Emotional Wellbeing




Mandy Kloppers

How your childhood affects you forever

Your childhood affects you forever – have you ever given this much thought? Not many people do. Your childhood explains a lot about you. If you find that you tend to end up in the same relationship patterns, your childhood might be to blame. Parents have a lot to answer for. The way they treated you growing up severely impacts your attitudes and perceptions as an adult. Early experiences create an inner working-model of how relationships work. These models tend to be stable over our lifetime.

Attachment Theory

Attachment theory was created by the British Psychologist, John Bowlby. He noticed that children who came from stable homes tended to enjoy stable relationships as adults. Individuals whose childhood was neglectful or abusive tended to repeat that pattern in their adult relationships. That’s a pretty big deal. As a baby, you are born a blank slate. You learn about the world according to the experiences you have. If your primary caregiver (commonly your mother) was unpredictable in their care for you, you learn that the world only meets your needs sometimes. This results in an anxious attachment style where you feel unsafe. Most of us carry this belief with us and expect others to let us down or disappoint us. The sad thing is that this thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Your childhood affects you forever if you hang on to those unhelpful beliefs.

Denial of unhappy childhood

I find it interesting how many clients tell me they had a happy childhood when the evidence proves otherwise. They will tell me stories about sibling violence, favouritism or conditional love yet still believe they grew up happy. This denial of their early negative experiences is sad but understandable. As a child we are powerless. Our parents are the authorities in our lives and it pays to see the best in them. Denial is a coping mechanism that helps us deal with neglect or ill-treatment. If we acknowledged the pain as a child, what could we do about it anyway?

Children these days are more aware of child helplines but many children wouldn’t think to call social services and report their parents. In order to survive, we learn to see the best in our parents and block out their flaws to some extent. Our childhoods affect us forever as we often deny the bad behaviour in our partners too.

The neglectful behaviour is what we are used to. It feels familiar even if it is dysfunctional.

Four adult attachment styles

Four main styles of attachment have been identified in adults:

  • secure
  • anxious-preoccupied
  • dismissive-avoidant
  • fearful-avoidant

Another way that your childhood affects you forever is that we are biologically driven to form attachments with others. This process is heavily influenced by how our parents treated us. So what can be done to undo some of the ‘negative programming’? It’s especially important to be aware of the working-model you rely on to navigate your adult relationships. This is even more relevant if you find that you tend to end up with the same abusive type.

Repeating the same relationship pattern

Imago therapy has an interesting take on the tendency to go for the same type of person. It focuses on the conflict you may have had growing up – not liking your parent but having to attach to them for your survival. This emotional conflict can create psychological issues. When you explore your childhood trauma, it becomes easier to let go and find new healthier ways to connect with others. This involves creating healthy boundaries, knowing your self-worth and rejecting your old dysfunctional ways of relating to others.

My childhood was pretty dysfunctional and this earlier imprinting has definitely played out in my adult relationships. My father was very selfish and I tended tyo go for guys with these same characteristics. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would I want someone in my life that would make me feel I wasn’t good enough, just like my father did? Imago Therapy suggests that we go for the same type of person as a naive attempt to gain that love and acceptance. When we get that acceptance and unconditional love we crave, we will feel closure and feel healed.

Childhood innocence

The reality though, is that your neglectful parent was lacking in some way. As a child we don’t see that. They are perfect and we are the ones who need to live up to their expectations. When we don’t acknowledge the faulty source of those early negative beliefs, we keep trying to gain their approval. hence the desire to keep falling for the same type of person. Unfortunately, the truth is that these flawed people will never give you the closure you seek. They are incapable of doing this.

Self-love and self-acceptance

I know, it’s such a cliche. You need to love yourself more. It’s hard to do this when your early messages where that you were a waste of space or a liability. That takes a lot of mental shifting to see things differently. If your own parents didn’t accept you, who will? It has taken me many years to ‘de-programme’ the early messages and I still have nightmares sometimes. The messages made me feel unimportant and unworthy and even though I can tell myself otherwise, the emotional response is harder to change.

Your childhood affects you forever but you can make significant changes

Positive data log

Start writing down three things every day that you like about yourself. Many clients that I see squirm when I ask them to tell me three things they like about themselves. In an ideal world, we should be able to rattle off three things with ease. I mean, if you don’t think positively about yourself, why should anyone else.

Is being self-critical helpful?

No, it’s not. Being self-critical puts your body into threat mode where it feels under attack. Self-compassion is required in order to start loving and accepting yourself. Self-compassion is all about admitting you are human and make mistakes like everyone else. Don’t beat yourself up about it – it’s normal to make mistakes. embrace your imperfection. A perfect world would be boring in so many ways. Your childhood affects you forever if you continue the self-criticism.

What would you say to a friend?

If someone you cared about told you that they were useless and a failure, would you agree? Probably not. If you were kind you would support them and help them to see their good points. And this is exactly how you should treat yourself too!

Visualise your 5-year-old self

Think about how cute you were when you were five years old. When you scold yourself think about that little five year old who needs love and care. Just because you are grown-up now doesn’t mean you don’t need patience and understanding. If your adult self could talk to your five-year-old self I bet you would give yourself a big hug and some words of encouragement. You still need that now as an adult.

You owe it to yourself to not let your childhood affect you negatively. If you were lucky enough to have a stable loving upbringing, you should be enjoying fairly stable and fulfilling relationships as an adult. (There are always exceptions to the rule). Your childhood affects you forever but there are strategies that you can out in place to minimise the earlier damage. You are no longer that helpless child with fewer choices.

“Childhood should be carefree, playing in the sun; not living a nightmare in the darkness of the soul.”
― Dave Pelzer

Photo by Benjamin Manley on Unsplash

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