"Tell me about your relationship with your mother." -Why I Ask My Clients About Their Childhood
Most of us have seen therapists portrayed in the media. Stereotypes typically paint the picture of an eclectic intellectual type who asks a lot of questions about your mother and repeats the phrase, “And how does that make you feel?” Ever watched Freaky Friday or Good Will Hunting? The truth is, there are many reasons why I ask my clients a lot of questions about their childhood. While each of our stories is unique, we know that there are correlations between childhood experiences and adult wellness. Here are four childhood experiences that affect our adult selves:
Trauma during childhood and disruptions to development is known to increase the likelihood that an adult will experience mental health symptoms. Some of the most common traumas include:
Experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect firsthand
Witnessing violence at home or in the community
Losing a close family member
Having a chronically ill home member
Substance use in the home
Having a home member with a mental health disorder
Having an incarcerated parent
Experiencing a traumatic accident, such as a motor vehicle wreck
Experiencing a natural disaster
Having a chronic illness or learning disorder
Being in the middle of a high-conflict divorce
As a therapist, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask about these things as they have long-term physical and mental health implications for my clients. These events cause emotional disruptions and interference with the completion of developmental milestones. Remember that this is not an exhaustive list; the definition of trauma is unique to each individual.
2. Attachment to early caregivers:
How our early caregivers interact with us shapes how we attach to others in relationships throughout our lifespan. Four attachment styles affect how we interact with others. We have different attachment styles with the various people in our lives; for example, we may continue to have an insecure attachment with our parents, but develop a secure attachment with our friends or partner.
Secure attachment: We all hope to become securely attached throughout our lives. If you find that you don’t fall into this category yet, that’s okay. You can become more aware of your behavior patterns, which can lead to a more comfortable attachment. Securely attached people have a positive view of themselves and, in general, trust others. Their fears and anxieties in a relationship are minimal and do not negatively impact the partnership.
Avoidant attachment: Those with this attachment style are often very independent. They often have a positive view of themselves, but often mistrust others. They may seem uncomfortable expressing emotions, spend more time alone, believe that they don’t need the support of others, or have “commitment issues.” This attachment style often develops if you grew up in an environment where your caregivers were physically or emotionally distant or overly strict.
Anxious attachment: Partners with this attachment style can come off as clingy or needy. They tend to have a negative view of themselves, which leads to a fear of rejection or abandonment. Codependency is common in relationships with two anxious personalities. If you grew up in a home where parenting alternated between attentiveness and ambivalence you might develop an anxious attachment.
Disorganized attachment. Signs of disorganized attachment sort of look like a combination of the avoidant and anxious styles. Sometimes an avoidant may push you away, but then desperately try to cling to you when you give them the space they asked for. This can be the most frustrating and confusing type of attachment for the person experiencing it and for their partner. This attachment style is common for children who experienced trauma such as abuse or neglect.
3. Family communication styles:
What we saw modeled and how we were allowed to express ourselves as children also play a big role in how we communicate as an adult. Did we see a lot of yelling? Was it acceptable for your parents to throw things or leave the house for the night if they were angry? Or did you see your parents calmly talk during a disagreement? Were you allowed to feel ALL of your emotions as a child, or only the “acceptable” ones? Did you have your feelings validated? Did others ask your opinion and engage with you often? All of these things affect how we respond as adults. Without healthy shaping and modeling, you may think, “Well she doesn’t care how I feel anyway so I won’t bother telling her,” or, “I feel like I have to yell and scream just to be heard in this house.”
4. Family Structure:
Family dynamics and structure, birth order, sibling count, divorce, and other factors can play a part in our adult roles. If you were quiet, obedient, and tender-hearted you might have fallen into the role of the family “fixer,” and as an adult, you may feel overly responsible for the needs of others. If you were more disobedient or rebellious and tended to go against the status quo of the family, you may have been what we refer to as the scapegoat. The scapegoat usually is blamed for many of the family problems. “Mom and I wouldn’t have to fight like this if you would just behave.” As adults, scapegoats may have inner shame, feel that people are against them, or think everything is always their fault. Sound familiar?
As your therapist, I will ask you about your upbringing, but I will never pressure you to share more than makes your comfortable. I’ll understand if you want to roll your eyes or dodge my Freudian questions, but roughly 50% of brain development happens before age 18, which means that discussing those years is crucial. If you had adverse experiences in childhood, remember that although you may not be able to change these circumstances, you can begin to process traumas, learn healthier ways of communicating, and work towards secure attachments in therapy.