Having children of my own has forced me to pay more attention to how my childhood affects my life today. Watching my kids live out their childhood is similar to looking in a mirror. Except the mirror doesn't show a self-reflection. Instead, it offers something more, something profound. When I look at my kids, what I see looking back at me are the effects of my childhood. I am shown a reflection of what it was like for me as a child growing up. I am reminded of what a healthy, secure attachment with a loving, attentive parent can do for a child. But, to be clear, when I fall short as a parent, I am reminded of the effect that poor parenting can have on children.
If you have children and you pay attention to them, it is inevitable for you to reexperience your childhood as an adult, metaphorically, of course. This is not an idea of living vicariously through your children. It is more of a reminder of your youth. There is a visceral experience in the body when you are reminded of a memory from childhood. For example, when I see my son cry for his mom, I sense what it was like for me when I was a child. Most of the time, I don't have specific memories or images. It is more so a felt sense of what it is like to cry or need. As if my body is telling me, "ah, I know what that is like."
When this happens, I have the opportunity to reexperience my childhood through the eyes of an adult. Which highlights what it was like for me as a child in a much different way. One reason for this is I have a sense of safety and agency as an adult that I didn't possess as a kid, which allows me to be more open to my experiences as a child and interpret them differently than I did when I was a kid. This is how a lot of healing can take place. On the flip side, this can be risky as well.
It is essential to know that safety is critical in the early stages of healing. Unfortunately, when we experience the world and our relationships as unsafe, we often reinforce the burdens that trouble us. This is why I highlighted having a sense of safety when experiencing emotional responses to my children. Without safety, in some form, reexperiencing childhood through thoughts or memories can be a slippery slope. Therefore, I recommend those early on in your healing journey focus on seeking safety and emotion regulation.
Let me share a personal story to explore further this idea of reexperiencing childhood as an adult. One of those pesky habits that I picked up in childhood was an inability to enjoy the present moment. As a child, I was not afforded the safety needed to learn to relax and live in the moment. Because I lacked a sense of safety, I lived in a chronic state of threat detection, so I was always on the lookout for danger. Another way of saying this is my fight/flight response was constantly active. As a way to cope, I learned to chase a feeling of security in the next moment. It is similar to feeling a sense of urgency to find something, except you do not know what you are looking for. Anxiety is an effective way to label this experience in your mind. As a result, I never learned how to find a calm acceptance of the moment.
As a child, when my family and I would go on vacations, I would constantly obsess over what would happen next. I could not enjoy whatever we were doing because rather than having learned to enjoy the moment, I lived with a fear that I would be missing out on something else. That feeling of safety that I was looking for evolved into FOMO (fear of missing out) on some cool or exciting activity. My search for safety became a feeling that I was constantly missing out on something. If I could just get to the ski lift, then I would finally feel happy. Or if we just get inside the gates of Six Flags, then everything would feel right. The problem was that I had learned to need the wrong thing, so the feeling of peace was always just out of reach.
Reflecting back on it now, I feel sad. It is an unfair way to grow up, not finding a calm internal presence. This sadness is part of what I experience when I watch my kids play at the beach. Children possess the ability to truly live in the moment. I think adults can, too. We just lose our ability to access it as we get older. Wherever we are, whatever they are engaged in is all that exists in the world. They are a shining example of being mindful. I feel overwhelming joy and love, as well as my sadness from my childhood. In these moments, I try to recognize what feelings belong in the present moment and which emotions are from my past. When I allow space for my sadness in these moments, it gives room for me to process and grieve so I can go of any form of hurt and resentment that lingers. This opens me up to a profound sense of healing.
Let me offer a second story that portrays an adult experience. My wife and I recently took our kids on vacation. While on the trip, I noticed that I was projecting my childhood hurt into the moment. I found myself feeling irritated and short-tempered. Although the awareness was not immediate, it took some time sitting with my feelings to understand that the feelings I was experiencing did not belong to my kids. As I mentioned above, the fear from my childhood of missing out had found its way into our family vacation. Underneath the irritable feelings, I recognized a sense of urgency and anxiety to do everything and go everywhere.
Once I recognized that I needed some space to grieve, I could then attend to what I needed. Which helped alleviate my irritability and allowed me to join my family in enjoying the moment. Our feelings are meant to guide us. When we experience and interpret them precisely, we can point ourselves in the direction of what we need. Kids do not carry any of the mess that comes from a lived life, so their focus can stay present and focused on what they need in the moment, which allows for feelings of fulfillment and connection. I am repeatedly reminded of this lesson when with my kids.
We can heal from whatever ailments that life has left us with. You deserve it, your family deserves it, your community deserves it. At a minimum, it helps you understand yourself more deeply, and at its best, it will change your life for the better. I want to reiterate that I am not advocating placing blame on parents and families. Or to say that all of your problems originate from your childhood. I only want to acknowledge that most of us have some negative emotional experiences from childhood that unconsciously affect who we are and how we experience the world. If you have kids take a look in the mirror and see what you can uncover. If you don't have kids and think there might be something to discover, find a therapist or relationship where you feel safe enough to take a look.