Usually, when we decide to start therapy it is because we have a problem in the present that generates discomfort or pain, and we do not have enough resources to handle the situation adequately. Sometimes the problem may have been in our life for some time (months, years); other times, something sudden happens which makes us seek help immediately. Regardless of the time we have been living with the problem, when we decide to start therapy is when the problem starts to interfere significantly with different areas of our lives (personal, family, work, academic, couple, etc.).
During therapy, our therapist will ask questions to understand how the problem manifests (symptoms), how long we have been living with the problem and how it impacts different areas of our life. Our therapist will also ask questions about our childhood, adolescence and adulthood, but especially, he/she will want to deepen in early childhood experiences with our parents or people whom we grew up with.
Understandably, it is important for our therapist to get to know us, not only in the present, but also know our life trajectory. But, why so much interest in exploring early childhood relationships?
Let’s see the importance of exploring in depth these childhood experiences in order to understand the problems or difficulties we have in the present.
During childhood, through the interaction with people around us and the outside world, we begin to develop specific thought and behavior patterns, coping strategies, emotion regulation skills, as well as mental schemas about how relationships with loved ones or people in the immediate environment work.
Since we are dependent on nearby adults for our survival, when we are kids we will do everything we have to do to keep our parents/caregivers as close as possible to meet our needs (physical, emotional, cognitive, social). So, through the interaction with our parents, we will learn how to behave in order to receive attention, love, and care. This early experiences with our parents/caregivers will establish basic notions about how affective relationships work in terms of care, safety, intimacy and dependency.
Through the interaction with parents/caregivers we will also begin to forge our self-concept based on the things we are valued, rewarded, or loved for; and based on the things we are punished, despised, or abused for. This way, we will begin to develop our self-concept, our opinion of ourselves, in terms of whether we are valid, good enough, or worthy of love/care/attention from the important figures in our lives. Likewise, we will begin to shape our values and belief system, our idea of what is valuable in the world, both with respect to ourselves and with respect to others.
Therefore, our childhood experiences with our parents/caregivers will have a great impact on who we are and how we think, feel and behave in both adolescence and adulthood. Thus, these schemas and patterns acquired in childhood will accompany us throughout our lives.
Obviously, this does not mean that later experiences in other stages of life will not have an impact on our mental schemas and behavioral patterns; for sure, they will do. However, these early experiences with our parents/caregivers will lay the foundation for how we see and deal with the world and interpersonal relationships. This idea is essential in understanding the origin of the problems we may have in the present.
Let's see an example:
If a child has suffered abandonment or neglect during childhood, if he has grown up in an environment where his parents have not been available to meet his needs in a consistent and predictable manner, the child will not feel safe with them. He will grow up feeling that he cannot depend on those close to him and may be afraid of being abandoned, because his experience is that he cannot trust those close to him to be available when needed. Thus, his mental schemas on how affective relationships work will be formed through the interaction with his parents. These schemas will be the foundation for later relationships in life.
As explained before, children will develop certain behaviors to keep their parents as close as possible to increase the chances of having their needs met. In this case, it is likely that this kid will cry inconsolably when separated from his parent in order to avoid separation. It is also likely that he will be upset if his parents pay attention to other people, as this would minimize his chances of having his needs met. Generally, the uncertainty about having our needs met translates into great discomfort, bewilderment, sense of lack of control, and fear of abandonment.
With regard to his self-concept, it is likely that this kid will feel that he is not lovable, that he is not enough, that there is something wrong with him that makes those close to him not to love him or care for him (at a more unconscious level). These self-concept schemas are formed in childhood when children are unable to understand the complex world of adults and the reasons why parents/caregivers do not care for them properly; so, kids usually take responsibility for the lack of attention or care from their parents. Thus, this kid will develop a negative self-concept which, in turn, will have an effect on later relationships and other contexts of life (couple, work, school, etc.).
Accordingly, it is very likely that when this child gets to adulthood, in future relationships, especially in love/intimate relationships, he will keep the same thought and behavior patterns and negative self-concept. In adult relationships this may manifest in jealousy, difficulties in trusting his partner, constant fear of being abandoned, constant anger at his partner for spending time with other people or doing their hobbies, etc. We see that these behaviors are very similar to the behaviors that this person used in childhood to attract attention from his parents/caregivers.
These thought and behavior patterns are usually maintained independently of the partner’s behavior, because the mental schemas on how relationship work that were developed in childhood will still have an impact on the present. Even if his partner never gives any sign of abandonment, this person would still be afraid of it because he grew up with the expectation that those close to him will not be reliable and will leave at some point. With regard to the self-concept, this person will continue to feel that he is not enough and will not understand why his partner wants to be with him; hence, his fear of abandonment.
Thus, we see how these relationship schemas acquired in childhood, mainly in the family context, will accompany this person throughout his life and will be transferred to other contexts and other people.
In this particular case, his thought and behavior patterns will probably lead to high levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms, in addition to a great deal of conflict and discomfort within the couple. These problems will be the main motives for this person to seek therapy. Hence, we see how the problems this person is currently having have their roots in his early relationships with his parents.
For this reason, in therapy we will always explore childhood relationships. In therapy will connect the present and the past, and we will see how current difficulties relate to past experiences and to ways of functioning in the world that we learned in childhood.
At the beginning of the treatment we will address the symptoms and difficulties we experience in the present, providing an understanding about the origin and maintenance of the problems and providing tools to manage these difficulties. Later, we will address deeper issues that will lead us to question our thought/behavioral patterns, relationship schemas, beliefs and values; which were established in childhood and constitutes the roots of our problems in the present. As a result of this questioning process, we will replace these schemas with other ones, more adaptive and more adjusted to reality. This will have a positive impact on our current way of thinking, feeling and behaving, and will improve our mood and quality of life.