Although talking about our childhood can often help the therapeutic process, a lot of people don’t understand or feel comfortable with this important and valuable aspect of therapy.
- Why talk about the past when our problems are happening in the present?
- What’s the point of revisiting childhood, especially an unhappy one?
- What difference would that make now?
Of course not all therapy will require an in-depth look at your childhood, but many therapists will encourage and facilitate an exploration of your past.
Some therapists will ask you direct questions about your childhood, while others will gently encourage you to go deeper into childhood memories or conversations that may emerge naturally during the therapy process.
Whether and how this takes place will depend on your therapist’s theoretical approach and style, as well as your preferences, needs and goals for therapy.
Understandably, you too may be reluctant to recall or talk about your childhood experiences with someone you don’t know well, especially if the experiences were traumatic and painful.
But if you’re ready and feel safe with your therapist, remembering, feeling, and talking about your childhood in therapy can be a very good thing.
This is because talking about our childhood experiences helps us grieve and process any losses or emotional injuries we suffered as children. We all need to understand and heal our childhood wounds, so we don’t carry them with us into adult life.
If we don’t understand and don’t heal, we’re likely to unconsciously rely on maladaptive patterns or ways of coping (that may have served us well in childhood but that are no longer helpful or appropriate) when we face challenges in adult life. This can have a very negative impact on all our adult relationships, especially our relationship with our children, our intimate partners, and ourselves.
If you believe you had loving, nurturing parents, you may think this does not apply to you. This is not true. Everyone has been wounded to some extent in childhood, including those who had ‘good’ parents, because all parents struggle to provide for all of their children’s needs, at least some of the time. This is especially true in the early years, when children are the most helpless, vulnerable, and needy – and parents are most often tired and under pressure.
I’m not saying how we turn out as adults is all about our upbringing or the kind of parenting we had. Our personalities are shaped by an ongoing interaction between inherited tendencies and environmental experiences. But the bonds we create in our families of origin, especially with our parents (or primary caregivers) are unique, unlike any other connections in life. These early daily experiences are etched in our memory forever and are powerfully influential throughout our lives. They’ll impact our thoughts, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours – mostly outside our conscious awareness.
Our earliest childhood experiences as infants will have special importance.
This is because at birth is when we experience our first separation – a transition from the warm and nurturing womb, where all our needs were met, to the outside world, where we’ll have to struggle to get our basic needs met.
Babies and young children have highly charged emotions that they haven’t learned how to regulate yet. They’re very vulnerable to emotional injuries, and they don’t have the defenses or the intellectual understanding that adults have. Maybe this is one of the reasons why the first years are by far the most important when it comes to shaping our personalities.
According to psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, the founders of the attachment theory, from birth to 18 months we develop unconscious styles of attachment that we carry over into our adult life. Our attachment style will influence all our future relationships:
Secure attachment style
If we experience a healthy, nurturing love from our parents or caregivers, we learn that we’re lovable and that others can be counted on, and we develop a positive attitude toward self and others. In other words, we develop a secure attachment style.
On the other hand, if our caregivers were inadequate and our attachment needs were not met, we believe we’re not lovable and that others cannot be trusted. We develop an avoidant or anxious attachment style, either detaching or clinging to others.
Avoidant attachment style
If our caretaker was not available emotionally (and often only occasionally available physically), we begin to withdraw, preferring detachment to the pain of rejection. We may come to see ourselves (and our caregivers) as bad and as a result we start repressing our needs, numbing our feelings, and rejecting others (or our need of them). We develop an avoidant attachment style.
Anxious (or ambivalent) attachment style
If our caregiver was inconsistent, only occasionally meeting our attachment needs, we begin to cling. We get confused and anxious trying to figure out an unpredictable nurturing. We may come to see ourselves (and our caregivers) in an ambivalent ‘good/bad’ way, and we develop an anxious or ambivalent attachment style.
If you want to figure out your attachment style, think about your childhood environment and your relationship with your parents when you were growing up:
- If you tend to remember distrustful and emotionally distant parents (or parental figures), you’ve probably developed an avoidant style.
- If you recall parents who were inconsistent and provided very little support or encouragement, you’re likely to have developed an anxious or ambivalent style.
- If you recall an overall trusting family atmosphere with loving, warm, supportive, and caring parents, you’ve probably developed a secure attachment style.
Another way to identify your attachment style is to consider your typical behaviour in intimate relationships now, as an adult:
- If you feel discomfort with closeness, have trouble trusting others, or are afraid or uncomfortable with intimacy – you’ve probably developed an avoidant style. You may never have really felt or been in love.
- If you tend to want to merge with your partner, worry about them leaving or ending the relationship, and probably try too hard to please – you’re most likely to have developed an anxious/ambivalent style. You’re also likely to have fallen in love many times, but have difficulty keeping a long-term, stable relationship going.
- If you’re able to get close and depend on others easily, without worrying about abandonment or getting too close – you’re likely to have developed a secure style. Your relationships are more likely to be stable, happy, and satisfying. You’re also more likely to have a partner with the same style.
Now, don’t despair if you find that your attachment style is not secure. According to research, only about 50% of children will develop a secure attachment style. So, you’re not alone. Also, even if you grew up in a particularly neglectful or abusive environment, you can still develop a secure attachment style. But you need to be willing to work through your negative childhood experiences and heal your childhood wounds.
Talking about your childhood in therapy can be empowering and transformative.
Not everyone may want, need, or feel ready for an in-depth look at their childhood. And although many people can still benefit from therapy without it, deeper changes, such as changes in self-concept or self-love, are much harder to achieve without it.
So, do you really need to talk about your childhood in therapy?
Only you can decide. But if your past is pulling you down or holding you back, and you feel ready, find a therapist you can trust and start remembering, feeling, and talking about your childhood, especially the early years.
If you had ‘good’ parents and a ‘good’ childhood, remember this could be for you too.
Whatever your situation, healing your childhood wounds will certainly help you develop a more secure attachment style and healthier, happier relationships. I can’t think of a more powerful or transformative thing you could do for yourself or your loved ones.
Did you find this post helpful?
What do you remember or know about your early childhood?
How do you feel about it? And how do you feel about talking about it?
Were you able to identify your attachment style and how if affects your life now?
How could you start developing a more secure attachment style?
If you’d like to share your reactions to this post, feel free to get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.