Tell me, what was your childhood like?

Cartoon children

As a psychotherapist, this is one of the first questions I ask every new client. You might expect that a large number of people seeking therapy for the first time would report some childhood trauma or early challenges. Not so.

As the saying goes, if I had a penny for every time a new client responded that their childhood was happy, I would be on my private yacht now. The typical range of answers I hear to this simple question are: –

  • I had a great childhood, thank you.
  • My childhood wasn’t the best but it wasn’t the worse either.
  • My parents did their best.
  • I knew lots of other kids who had it worse than me.

While it is entirely possible that their childhood was great, in my experience when we have mental health struggles in our adult lives, there is often a correlation to our past. More often than not, our childhoods were on some level unhappy.

So why the seemingly incongruent reply to a prima facie simple question? Why do we find it difficult to accurately recall our childhood memories?

Childhood Experiences

Broadly I find it helpful to view childhood in one of three ways (even though the reality may be more nuanced): –

  1. Our childhood was good.
  2. Something bad happened in our childhood.
  3. Nothing bad happened in our childhood but there was an absence of something (consistently) good.

Let’s explore these.

1. The Good Childhood

Fortunately many children have parents or caregivers who were emotionally and physically present for them. Children like these grow up with a sense of self-worth, feeling loved. They typically seek out and form healthy adult relationships. Their recall to my childhood question is accurate.

So why the need for therapy? Maybe we have experienced a difficult loss such as the death of a loved one. Here I apply the legal “but-for test” which is a test commonly used in law to determine causation.

But for this loss/event, the client would probably not have come to therapy.

The wheels of their lives were going round nicely until a life event caused them to come spinning off.

Often therapy in these circumstances is time-limited and clients work through their grief or difficult feelings. Life soon returns to how it was before albeit with new insight about the event that brought them to therapy and the wheels start moving again having been lubricated with some talking therapy.

2. The Bad Childhood

You’ve probably heard the phrase that sometimes bad things happen to good people. I like to think children come into the world good, ready to be shaped by us nice adults. Sadly the adults sometimes screw it up, and bad things happen to these children. Maybe a parent died when they were young or a child falls victim to sexual and/or physical abuse. The list of potential harms is a long one.

Why would someone coming to therapy who has experienced this sort of trauma claim their childhood was good when the opposite is true? In short, it’s a coping mechanism. We can’t walk around with so much pain and for so much of the time. So we unconsciously re-write the script of our early lives to make it bearable.

We tell ourselves “It wasn’t that bad/Others had it worse/There was food on the table/We had some good times/My brother got beaten more than me; I am the lucky one etc”.

We minimise our pain. In doing so, we get to avoid the pain. Children usually feel responsible when bad things happen in their lives. A child’s thinking goes something like this.

“It can’t be the wonderful parents or caregivers whose job is to love me, so it must be my fault. There must be something wrong with me”.

Who wants to carry the shame of their trauma especially if we feel it’s our fault? Who wants to feel damaged? Better to edit out the bad bits.

The problem is that this script revision can last through to adulthood, to the point when we believe the revised script and end up in a therapy room believing and telling our therapist that we had a good a childhood.

Put another way, traumatic events can be overwhelming for a child to process. So unconsciously they don’t. They park it. The memory of the bad stuff is put away in a box somewhere. Of course we don’t realise those unprocessed emotions and memories have intruded into our daily lives, and are the catalyst for coming into therapy.

(It is also possible in certain cases of extreme trauma that we are not able to consciously recall the trauma.)

3. The Bad Childhood…that Looks Good

Some people remember their childhoods as good partly because on the surface it was. There was no deaths of loved ones. No abuse. No divorce. These clients come to therapy saying things like:

“I should be more grateful/I should be happier/I should feel different and yet not know why.” It feels like they had good childhoods because nothing bad points to the contrary.

I usually discover these are the clients who reveal facts like they were never hugged by their parents or they never heard the words “I love you” and yet their parents were well-meaning parents who did their best. Maybe either or both parents were very strict or rigid in how they raised their children and there wasn’t much love or play to balance the family rules and expectations. Mum might have been depressed for a few years or Dad was a workaholic. Maybe there were several other siblings and Mum had her hands full with trying to keep the whole household running. In all these cases, the emotional needs of the child were not me. Mum and Dad truly did their best yet no-one really saw them for the unique and special child that they were.

The point is that nothing bad happened per se but one or both parents failed to be emotionally present in their lives due to circumstances. This is actually a form of emotional abandonment and neglect. It is a more covert form of abuse. We don’t consciously associate our childhoods as being abusive. Yet on many levels, children raised in these types of families wereabused.

“So think again, what was your childhood really like?”

It makes perfect sense to me that many people therefore pitch up for therapy with a view of their past that doesn’t reflect reality.

So as therapists, we tread lightly. A client coming to therapy for the first time doesn’t want some stranger to clumsily tear up the carefully woven stories that they have told themselves about their past in order to survive it. What they might want however is someone to help them make sense of their past. To re-frame it. To offer a compass so that they can safely navigate back through their childhood terrain but with a new perspective.

If as you read this article, memories come back that contradict what you have told yourself about your childhood, be gentle on yourself. You’ve probably held your reality for good reason. Be curious about any incongruence between what you’ve told yourself about your childhood and any feelings that reality might be different. Maybe chat with a friend. Seek out a therapist. Travel back in time if and when it feels safe, and only with someone that honours that safety.

The problem with childhood is that we only have our own.

By that I mean, growing up we don’t know any different. We normalise everything because it is our normal. We don’t get to live someone else’s life for a bit to realise that what happened to us was not acceptable or healthy. By the time we realise that, we are often in a therapist’s office wondering why we are being asked the question: “So tell me, what was your childhood like?”