In order to stop being triggered by painful memories, we need to recognize that our stories about events change as we age and learn. Fortunately, our brains mature and add new features that make us see things in a different light. When we’re 4, we may believe in Santa Clause, but this is unlikely at 14 because we understand and know more about life. If you’re older than 25 and still buy into an interpretation of harsh events you formed as a child, it’s time to update your story to better sync with reality.
Our interpretation of events at any age drives our actions adaptively to survive. Childhood interpretations are simplistic, naïve, and lack complex, critical thinking. Because our frame of reference is narrow due to circumscribed life exposure, especially before we enter school, we often know little more of the world than our family’s dynamics—we generalize and conclude that if Mom does X, all Moms or women or people do X. We rely on our emotions to interpret and direct our lives as mental templates get laid down automatically early on based on affect rather than rationality.
Adult interpretations of events come from expanded brainpower, increased cognitive skills, and greater experience. As our world enlarges, we see different ways of looking at what happens to us. We can compare and contrast to see that everyone’s inner and outer world is not like ours. Our experience, imagination and knowledgebase provide assessments of events that we never could have dreamed of as children.
Here are examples of meanings that children and adults may make of events. Notice the gulf between interpretations.
- You freeze on stage in a fourth-grade play and on the drive home Mom scolds you
for embarrassing her in front of all the other children’s mothers.
- Child: I hurt Mom. I made a mess of things. I am a bad, thoughtless child.
- Adult: Mom has perfection and shame issues and is possibly narcissistic. She should have comforted rather than criticize me, but she did the best she could.
- Dad sometimes wants to hear about your day at school, but when he doesn’t, he
tells you to leave you alone and won’t listen to you even when something is important.
- Child: I upset Dad because I don’t know his moods. I need to pay more attention.
- Adult: Dad is grouchy when he hasn’t had his beer and in a better mood when he’s had a couple. His mood has nothing to do with what I do or say.
- Mom and Dad tell you that they wouldn’t have so much stress in their marriage if you were better behaved and it’s your fault if they get divorced.
- Child: I’m bad and better be good—no, perfect—or I’ll break up the family.
- Adult: Mom and Dad had issues they weren’t confronting and, instead, they were blaming me which was untrue and unfair.
- Mom struggled with her weight and put you on a diet when you were five although
you were an average-weight child. She said no one would love a fat kid or adult.
- Child: Fat people aren’t lovable. I need to be thinner to be lovable and loved.
- Adult: Mom had shame about her weight because her mother was heavy, and the kids teased her (Mom) in school. She wanted me to avoid this experience.
- Dad said I better take care of my 3 younger siblings after Mom died when I was 6 because I was big and smart enough to do so and he had to work to provide for us.
- Child: I have to take care of my siblings because Dad works hard for us and I can’t fail him, or he’ll be disappointed in me. I can’t be selfish and let him down.
- Adult: I could barely take care of myself at 6, never mind care for my brothers and sisters. Dad was asking way too much of me.
- My brother raped me when I was 13. When I told my parents, they didn’t believe me and told me to stop making up stories to hurt their son who was their favorite child.
- Child: I shouldn’t have told my parents what my brother did. Maybe it wasn’t so bad. Maybe he didn’t mean to hurt me. My brother was more lovable than I was.
- Adult: My parents didn’t believe me because then they would have felt conflicted about their favorite child. They should have believed me and punished my brother. I deserve to have been validated, comforted and been justly treated.
- Whenever I said anything that upset Mom, she’d smack me across the face, then cry that she’d hurt me, go into her bedroom and not come out for days.
- Child: I’m bad and should be more careful to not upset and hurt Mom.
- Adult: Mom had serious mental health issues that she unfairly took out on me.
- Dad drank a lot like his parents did and didn’t come home some nights because he said he was sick of being with a family that didn’t respect him and give him space.
- Child: It’s our fault Dad drinks. We should be nicer to him and give him space.
- Adult: Dad suffered from alcoholism and his rants and staying out late had nothing to do with how we acted toward him.
Humans are hard-wired to try to make sense of the world. However, we can’t move beyond trauma, abuse or neglect if we don’t give new, mature, enlightened meanings to events of childhood. In truth, parents who hurt us badly were misguided and ignorant at best and mentally ill at worst due to experiences that made them unable to love us as well as we deserved. We didn’t know that then, but now, fortunately, we do.