How Your Childhood Affects You in Adulthood

I've heard it many times

Whether it's something you've heard others say or you've watched it on TV, there's a good chance the age old adage may have found its way into your consciousness.  At some point in your life, you might have wondered if things could have been different for you in the earlier days...and if it did, how things might have been different for you in the current day.

You might have made different choices, met a different life partner, and made less (or more) mistakes.  Who knows?  But it never stops us from asking.

But is this relation real or true? 

Be it in life or psychotherapy, we can fathom/expect/see that it is plausible that having a personal history of strife and trauma, might predispose us to be more susceptible to several forms of mental issues, and psychopathology (deep words for a whole trajectory of different issues).  In some circles of psychology and therapy, these phenomenons are called emotional schemas, poor object relations, unfinished business, unhelpful thinking styles, cognitive distortions...and the list goes on.

Clinically speaking, we see many individuals in the course of our work who have had many disappointing and often devastating earlier life issues that set the scene for problems in learning emotional regulation abilities, coping strategies and just the psychological strength (constitution/ego strength/resilience) to deal with stress and all kinds of hurdles that life can bring.  Sometimes these earlier experiences (in childhood) can be severe and abusive, but it can also exist in less severe and neglectful caring conditions.  There is a body of research that states that the effects of neglect is often more debilitating than abuse.

What does the research say?

From a more nerdy and scholarly point of view, there has been massive research in the area of attachment which demonstrates how patterns of relationships are passed on or continued in our subsequent relationships.  These are recent and respectable research build over the last few decades in the area of attachment theory and interpersonal patterns of relating.  Here's a blockquote from one of our doctoral dissertations:

"A multitude of studies have shown substantial evidence for the continuity of attachment styles from infancy throughout the school years, and into adolescence (e.g., N. L. Collins & Read, 1990; Florian & Mikulincer, 1997; Fraley & Shaver, 1998; Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985; Sroufe, Fox, & Pancake, 1983; Waters, Merrick, Treboux, Crowell, & Albersheim, 2000; Waters, Weinfield, & Hamilton, 2000).  These studies, in part, provide the impetus for subsequent theoretical development and research to conceptualise and study attachment in adulthood.

More recently, Fraley (2002), Fraley (2007) and Fraley, Vicary, Brumbaugh, and Roisman (2011) found that patterns of attachment stability are best accounted for by a prototype model – a model assuming that there is a stable factor underlying temporary variations in attachment.  This view assumes that working models are updated and changed as individuals encounter new events, but suggests that the representations developed in infancy remain unchanged and continue to shape interpersonal dynamics throughout the life span (Owens et al., 1995; Sroufe, Egeland, & Kreutzer, 1990).  This implies that early representations are preserved over the course of development and reactivated in the context of new interactions.  As such, these prototypes can contribute to a constant source of variability to attachment dynamics over the lifespan, increasing the likelihood that attachment patterns in adulthood will reflect those observed in childhood." 

This is important and critical research we cannot ignore, especially now we know so much about our quality of attachments in interpersonal relationships that begin from as early as foetuses in utero, and infancy.  In other words, the implication of these findings provides strong support that an individual’s attachment can change over time but the internal (attachment) working model established in childhood still influences the attachment in adulthood.

Here's a video that illustrates this for us in a more understandable, layman way...

It's a humbling situation, but much about who we are as adults can be traced back to things that happened to us before our 12th birthday. Part of learning to be an adult means making sense of the events of our childhood.

Is there anything we can do about it?

Yes you can.  Psychotherapy provides a safe and secure way for us to explore and understand the intricate experiences we've had and assist us to make sense of what could be a lifetime of difficulty.  This often looks like problems that had arose in interpersonal relationships, that impacts our abilities to manage our own private lives.  

However, most people may not even be aware or caught up in a lot of their own problems.  Such is life but we'd argue, psychotherapy may not be for everyone, though it can potentially assist these individuals immensely.  There's always an appropriate time for things, and this rings true for psychotherapy - you can't force anyone who doesn't think they may need it or would like to try how it's like.

Our advice, would be to keep and open mind about it.  Find out more about what could be occurring for you in your life.  Read our Frequently Asked Questions section on Psychotherapy.