Can people be saved from a terrible childhood?

Dear quarter lives,

Can people be saved from a terrible childhood? This was the title of an article in The Guardian 1 I had read a couple of years ago. It caught my attention at a time when I was reflecting about my own childhood and wondering if it had passed or was a part of me still living there. These contemplations about childhood slowly turned into an obsession with these seemingly separate states of being we label as childhood, adulthood, and parenthood. All the hoods seemed to me to overlap. I could not separate them from one another. I found myself struggling to neatly split my life across all three. Slowly, an aha moment arrived and the realisation came over me, What if they are in fact not separate states at all? What if they are states of being that exist together simultaneously? 

What if adulthood is just the transfer of the role of parenting from the outside (i.e. from parents, caretakers, etc.) to the inside, to us? What if all adulthood really means is that we become parents for ourselves instead of relying on others to love us, discipline us, tell us what and what not to do or think? What if the problems, confusion and breakdowns that happen in young adulthood happen because of precisely this, the fact that all of a sudden we become our own caretakers, and all of a sudden the newness of this role is overwhelming and like children learning how to speak, all we can do is emulate what we have observed. And so if we have observed parents that are overly critical to us, in wearing this new role of parenthood with ourselves, we become overly critical parents to ourselves, but if we observe gentle parents, we emulate that and become gentle parents to ourselves. Where the role of the crisis is important is that it forces us to question what we have observed, questioning whether it serves us or destroys us. In sitting with those questions, we slowly begin to develop our own parenting style with ourselves. 

If we start looking at ourselves as a unified home to a child and a parent that come together to form the adult that we are, we will start acknowledging the realness of that child within us that is screaming to be heard, that is screaming to say I am still alive, I didn’t die when you became an adult. And the kindest act we can do for ourselves is to say ‘I hear you’ , ‘I see you’, and ‘I acknowledge you’ to that child within us. Like any other child, the child inside of us just wants to feel loved. But if we keep on expecting an outside person to become our parent and provide us with love, affection and discipline then we starve our inner child of its own inner parent, and thus have purposely orphaned it and sent it to the foster care of a friend, a wife, a husband, leaving our inner parent heartbroken. Our grieving inner parent now is starving to care for someone, to give love, to discipline and thus it starts craving a child, and that is how we often pour our hearts into our children thinking that they can save us but it is only our own inner child that can save our own inner parent. And thus, when we do not acknowledge both the child and parent within that make us a whole adult, we fall into cycles of toxic relationships* as we try to quiet the screaming inner child and feed the starving inner parent. 

And so to answer the question, Can people be saved from a terrible childhood? Yes, they absolutely can! But only if they do it themselves. Only we can save ourselves. There is no god that will save us from a terrible anything without us putting in the work ourselves. And the way we save ourselves is by re-parenting ourselves and re-childing ourselves. This means that we need to step fully into adulthood by stepping fully into the role of parent for ourselves while embracing and nurturing the child within us. We need to make space within us for the healthy expression of both. We need to play. We need to work. We need balance. And just like we give importance and time to our outer relationships, we must also give time and attention to our inner relationships. For any relationship can only grow if we make time for it. Be present for those inside of you, just as you do for those outside of you. Adulthood, I have found, is a state of being whereby one becomes proficient at showing up for themselves, where one learns how to be completely present to themselves as parent and nurturer when need be, and as child and wonderer when need be, and the ability to discern when to make space for the parent and when to allow the child to appear is where the art of being an adult lies. It is always about balance. And to get good at balance, like to get good at anything, requires practice. And practice requires us to embrace our errors and continue showing up until we get it right. And when we get it right, we must show up to keep that balance.

As always with love and for peace,

S.A.

1https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2018/nov/07/ace-adverse-childhood-experience-trauma

*(relationships include not only those with other people but with work, with leisure, with food, drugs, exercise, religion, etc. the list is infinite.)

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