If you go to counseling, you can almost guarantee that your therapist is going to ask about your childhood at some point. If you’re confused about how talking about your childhood can help you manage your stress burnout or help with marriage counseling, you’re not the only one. So let’s talk about why your therapist wants to know!
One of the most important reasons a therapist asks about your childhood is find out more about your story. When you see a new counselor or therapist for the first time, they know almost nothing about you. While our experiences shape us all differently, it is undeniable that we ARE shaped by our experiences and our responses to them. By giving your therapist a glimpse into your childhood, you are helping them create a more contextualized and nuanced understanding of your experience and how you view it.
Another reason your therapist may ask about your childhood is because your childhood is where many of the narratives that impact your life today began. You have undoubtedly grown and changed many of your beliefs and responses since childhood. But your childhood is still where you formed your first opinions about yourself, the world, and the meaning of everything in between.
One of the most self-empowering things we can do as an adult is to examine those narratives and decide whether or not we want to keep them. Identifying those early narratives isn’t always easy, but one way that they tend to pop up is in automatic thoughts. An automatic thought is a thought that pops up before we even have time to process what we’ve been asked or what is happening. For example, some of the things you say to yourself – positive or negative – may be internalized narratives that you heard continuously as a child.
We have all internalized countless narratives from our childhood, and the more your therapist knows about your childhood, the more they can help you have more autonomy over the narratives that are constantly influencing our thoughts and choices.
No matter what your childhood story is, I would encourage you to talk to your therapist about your childhood. Some of you may have trauma that you want to work through and others may want to repair relationships with parents or siblings. But even if your memories of your childhood are mostly positive and you have healthy relationships with your family members now, it can still be helpful to talk about your childhood in therapy.
You experienced life as a child without a fully developed prefrontal cortex. Your prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that helps you learn, process new information, and make good choices. So even though you don’t have a temper tantrum when you parents are busy now and you can successfully navigate a fight with your adult friends without crying and whining, the things that caused you emotional distress as a child were still emotionally distressing, even if they seem silly and insignificant as an adult now. And our brains are great at remembering distress, not matter the cause.
When our brains remember distress, they tend to keep reacting to whatever caused the distress until we can use our mature brains to teach our emotional brain that we are safe. For example, a child whose parent always cleaned when they were upset may now get stressed out whenever they clean house as an adult. Their child brain learned that the house getting cleaned meant that they might be shouted at or that their parents just fought, so now as an adult, their adult brain is wired to be prepared for distress whenever it’s time to clean the house.
Examining relationships between our current stressors and the stressors of our childhood can give us a chance to intentionally teach our brains that our distress as a child was real, but that we are now an adult who can keep ourselves safe.
No matter who you are or who your family is, being a child is hard. So if you have the time and space in counseling, give yourself the gift of talking about your childhood. And if you’ve never been to counseling before and your therapist asks about your childhood in the first session, chances are there’s an excellent reason and you’re on the brink of some good work.
Growing with you,