Do you remember your childhood? Most adults would answer “no.”
This was me. I had very few memories of my youth, and most of what I did have were foggy fragments of clinging to my brother as my dad snuck out each night and my mom muffled her tears.
And while the container of our mind may not remember our past, biology shows that our body is the keeper of these moments, storing the information it received during our formative years. Let me explain.
Attachment describes the process in which we relate to and stay close to our caregivers. As children, we are wired to keep attachments close because we need them to survive. And because our wiring patterns are so innately intelligent, we learn from an early age what parts of ourselves create attachment (gets us attention, connection, and love) and which parts threaten attachment (are met with shame, blame, and pain).
Ask yourself, how did the power person (or the person you saw having the power in your home) meet you when you had a meltdown? Were you punished or sent away to figure it out on your own? If so, it is likely that your body stored the shame, rejection, and isolation, even if, as you read this, your mind has no understanding of it. Our brain can be limiting in this way.
We are wired to figure out threats and respond in ways that allow us to fit into our family ecosystems. This leads us into a cycle of growing parts of ourselves that draw love and acceptance and shrinking the parts of ourselves that push it away. When we are met with hard stops that communicate that we are bad kids doing bad things, or that it is unsafe to feel and want, we create protective responses in order to survive.
Those of us who grew up where there was trauma, high stress, and poor emotional and physical safety, often lack clear memories of our childhoods. Why? Research has shown that these experiences cause our fight, flight, freeze, and fawn protective responses to become so reactive that it affects the brain regions responsible for emotional regulation and executive function. In fact, imaging indicates that the hippocampus specifically, which controls emotional memory recollection, can be suppressed and, over time, shut down completely. Simply put, the experiences of our childhood can either nurture emotional intelligence and brain growth or hinder it.
And while we may not remember with our mind and verbal words, our body keeps the score and stores the information it receives from our childhood. This wiring lasts well into our adulthood. As an adult, this may look like:
- Feeling triggered when our child is screaming and crying over the toy they wanted
- Telling ourselves that we aren’t enough or undeserving
- Needing to be perfect in all that we do
- Shaming ourselves for mistakes
- Fearing rejection
- Seeking relationships that mirror our power person
- Instinctively meeting our children with yelling, spanking, or isolation
We tend to live out what was modeled for us and/or reenact the same patterns that we put in place long ago to make our attachments work for us.
Reparenting Our Inner-Child
For me personally, I find that, as a parent, I am parenting two sets of children; those I held in my womb and the child-self stored in my body. This is what re-parenting is all about - being the adult for yourself that you needed as a child. It isn’t really in terminating these parts of self but in having a deep appreciation for our history and honoring the mechanisms we created to keep ourselves safe.
To do this work, you don’t necessarily need verbal memories of your childhood, because the footprints show up in your body through the ways you think, feel, and respond in the face of various situations. The list above are a few ways our wiring outlasts the circumstance, and these patterns are our pain teachers. We can acknowledge and thank these parts of ourselves while also realizing that they no longer serve us.
Next time you find yourself triggered or reliving an old narrative, close your eyes and ask yourself:
- How do I feel right now?
- What thoughts am I having?
- Where in my life have I seen this before?
- Why does this pattern or behavior make sense for me?
- What does my child-self need to hear?
- What new narrative do I want to write for myself?
It may take time for your mind to create new circuits within your body, but with compassion, you can create space to shift and change. While we may not have had many choices as children because we were dependent on the adults in our lives for survival, we now get to choose.
Re-parenting While Raising Children
If there is one thing that can push us to the brink of ourselves, it’s raising children. When we see something in our child’s behavior that we, as children, learned to suppress within ourselves, our body attempts to protect us and we become triggered by what’s happening in the present.
For many of us, in the face of our children’s emotions and behavior, our mind says, “Meet your children with understanding and your loving intent.” But our body says, “Whoa, that’s not safe or allowed!” And so we often react in ways that reflect our internalized experience with our parents and it comes out as yelling, hitting, isolation, or shame.
Re-parenting ourselves breaks the generational cycle. We can look through the lens of attachment and neurobiology and ask ourselves: How do we want to interact with our children so that they can grow up to be adults who love and embrace who they are? As we heal and value the relationship within, it translates outward to our children. That’s why experts say that parenting starts with the parent.
One way to nurture connection with your child is through a Time-In. Time-Ins are opportunities for children to be with their secure attachment in the face of their big (and often scary) emotions to process them together. It shifts the narrative to one that supports the goodness within them.
During a Time-In, we can:
- Communicate safety to our child
- Validate their feelings and experience
- Model and teach calming strategies
- Storytell to process stressful experiences or events
Time-Ins allow both you and your child to tune into the body and write (or rewrite) narratives that will set the foundation for all future relationships. In fact, when we practice the ritual of discussing our feelings with our children - when did I feel happy, sad, calm, and mad - just in pulling in what you felt, linking it to an experience from that day, and sharing it with your child, you are regenerating your hippocampus, the part that is responsible for emotional memory recollection.
For those of us who have spent years with this part of the brain suppressed, this is big stuff packed into a simple ritual. In parenting your child, you are rewiring your brain and creating healthy circuits in theirs. And that is pretty brilliant …
And this is how we become the parents we needed as children.