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Can I heal my childhood?

In the next few blog posts I’m going to introduce some of the themes that can be explored in therapy. I hope to give you a flavor some of the ways that you can work in a therapeutic relationship (we say ‘work’ because it is a collaborative relationship that you create with your therapist with the aim of working together to achieve a goal) and perhaps give you some insight in to the subconscious motivations behind some of your behaviours.

The core part of my training is in child development so I have decided to kick off with this subject, but please bear in mind that if you came to therapy and did not want to discuss your childhood and perhaps wanted to focus on e.g. exam stress management, I would respect your wishes and the work would focus on whatever we contracted to cover.


How do I heal my childhood?

Our experiences in early childhood create the core structure of our brain. From the time that we are born until around 4 years old our brains are thought to form a network of neuronal connections from which the rest of the brain develops. The way that our primary care giver (generally our mother) relates to us as babies literally forms these connections and this process determines how we relate to world around us in the future (Cozolino 2012). In simpler terms the relationships we experience as children impact the way that we relate to people as adults. The meaning that a baby makes as a result of the primary caregiver’s response to them forms their ‘sense of self’ which is their perception of themselves or self-image (Stern 1985). If a baby has its psychological and physical needs met then it will feel secure/safe within this relationship and this results in a healthy attachment and a positive image of themselves (Bowlby 1969).

Babies are soothed by the sense that they have connected and communicated their emotional or ‘affective’ state. Connected parents will reflect back their baby's non-verbal expressions and are not overwhelmed by any negative emotions that are being expressed. This feedback loop helps the baby to regulate their feeling state and calms them down (Siegel 1999). Stress caused by emotionally absent parenting as well as traumatic events can change the way that these structures in the brain are formed. The stress experienced directly affects the production of integrative fibers in the brain as well as the functioning of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which deals with the regulation of stress and baseline amounts of stress hormones (Schore 2007). Babies that have their needs met are able to regulate their emotions effectively and negotiate stressful situations without them having too much negative impact on their lives as adults.

A common symptom of being unable to regulate emotions effectively is addiction. The connotations of this word are misleading because people often automatically think of hard drugs or alcohol when in fact addiction can come in many guises ranging from unhealthy relationships with food to social media. One could even consider the excessive consumerism that is actively encouraged by western society to be an affliction similar to addiction. From a child development perspective addiction is the use of substances (or activities) to help regulate emotions, because we have not be taught to ‘self soothe’ and regulate our own emotions as children.

At this point I think it is important to point out that generally the reason that a parent is unable to connect effectively with their child is because of trauma or mistreatment that they have experienced themselves either as children or adults. This is how dysfunctional ways of relating to the people around you can be passed from generation to generation within a family. Luckily, we can use therapy to stop this cycle by creating new ways of relating to the world in the secure setting of a therapeutic relationship. I must reinforce that it is not about blaming anyone for experiences that you have had as a child but that having an insight in to why you have a certain reaction to a can result in a feeling of empowerment that may help you to change your behavior if desired.

In the past it was thought that when we become adults our brains lose their plasticity and unable to form new connections. Recently this theory has been thrown out by neuroscience since the development of neuroimaging techniques over the past 30 years that allow us to observe plastic changes in the brain over time. This discovery is great news for people seeking to change the way they think, feel and act, through the use of therapy. The therapeutic relationship can be used to create new attachment experiences which form new neural connections and pathways within the brain (Cozolino 2010). The connection between client and therapist can be used to repair damage from childhood trauma or work on the re-structuring of subconscious models of the world that were forged during early childhood. The aim of therapy is to create a new psychological structure that is more resilient and able to cope with the stress of everyday life. The strength of connection between the client and therapist helps the client to develop their capacity to withstand stressful situations and function on a daily basis in a more optimal manner.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Cozolino, L. (2002). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Building and Rebuilding the Human Brain, New York, U.S.A: W.W. Norton and Company, New York, USA.

Cozolino, L. (2012). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: 2nd Edition, Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. WW Norton & Company, New York, USA.

Schore A., Schore, J. (2007). Modern attachment theory: The central role of affect regulation in development and treatment. Published online by Springer Science and Business media.

Siegel, D. (1999). The Developing mind. The Guilford Press, New York, USA.

Stern, D. (1985). The inter personal world of the infant. Basic Books, New York, USA.

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