• Michelle Barsky, LMHC

How Does Our Upbringing Impact Us? Trauma & Attachment.


Have you ever wondered how much of your current difficulties in life are related to your upbringing? Ever had the angering and possibly heartbreaking feeling that your problems were caused by your parents? I'm sure you've heard that often children grow up to re-create in their own lives the patterns they grew up with, even the negative ones they promised themselves they wouldn't repeat. So how much blame can we place on our families? Well (big sigh of relief), you can blame them a lot.

A really great line in the show In Treatment, which is about a psychotherapist in private practice, was between the therapist and an adolescent client he is seeing. The therapist told his client, "Grownups forget. Children don't."

Attachment

The way our parents related to us throughout our childhood plays a big role in the way we learn to form relationships in the future. In psychology this idea is related to the formation of Attachment Styles. This theory identifies three main types of attachment between children and caregivers:

1. Secure: This type of relationship consists of a solid bond between child and caregiver, where the child is confident that the caregiver is a support and can be depended on. The child is soothed by the caregiver when upset. The child is unafraid to go out into the world and explore without the caregiver, knowing the caregiver will return for the child.

2. Avoidant: This type of relationship is represented by the child who does not seek their caregiver in times of distress. The child does not have a difficult time leaving their caregiver because a supportive bond does not exist. Caregivers in these situations are represented as rejecting and neglectful.

3. Ambivalent: This type of relationship is represented by a child who exhibits a combination of seemingly counter-intuitive behaviors. The child might have a difficult time separating from their caregiver and exploring new environments without them, but upon reunion with their caregiver they might be resistant to engaging with them and are difficult to soothe. This inconsistent behavior from the child is normally a result of similarly inconsistent behavior from the caregiver, where at times the caregiver is loving and supportive and at other times the caregiver is cold and uninviting.

Once we have an idea of where we fell under these categories with our caregivers, we can come to understand how these shape or impact our relationships as adults. As children if our caregivers were neglectful, unsupportive, or inconsistent we may have formed the defenses described above to protect ourselves from feeling the pain of these types of rejections. In addition to these behaviors, we may have formed adaptive ways of thinking and relating to the world to further protect ourselves. For example, if we were hurt by our caregivers we might have come to believe that this is how all people in the world are, and as adults have a difficult time trusting that others will stand by us, or opening up to others, or committing. The defenses we formed in childhood become patterns we carry into adulthood.

Acceptance

My absolutely favorite concept in psychology is of acceptance. I love it because it's so life-changing. So simple but SO DIFFICULT, the idea of acceptance tells us "You don't have to like it, but it is what it is." Often when we have been hurt by people we love we hold onto the hope that they will change someday and will become who we want or need them to be. While hope is a beautiful thing, placing expectations onto others that they may not be able to or may not want to achieve sets us up to be painfully disappointed. It is never, ever okay for a child to be mistreated. However, holding onto the idea that maybe your caregivers will realize their wrongs, will apologize some day, or will change and become new people - that's not the way to healing.

The only people we can change are ourselves. While it is certainly NOT our fault that we had been mistreated, it is up to us to work on learning and using tools to cope with that mistreatment. Coming to accept the situation, that you were mistreated and that SUCKS and it's painful and it's unfair, and then asking yourself... "well, now where do I go from here?" That's the first step.

Where Do I Go From Here?

If you've achieved acceptance, well, give yourself a big pat on the back, because that's HARD work. So, now what? You recognize you can't change others, but how do you change yourself? An important piece of the puzzle is coming to recognize that while the patterns of thought and behavior we created in childhood were adaptive to us at one time in our lives, if they have begun negatively impacting us and our ability to form and maintain relationships it may be time to reassess these coping mechanisms. There are many strategies we can use to change our thoughts and behaviors; I have spoken about a few in my previous posts, and others we have yet to discuss:

1) mindfulness work that tells us to sit with our feelings instead of running away from them in order to be able to move on

2) cognitive work that asks us to challenge our thoughts by looking for evidence and helps us to disprove ideas like, for example, that we can't trust others

3) practicing self-care and relaxation strategies (i.e. taking a hot bath, listening to relaxing music, meditation, shutting off your cell phone and watching an interesting movie, etc.) which helps us remember that we are worth love and attention

4) gently pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to try or stick with stressful situations - proving to yourself you can, in fact, manage (we will talk more about this in later posts)

So what's the jist? I think the main take-away is that yes (angry I-told-you-so! sigh-of-relief) we can blame our parents for many of our problems, but it's us who has to do the work and maybe that's okay. With a little love and care from our therapist, maybe we'll get through it!! :)

Do you suspect you are struggling with the pain of unhealed trauma? Therapy can help. Reach out to me today to discuss your options for scheduling your first session.


For more information on trauma counseling, check out this link.