The question “Why do we need to talk about my childhood?” comes up often in our San Francisco therapy practice.
If you’re new to therapy, you may wonder why your therapist asks about how your childhood was. After all, you came to therapy because of something happening today, not necessarily because of what happened when you were five.
You sought the help of a therapist because you were feeling depressed, anxious, lonely, stressed out, or not sure how to feel better. What is happening right now is causing you pain. Why talk about the past?
For some people, when they start therapy they know that the past has affected them in profound ways. They know they experienced trauma of some sort: physical, sexual or emotional abuse, neglect, death or illness of a close family member, living through a challenging divorce, or illness of their own when they were young. Maybe this is the case for you.
But for many others, they don’t connect what is happening today with what happened in the past. If this describes you—if you aren’t already connecting what happened in the past with today—then this post is for you.
What Happened to You in Childhood Matters
If you don’t see a direct line between your childhood and how you’re feeling or what you’re experiencing currently, then you may get irritated when your therapist asks how your childhood was. You may wonder what it has to do with what you are bringing in to discuss. After all, what does something that happened so many years ago have to do with your problems today?
You may even roll your eyes and think delving into your childhood is a therapy cliche. You’d be right. But it’s a cliche for a good reason.
Your therapist asks about your childhood because your childhood matters. Big time.
What you learned growing up about love, safety, relationships, and your self-worth all influence you greatly today. This is not to say that one’s childhood predicts everything about one’s adulthood, but it is highly influential, in ways we often aren’t aware of. Our responses or assumptions about the world, about other people, about how to handle conflict, and about who we are as people are formed when we are young.
Questions Your Therapist May Ask
Knowing how important your early years are to who you are today, here are some common questions your therapist may ask about your childhood:
- What was it like for you growing up?
- Who did you turn to if you were upset or scared (if anyone)?
- What was your relationship with your mother like? Or your primary caregiver, whoever had that role?
- What was your relationship with your father like?
- What was the relationship between them like?
These are very general questions. Your therapist will tailor your questions to whatever your specific situation is to find out more.
How Talking about Your Childhood Sheds Light on Today
“Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man” is a famous quote attributed to the theologian St. Ignatius Loyola, and there is truth to it. Talking about what your childhood was like sheds so much light on who you are as an adult.
When we are little, we learn who we can trust and who we can’t. We also learn if we can trust ourselves. We learn a lot about relationships, starting with our earliest relationships with our primary caretaker. This is typically mothers, but not always. Maybe you grew up with two dads, or your grandmother raised you.
Though you may not realize it, how you grew up can inform decisions you make about your life now. It can also inform how you feel in certain situations.
If you’re depressed today and unhappy at work, maybe you grew up in a family where hard work at all costs was prized. You saw your single mother struggle to keep your family afloat. Or your father worked long hours. Or you are from an immigrant family where sacrificing your happiness for the future or for others was drilled into you. Today you find yourself driven to overwork and feel guilty when you think about not pushing yourself so hard. Can you see how what was modeled for you about work and self-sacrifice when you were young influences your current situation?
Any example of this will fall short of a full explanation, as therapy and the connection between what is bothering you today and your past is complex. It’s not a direct line, and each person’s stories and influences are unique.
So what you will talk about in therapy, in terms of your childhood, will vary from person to person—and, frankly, from therapist to therapist. But every therapist will express at least some curiosity about your childhood.
Some therapists emphasize it a lot, depending on their theoretical orientation and on how they view the healing process. But every therapist will ask if you don’t provide details, and if you do open up, every therapist will ask you to tell them more. Why? Because:
Your Childhood Holds the Keys to Your Emotions
Your childhood holds precious keys that inform who you are today and finding those keys can open the doors you need to move through your past; to have your past inform who you are, but not decide or dictate all of who you are.
Therapists ask you about your childhood because your early life is when you learned what and how to feel.
- How did you learn to manage your emotions?
- Were there emotions that weren’t OK to feel, like anger or sadness?
- Did your parents have a stiff upper lip? Or did they fall apart at small things?
We learn to treat ourselves in certain ways based on how our parents treated us, and how they treated themselves and each other. For example, if your mom never took a sick day and kept going, even with a fever, you may have learned that you have to do that, too.
Your Childhood Is the Start of Your Story
The writer Anaïs Nin is quoted as saying, “We don’t see the world as it is, we the see the world as we are.” Your early years shape how you see the world, as well as yourself.
Studies show that our narrative, or life story, is one of the signs of secure attachment or mental well being.
We tell stories as humans; it’s how we make sense of where we’ve been and where we want to go. But to move forward in your story, you have to know where you came from.
We are all constantly evolving and growing, and therapy is designed to help you do just that. Talking about your childhood is not an end in itself; it’s an excavation. It’s not a constant licking of your wounds, but rather the doorway to transformation.
Are you ready to start therapy?
Contact us at 415-310-5142. Our offices are located in the Castro district of San Francisco.