Childhood Experience and Adult Anxiety

Childhood Experience and Adult Anxiety

When children are born into this world, they are physical beings with no developed sense of self. Young infants begin to develop their core self as they interact with their primary caretakers. Ideally, their nest is a safe, loving and attentive one where secure attachment is established. It’s in this nest they can begin to believe that they will get their needs met and they have value – what they do impacts the world. This is the beginning of a very healthy self concept – or relationship to self. If all things are right, the growing infant will also develop the idea that others can be trusted. Barring any seriously negative life experience along the way, the baby becomes a toddler who becomes a child who becomes an adult with good feelings about his place in the world. “I am lovable,” might be a core belief born out of this situation. Other possible healthy core beliefs are, “people can be trusted,” or, “the world is a safe place.”

Children who are raised in a physically, emotionally or sexually abusive environment live in a state of chaos.  A common core belief developed by children in this situation is, “something bad is going to happen.” Children are adept at finding ways to defend themselves psychologically from uncomfortable situations so they can become hypervigilant, scanning their environment for danger and adopt danger avoiding behaviors. This belief system can follow children as they develop into adults who suffer with constant worry, rumination, sleep disturbances and trouble concentrating.  The belief system developed in their chaotic childhood environment often remains with them as their brain may have been wired to be sensitive to certain fears, rational or not.  Regardless, the fears are real to them.  But they are operating under a belief that no longer applies to their environment – and does not serve them.

People who’ve lived in a home with high expectations from their parents can also develop problematic core beliefs. Parents who push kids to achieve need to be careful not to be sending the message, “My love is conditional on what you do.” This can yield a child who believes that he/she must perform or do something really well to be accepted. After all, the most important people in the world to children are their parents. It would make perfect sense that they’d do anything they could do be loved and accepted! A core belief that the child can adopt and be distressing to them throughout their life is, “I am lovable for what I do not who I am.” What a set-up! How can anyone do things well enough constantly to get the validation they need under these circumstances?  Adults who suffer anxiety symptoms often struggle with perfectionism, or the need to reach the highest possible bar.  I sometimes refer to this as, “hamster wheel syndrome.”

Children who grew up with anxious parents almost can’t help internalizing a certain amount of anxiety themselves. We model so much of the behaviors we see from our primary caretakers, learn about how to be in relationship, how to interact with others and the world. Those who had a highly anxious mother are particularly susceptible to also being anxiety prone.

Problematic belief systems developed in childhood can be challenged and the symptoms around them (anxiety) can be resolved.  I’ve found that a number of things in the therapeutic environment can be helpful:

  • understanding the source (family of origin or other significant life events)
  • helping the client develop empathy for themselves
  • normalizing the defenses erected as protective measures in a vulnerable environment
  • reframing the core beliefs about self
  • teaching cognitive-behavioral skills such as identifying and disrupting irrational thinking styles

A helpful way to conceptualize this is to separate the adult experience from the child’s – and identify the idea that they both reside within the client! I often will ask, “When you particularly anxious, who’s driving the bus, your adult or the child?”  Honoring the child’s experience and normalizing the development of these unhelpful belief systems can also help lead to the resolution of anxiety. If symptoms are significantly impacting the client, medication management can be a good partner to the previously described therapy.