Most adults realize that their childhood played a huge part in shaping who they are today and a big part of their identity. What many adults don’t realize is the subtleties that they picked up on as children and how those affect them even into adulthood.
As kids, we all received messages from the adults in our lives, whether they were explicit and direct messages such as spoken rules, or indirect and subtle messages such as unspoken rules. Sometimes we may not even realize that there were unspoken rules in our homes growing up, until we start to examine and work through our issues as adults. We might not have any awareness about the influence of our childhood messages until we find ourselves in conflict in adult relationships and partnerships. Adults who are parenting might not be aware of the messages they received from their parents until finding themselves struggling with their relationship with their own children and their own roles as parents.
These ‘messages’ that I’m referring to are related to what we learned from our parents about what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t welcomed, what we do and what we don’t do, etc. It’s all about how watching our parents and picking up on their actions and interactions taught us about how to be people.
Our parents also sent us messages about whether or not it was acceptable to show, talk about, or feel our feelings. Did your parents tell you not to cry or tell you everything is fine when you got upset, angry or sad? Did your parents come to you with all of their problems and dump their emotions on you looking for support? Did your parents offer you comfort and permission to feel your feelings? All of these different scenarios will have shaped the way that you “do” feelings and emotions as an adult.
Parents who speak critically of themselves or others may inadvertently send messages to their children about value and worth. Parents who place high significance on performance-based actions like good grades, good behavior, etc. will likely send messages to their children that their worth comes from what they produce. Parents who attempt to control and micromanage every aspect of their children’s lives probably sent messages that they don’t trust their children enough to hand over the reins a bit.
An important part of the work we do in therapy is start to identify the messages that we received as children when we were growing up, and start to process how those messages have manifested in our adult lives. For example, if your childhood centered around being praised for good grades and good behavior (but you were ignored or rejected or punished when you didn’t perform well), as an adult that may look like the need to constantly be productive or the tendency towards workaholism as a way to show high performance. The message you received as a child could have been something along the lines of “You are only good when you can show the family and the world what you’ve done. Your worth is based on your accomplishments.”
Once we’ve identified what the messages are that were directed at us as children, it’s not enough just to accept it as the truth or the way it is and move on. It’s also not correct or healthy to blame our parents for everything either.
As adults moving towards growth and health, we need to be the ones to do the healing and the ones to break the cycles. We have to be the ones to create new messages for ourselves, our partners, our families and children about what is and isn’t acceptable, what is and isn’t welcomed, what we do and what we don’t do, etc. We need to be the ones to decide what messages from our childhood were damaging, hurtful, unhelpful and untrue. Then the work becomes starting to unpack the effects of those messages, break down the beliefs we have formed based on those messages, and start to form new beliefs based our own messages about worth and value. This is hard, complicated work. But this is the sign of growth and maturity.
Accepting and acknowledging the pain caused by our parents is not always easy or comfortable. We often want to excuse their behaviors or justify why they did what they did. Excusing and justifying is not the same as understanding and empathizing. Understanding and empathizing says “I can see why you did this, if I put myself in your shoes.” And at the same time, it leaves room for acknowledging the pain. Excusing and justifying says “Well they must have had a good reason for what they did” and tends to say that we deserved the pain. Rather than excusing our parents’ actions, words and behaviors, we can aim for understanding and moving forward, creating our own new messages and rules for our homes and families.