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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Can Childhoods Really Matter So Much?

For over a hundred years, we’ve been telling ourselves a powerful idea about how human beings work: that childhoods are the key to the course of adult lives. If we listen to psychotherapy, the early years have a momentous impact on the way we subsequently love, trust and relate to ourselves. Yet, for many of us, however much we may respect this idea intellectually, it remains hard for us to feel its truth intuitively. Can childhood, that now rather murky passage we seldom think about, really play such a significant role in what is happening to us today? Can the way we feel and behave have so much to do with those relatively short years that only occasionally enter our minds, perhaps when we gather for a holiday or glimpse ourselves in an old photo? Might this theory not – in its way – be a central delusion of our times?

In the name of sharpening our perspective, it may help us to get some of the main arguments and counter-arguments in view: 

A: How can childhood be so significant, given that in most of them, nothing especially big or dramatic actually happens?

B: We can take on board easily enough that some childhoods might matter a lot, the kind where there are beatings, abductions, assaults – and police cars regularly pulling up outside. But in our own one? The sort with nothing but a few arguments, a bit of crying and maybe the odd intense moment here and there?

The puzzle is comparable to that faced by microbiology at the tail end of the 19th century, when scientists were tasked with trying to inform an often sceptical public that a city’s entire water supply could be rendered lethal by the presence, in a clear glass of water, of a few vibrio cholerae bacteria a hundred times smaller than the width of a human hair. Officials and opinion formers remained attached to a prior notion that very big problems must surely have very big looking causes.

We may in the psychological sphere be operating with a comparatively hopeful but not for that matter entirely solid sense of how large something needs to seem in order to work a sizeable impact. We might be in flight from a very awkward truth: that our lives can be thrown off course by behaviours that lack almost any overt signs of gravity. Such is the susceptibility of the human mind, we may be undone by an an apparent triviality. Yet it doesn’t follow that we should continue to add to our vulnerability by denying that it might exist.

A: But my parents were very nice…

B. This too does not, sadly, insulate us from difficulty. It doesn’t take spectacular evil or even directly malicious intent for some life-sapping dynamics to be set in motion. It is part of the horror of the human condition that one can be an essentially good, hugely well-meaning parent or caregiver – and still unleash what it isn’t an exaggeration to call a tragedy.

A: If everyone has a bit of a messed up childhood, surely that’s the natural way of things?

B: In some moods, it can be the near-universality of difficult childhoods that puts us off ever trying to grapple with our own – or feel that anything could be done to improve how humans enter the world. After all, what happened to us just seems a version of what happens to pretty much everyone we know. A bit of an intergenerational mess simply seems to be a standard fact about existence. 

But this is when it pays to think of mediaeval dentistry. Everyone in the 14th century had serious tooth decay; unhealthy mouths were the rule, sobbing in agony because of something going on with a rear molar was par for the course. 

Yet that didn’t make the situation either necessary, unbudgeable or ‘natural’ – as six centuries of medical advances have shown us. A problem can be near universal – and still fundamentally entirely unnecessary.

We might – with sufficient clarity and energy – gradually render certain childhood-derived neuroses as rare in our lives as abscesses and malocclusions now are in our mouths. It is at once thrilling and melancholy to dare to believe that there might be nothing ‘natural’ at all about most of our afflictions.

A: My childhood just feels ‘normal’.

B: We face the problem of the proverbial fish who doesn’t grasp that there might be such a thing as water. The way our families operate is simply what we know, the base-line status quo. 

This is where psychotherapists have an advantage. They have their equivalent of scientists’ microscopes to give them an overview of ‘bacteria’ that the naked eye can’t see: their consulting rooms afford them daily glimpses of the connections between childhood challenges and adult struggles. At 9am, they’ll see the offspring of a depressive parent stuck in a mode of defensive inauthentic cheerfulness; at 10am, it’ll be a hypochondriac wrestling with the consequences of a parent who only noticed them when they were ill, at 11am, it’ll be someone with a disrupted relationship to a parent whose third marriage is starting to fracture. No wonder that – by lunchtime on day one – certain conclusions start to form. 

A: I don’t even remember being shaped by my childhood…

B: But nor do any of us remember how we learnt to speak. Our emotional language (the way we view ourselves, relate to others and handle relationships) entered our minds as unconsciously and yet as powerfully as did thousands of words and grammatical principles: on the basis of studying what others around us, largely mum and dad, were doing and saying. However, this emotional grammar is now no less solidly entrenched than is our native tongue, and as daunting to shift, as anyone who has ever tried to pick up Finnish or Portuguese in middle age can attest. 

A. So what’s the point of thinking about the past if you can’t even change it?

B: We can’t change our childhoods, but we can – with effort – alter their legacies. We can explore our paranoia, compulsion, defensiveness, anxiety and grief and learn to speak, haltingly at first, then with ever greater confidence, a new language of creativity, openness and self-forgiveness.

A: I don’t want to think about any of this anymore.

B: We get it. Most of us had to build our characters around a need to cope with isolation and pain; the way we think or manage not to think once defended us against the challenges we faced. It isn’t easy or natural to want to dismantle the armour.

But the idea behind an invitation to reflect on childhood isn’t to stay mired in the past, it’s to be able once and for all to move on from its complexities in the name of a more trusting and serene present. 

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