No one wants to be a cliché. For some, it’s a cliché to talk to a therapist about your childhood experience with your parents. I often hear statements like:
“My parents did the best they could. I’m not going to blame them for my problems.”
These clients are showing compassion for their parents. Raising kids is a tough job and no one is going to get it right every day. I think it’s true that most of us, including parents, are doing the best we can. If we could do better, we would.
When clients talk about their childhood I also hear:
“That was a long time ago. I’ve moved on. And my parents have mellowed with age.”
Here’s my perspective on this.
Blaming parents: not good.
Avoiding the knowledge of how your parents impacted your life: also not good.
The problem with skipping this exploration is that one important person gets left out of the equation: you.
If you don’t care about how you experienced the world as a young child then probably no one (except your therapist!) cares about your child.
They are essentially abandoned by you and left with the message of “you are on your own and get over it.”
It might be easier to muster up some compassion from your overworked or stressed out parents than it is to feel compassion for your experience as a bewildered, clueless child who was trying to make sense of everything around you.
Why should we care about how we felt so many years ago? Isn’t that old news?
On a daily basis we don’t usually feel connected to our childhood self, and yet hundreds of compelling research studies show that there is a direct link between those experiences and our current life.
For example, a famous researcher at Harvard University named George Valliant completed the largest ever study on this topic in 2007. He spent $25 million following a group of male Harvard graduates for 75 years.
Among his many findings were that men who had warm childhood relationships with their mothers did better. They earned an average of $87,000 more per year, were more effective at work, and had much less dementia in old age.
Men who had warm childhood relationships with their fathers had less adult anxiety, greater enjoyment of vacations, and increased “life satisfaction.”
This doesn’t mean we are doomed to unhappiness if we missed out on experiencing some warm relationships with our parents as a child.
But to improve our adult happiness we need to understand the misguided messages we picked up along the way. And that requires figuring out what those messages are.
In my experience as an LGBTQ therapist, the most common mistaken message that we picked up as children was:
“There must be something wrong with me because my parents (or siblings or peers) treated me with X.” “X” equals a place where our feelings got hurt.”
As adults looking back we can see that our parents were cold or cranky because of their own stressors, but that’s beyond the mental capacity of kids. Kids only know how to take it personally. And that kid is usually still within us.
In therapy we make sure that the kid inside gets to hear the new, truer information: that we are good enough.