Reflections on the importance of our childhood
Girls in Boarding School
Recently I attended a workshop on women who had been sent to boarding school as small children – some as young as 5,6,7, 8…. and the expectations of parents/caregivers and those who were in charge at the schools. The reasons for doing so were varied – to obtain an excellent education, work commitments meaning that parents/caregivers couldn’t look after their children at home, parents not being able to cope, family traditions, to be able to mix with others from similar backgrounds and thus increase their chances of a successful future (whatever that might mean).
It struck me that inspite of great privilege some of those children experienced distress, trauma and emotional neglect. In society we may miss this pain, as it seems on the surface as though they had everything and nothing to complain about. My sense was that ‘growing up quickly’ was prized. ‘Homesickness’ (which we now know is disenfranchised grief and needs to be acknowledged and processed with compassion) was strongly discouraged – ‘I don’t have a magic wand to take homesickness away.’ Adaptation is necessary and quickly for any chance of some kind of survival, even it is maladaptive and pushes down consciously or unconsciously the need to cry and call for your parents, siblings, friends at home etc. The message that is internalized is ‘my needs don’t matter’ – ‘I must get on with it’- ‘no point complaining because no one is listening’ – ‘Be strong’- ‘Whatever you do don’t be weak.’ You learn to do as you are told – to be compliant and not upset other people.
What does society prize in life?
There are so many things that society prizes in life and I will only be able to touch on a few briefly here – being successful (money, home, lots of friends, travel, beauty, being resilient, able to work long hours with little or no rest, having it all) – whatever that might mean. These things do not add to our intrinsic worth even if we might think that they do or be told by others that they do.
I would like to suggest that we all need to learn to prize ourselves and other people more. Kindness is a word that is much used but do we really know what it means – what are we saying about ourselves and others. Do we consider that they are human too and can be hurt and break, just as we can. Sometimes we may objectify others – particularly if they are in the public eye.
What do families prize in life?
My family prized education – without that it was considered impossible to be successful. What happens then if your education falters right from the early years. What messages do we then internalise? ‘I am a failure’ ‘I am stupid’ ‘why am I not like….’ ‘I am a disappointment’
Obviously there is nothing inherently wrong with an education – we all need one and it isn’t just about academics – the subject is so much broader. We all have many gifts and if we are fortunate we will have an opportunity to discover what those are and develop them. Education is not a one size fits all – be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer – nothing else is good enough.
I would like to suggest that part of our education is learning how precious we are – how much we matter just because we are here on this beautiful earth. It is vital that we are loved unconditionally by our parents/caregivers and others in our lives. It may be that we have learnt that we are only loveable when we perform well or look good or something else that impresses other people.
The importance of relationships
If we don’t have a healthy relationship with ourselves we may find it difficult to relate to other people personally and professionally. We may look to others to fill in the gaps that are missing for love and not even be entirely sure what healthy love looks, sounds and feels like.
Children in Care
When children are taken away from their families this is a rupture – even if there are good reasons to do so, the small child cannot work out what is happening to them and may then be moved from place to place, unsure what is happening next and if adults can be trusted or not. Everyone needs someone special in their lives who is stable and can see the value in them.
The behaviours which we find unacceptable are an expression of overwhelm and dysregulation. It is all too much, so the hurt, anger, anxiety, sadness etc. comes out in a torrent or is internalised and presents as shut down, difficult to reach etc. Children need adults who are calm and able to regulate themselves. Their brains are not developed enough to ‘stop it and just calm down or else….’
Taking our wounds into adult relationships
All of us are impacted by our early developmental years. We may repeat behaviours that we learnt as children and not even be aware that is what we are doing. In therapy it is possible to gently look at our roots with compassion for our wounded inner child and offer that connection that was missing. This will enable us to build more healthy relationships, express our needs, be able to listen to the needs of other people, be able to establish healthy boundaries and so much more.
A very real hope for healing
Healing is possible – it takes connection with at least one person who will not judge or condemn but will take the time to really listen to your narrative with respect and honour, at your pace.