According to recent conclusions from a decade-long study by the Center for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente Hospital, 60% of American adults were affected in some way by adverse childhood experiences. ACE’s were defined as dysfunctional behaviors displayed by parents, such as emotional and physical abuse or neglect. ACE’s leave an imprint on children and impact their ability to cope effectively in adulthood.
Negative childhood experiences leave scars in need of healing. Some adults are capable of processing their past more adaptively than others. Often, adults will cling to childhood scripts that no longer are necessary or helpful. Some of these basic childhood assumptions that get activated are:
- I must perform admirably at all times.
- I am responsible for all the bad things that happened to me and I should be blamed for them.
- I must avoid conflict at all costs because it is risky.
- Other people's opinions and beliefs are more important and convincing than my own
Adults from troubled childhoods need to learn how to process the perils of their past as opposed to denying one's story or ruminating about it. This search to heal from the vestiges of worn out thinking and behavior takes courage and persistence. Here are 10 strategies to assist adults in leaving behind the negative interpretations of childhood:
- Give up the magical illusion that somehow your parents will morph and become the loving, caring adults you have always yearned for.
- Write a letter to the abusive parent. Share your deepest feelings about what you experienced as a child. Don't hold back. Do not deliver the letter. This exercise is designed to therapeutically assist you in releasing pain from the past.
- Consider your earliest childhood recollection. Where were you located? Who was with you? What were you wearing? How did you feel? What beliefs about your life are captured in your story.
- Listen to your inner critic. This is the voice (derived from a parent) that speaks in harsh tones and provides disparaging messages. Let it speak and learn to understand the nature of its noise. Learn to detach from its contents.
- Rationally respond to the inner critic. If it says, "How could you do such a stupid thing," respond by exclaiming, "We all make mistakes. This experience doesn't define who I am. I will do better next time."
- Learn to make realistic appraisals about who you are and what you do. Leave behind, the tyranny of the, I should have, I ought to, I must not, and so on. Think in terms of preferences rather than absolutes. For example, "It would be nice if my business partner thanked me for a job well done, but is not essential." Another realistic, thoughtful appraisal might be, "What role did I play in this problem, if any?" Get out of self-blame because it is not helpful in solving problems and only serves to victimize you.
- Learn to set more realistic boundaries. Quit giving your power away to other people. Start asserting yourself, telling others what you need and want. If you confront potential conflict, people will respect you, not abandon you.
- Your troubled childhood was not your fault. Let go of the need to blame yourself for a problem you didn’t create. It never was about you!
- Find supportive friends that you trust that can help you role-model more intimate, connected behavior. Understand that your past doesn't need to have power over you in the present. Remember, your friends are not your parents. You can learn to selectively disclose information to others, letting yourself be more emotionally transparent.
- Forgiveness is a process, not an act. Hopefully, at some point, you will be able to forgive your parents for being less than perfect and causing you harm.
Overcoming a troubled past and learning to live a triumphant life takes time and patience. Seek counseling support if you feel stuck in trying to handle your thoughts, feelings and relationship issues. There is hope and healing for those who courageously seek to transcend the difficulties of a troubled childhood.