The Impact of Childhood

By Amy Freier, LCPC, CST

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A common question I ask my clients during the initial stages of working together is, of course, about their childhood. It’s not because I want to blame parents for my clients’ emotional wellbeing, but so that I can have a full picture of their emotional and relational development, potential early traumas (trauma, by the way, comes in all shapes and sizes, and doesn’t just include physical or sexual abuse), and how their early interactions with loved ones may have influenced their adult relationships with themselves and others.

After all, how can we understand one’s adult relationships without first understanding where one learned what it meant to be in one? And, as it turns out, our very first relationships were, in fact, with our parents or caregivers.

People—and research!—tend to weigh heavily the effects of negative childhood experiences on one’s mental health, but until recently, no one looked into the impact of how positive childhood experiences may help reduce the impact of negative childhood experiences. The recent study showed that there are seven experiences that can offset negative childhood experiences. For each item, respondents in the study were asked to respond "yes" or "no" to a prompt, "Before the age of 18, I was..."

  1. Able to talk with the family about my feelings

  2. Felt that my family stood by me during difficult times

  3. Enjoyed participating in community traditions

  4. Felt a sense of belonging in high school

  5. Felt supported by friends

  6. Had at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in me

  7. Felt safe and protected by an adult in my home

What they found was amazing! It shows that we need to look at more than just the sum of our negative childhood experiences to understand our adult mental health and wellbeing—we need to also understand the extent to which we also had these positive experiences. According to the study, the more “yes” responses you had to these seven items, the higher your score of overall mental health as an adult.

How many “yes” responses do you have, and what impact do you think these had on your ability to develop into a healthy, emotionally attuned and aware, adult and partner?