If you have experienced childhood trauma or childhood emotional neglect (CEN), have you noticed behaviour patterns that may be unhelpful for you? Perhaps you often end up agreeing to things when it does not suit you. Maybe you struggle to get your voice heard when you have something important to say, for example, in a work meeting. Perhaps you prioritise everyone else and find it difficult to take care of your needs. Or maybe you keep driving yourself to perfection to the detriment of your well-being. You may have wondered where do these originate.
A question that comes up often in therapy is how does a child’s brain, body, the nervous system react to a threat to survival? If you have experienced childhood trauma of any kind you may have many questions about this. You may have even blamed yourself for something that happened or did not happen. I wanted to write this post to help you understand some of the behaviours that may or may not make sense to you as an adult.
Our brain, body and the nervous system are beautiful systems that are focused on keeping us alive, safe and well. I have previously written about childhood trauma in terms of understanding the fight, flight, freeze and collapse responses as well as triggers and flashbacks.
The purpose of this post is to understand other everyday behaviour patterns, such as people-pleasing, finding it difficult to raise your views and opinions e.g. in meetings, and how those may link to survival.
What happens in a good enough parenting relationship?
When parenting goes mostly right, the child’s needs, thoughts, feelings and behaviours are in the centre of the attention. It has been suggested that if this happens at least about 30% of the time, it allows children to grow up with a solid sense of safety and security. Of course, this does not mean that the remaining time is spent e.g. in fear, but it means that good enough parenting allows parenting mistakes. Good enough parenting includes disruptions in the relationship. Key is that as long as there is a repair of the relationship after a disconnection, a child’s sense of safety and security remains intact. The child can grow up focusing on being curious about the world safe in the knowledge that their parent is there to support him/her when needed.
The foundations of a core belief in one being lovable are laid in childhood and especially in the very early years of development. With good enough parenting, the child grows up developing beliefs that “I am good enough”, “my feelings matter” and “what I have to contribute is acknowledged”. My previous post talks about parenting when you did not have good enough parenting.
Some of the key concepts of good enough parenting are:
- Being a peaceful parent (acknowledging when one’s pain points are being triggered and taking action to remain within a window of tolerance)
- Being a parent that is willing to look in the mirror and question what went wrong when things don’t go smoothly
- Ability to repair a rupture in the relationship and teaching/modelling repairing relationships
- Helping to understand the child’s feelings by teaching objectivity (feelings come and go, how to shift emotional states through soothing), intersubjectivity in interactions (helps to navigate what happens within me and between us)
- Having the child’s well-being in the centre of attention
How a child may have to adapt to a parent that is self-absorbed, preoccupied or flooded with emotions (angry)
A child’s survival depends on their parent or parental figure(s). This is how we have been designed evolutionally. In a less than good enough parenting situation, when the parent’s needs and feelings are always in the centre of the attention, the child has to adapt to the situation to maintain some level of a relationship. The brain and nervous system aim to preserve life and this may take many forms.
A child’s emotional and psychological development may be stalled if there is little focus on them. To maintain at least a minimum level of connection with the parent, the child has to put their needs and feelings aside.
The child may adapt, for example, by:
- Always pleasing the parent
- Being quiet and never expressing discomfort (or unless e.g. in significant physical pain, but perhaps even then quickly shutting down the tears)
- Withdrawing and spending a lot of time on their own
- Focusing on academic or other achievements regardless of whether they enjoy this themselves
- Living in the fantasy world most of the time
- Dissociating from certain feelings such as anger by never expressing them and perhaps internalising anger which may lead to depression
- Idealising parent and developing a very low, critical view of self instead
When childhood survival methods hinder adult functioning and relationships
As an adult, these same patterns may continue in relationships and other life scenarios e.g. at work. You may find yourself agreeing to what other’s say even if you don’t agree with it. You may struggle with asserting yourself and bringing your views forward in a work meeting. You may have learnt to shut down certain feelings instead live in a state of anxiety a lot of the time. Your anger may be quickly triggered by small seemingly trial things but when the emotion takes over it is very hard to remain grounded.
Some survival methods can serve you well even today, such as being very hardworking and focused on achievement or being able to dissociate from uncomfortable feelings. Being cool, calm and collected may serve you at work if you work in highly pressured environments. In personal relationships, it may be a real hindrance not knowing your emotions or quickly shutting down and withdrawing in an argument with a partner. Your partner may complain about you avoiding difficult conversations. You may often end up in a difficult loop and get stuck in your relationship. Another post talked about transforming your relationship.
How did you have to adapt in childhood to survive your childhood environment and relationships? You could think about this concerning each significant parental figure. Which behaviour patterns are you continuing to engage in? Are these causing you difficulties?
I hope you found it useful to think about how you may have had to adapt and you may still have behaviour patterns that can be of a hindrance at work or in personal relationships. Therapy can offer a place to reflect on old behaviour patterns and heal those old wounds that may still keep triggering.
If you finding relationships difficult, I have developed a relationship checklist that might be helpful for you to assess your current relationship or in terms of thinking about what you would like in a future relationship. You can download it here.
Further resources: If you would like to access further resources on Healing, living whole-heartedly and having fulfilling relationships, the free Resource Library has guided meditations and exercises. https://www.drmarikovanen.co.uk/free-resources-2/