We've all heard the phrase "unhappy childhood". But what does that mean, exactly? Does a childhood have to include trauma or abuse to affect you as an adult? How can we make peace with what happened in the past? YourTango sat down with experts Carol Freund, Jane Warren and Larry Cappel to get to the bottom of this difficult issue.
Cappel begins by outlining some of the possibly things that could contribute to an unhappy childhood, although he notes that, "These things can contribute to an unhappy childhood. However, in a home with enough unconditional love from caregiver to child, it's possible to grow up happy in spite of these obstacles.":
- "Being poor, though poverty by itself does not guarantee an unhappy childhood
- Raised by a single parent
- A divorce during your childhood
- Severe physical illness
- Severe mental illness
- Death of a parent, sibling or other close loved one"
Warren explains further, letting us know that problems can begin even before birth: "We're all impacted by the events that occurred and the messages we heard when we were growing up. Even the events that were occurring and the emotions that were flowing within our mother while she was carrying us — this impacts us. And possibly back before that as well.
Did you have a hard childhood? What made it hard? How do you define "hard"? What makes one person's childhood hard and another's easy? Yes, we have certain measures and indicators of abusive behavior that children can be subjected to, and on the extreme end of the scale, these create extremely difficult childhoods that would be hard for most people to process and integrate into the remainder of their lives."
Freund explains that what constitutes "unhappy" might be different for everyone: "It's not always the big things that make children unhappy. When I was a kid, my immigrant mother was so busy trying to succeed in this new country that she didn't have time for a kid's conversation. I didn't know this was a problem for me until I had my own kids. I loved to listen to my daughter. I even remember some of her bits of wisdom. My mother worked hard, and I would have felt selfish to admit that I was sad, and needed more attention. Not until I was older and consistently felt discounted in relationships did I trace the feeling back to the experiences of my younger self. And only then could I stop sabotaging my present day relationships."
Warren goes on to discuss the complex fact that what's "hard" for one person may not be for another: "If you grew up in a family that yelled and screamed when they were angry, does this make your childhood "hard"? We know people who have descriptions of their childhood experiences which are eerily similar. Yet, one of them repeats the behaviour she was exposed to, another has adopted a more passive aggressive approach to life and a third is able to express their needs openly, cleanly, calmly and navigates her adult life with little stress or worry. Didn't they all have the same "hard" childhood? Your fundamental personality traits will play a big part in determining how you react to your childhood circumstances. As you grow into adulthood, and if you are willing to become aware and curious about the circumstances of your life and how those circumstances continue to impact your behaviors and beliefs you have an increasing amount of choice about how to move beyond (or deeply integrate) these childhood experiences."
And the effects of those experiences can creep up on you, as Freund explains: "Often I hear adults come face to face with a childhood unhappiness they didn't know they had until they began see a pattern of thought or behavior that just doesn't make sense."
So how do you get a "happy" adulthood out of a "hard" childhood? Says Cappel, "Happy has become a loaded term in the USA. For the most part advertising that tells us what 'happy' is supposed to be. If you purchase the right car, clothes, beer, house, etc., then you will be happy. The subtle message of commercials tells us that 'unhappy' is caused by not doing what the commercial says. The appropriate Buddhist term I'd like to replace happy with is equanimous, the experience of equinimity. It can best be described as the ability to experience an even-keeled content acceptance of life, regardless of what pleasant or unpleasant thing might be happening at any given moment. It's the ability to experience the full range of human emotion ranging from estatic joy to the deepest sorrow with an even-keeled quality of being present and aware for your experience of your life in every moment with total acceptance."
Cappel continues, "So what kind of things happen during our childhood that cause us to struggle to be fully present with ourselves as adults? What happens to make us tune out with drugs, alcohol, TV etc, to get into a relationships in order to feel better about ourselves, to be anxious, depressed, or unable to be relaxed present around others? To answer this we need to understand a tiny amount of developmental psychology. Children have immature nervous systems that mature and form based on their interactions with the world and the people in it. The way this happens between a parent and child is through the use of empathy and attunement. Attunement is sort of like intuition: With it, you can understand what your child is experiencing even when they can't tell you with words and then reflect that experience back to them, you are attuning. Empathy is the ability to respond to another with kindness, compassion, and a gut-level understanding of their experience; absent of criticism or judgment.
When a caregiver attunes to and is empathetic in their responses, then the child feels understood, and valued. It serves as a mirror for them to see themselves as a good person. This positive experience with the adult allows a child to feel secure, and gives them permission to be natural and relaxed. They are able to grow into a relaxed, secure and productive adults." Keep reading ...
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