at childhood, and then getting help making sense of it and freeing yourself from the limitations acquired when you were only a child. Far too often these concerns are still minimized, skipped over, or just pushed out of awareness. Guess what - this doesn’t solve the problem. It often makes it worse.


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