HOW OUR CHILDHOOD MAKES US WHO WE ARE

HEALTH, MENTAL HEALTH

It’s interesting to consider how this chapter of lockdown is going to impact our children, isn’t it? Though it’s been unbelievably challenging, there’s sure to be positives to come from them spending so much time in the cocoon of home with their parents/care-givers close-at-hand. Only time will tell.

Though written pre-covid-19, this list from Clinical Psychologist Dr Lucy Maddox is a great introduction to Child Development Studies:

  • I’m a clinical psychologist and writer, living in Bristol. The more I learn about and practice clinical psychology the more I think the ideas are potentially useful for all of us.

  • We’ve all been children – and there are loads of studies which explore how we grew up. But we hardly ever learn about this in school. You hear about Newton’s apple and Archimedes’ bathtub, but not about the classic child psychology studies.

  • Our early experiences are really important in shaping us in lots of ways, including how we develop our sense of who we are, how we learn to get on with other people, and how we learn our frameworks for understanding the world.

  • This doesn’t mean that everything is set in stone. We can still update our beliefs through new experiences that we have, and we can work to better understand the behaviour patterns and beliefs we have, which sometimes is enough to help us get unstuck from unhelpful loops.

  • It starts so early. Even before we’re in the womb, if you think about how our parents’ lives impacted on the way that they parent. But let’s start in utero.

  • There have been some amazing studies investigating what babies experience in the womb. One of them compared the reactions of newborn babies whose mums regularly watched the soap opera Neighbours before they were born, to babies whose mums didn’t, when the Neighbours theme tune was played.

  • The babies whose mums were Neighbours fans seemed to recognise and respond to the theme tune. They seemed to listen more – their heart rates slowed, they were stiller, and they seemed to more relaxed. The other babies didn’t change their behaviour or heart rate. This and lots of other studies suggest that we are able to hear when we are in the womb and we also have a limited ability to remember post-birth.

  • One of the main findings about how our experience in the womb affects us, is that it’s really important that we look after pregnant women. This is because stress is rubbish for them to experience, and also, according to a very large study done in Bristol, because if women are very anxious or depressed during pregnancy it increases the risk of their baby experiencing mental health problems at the age of 13. This effect doesn’t happen to everyone – it’s only an increase in risk from 6% to 12% AND it’s certainly not your fault if you felt stressed in pregnancy – it can be a really stressful time. But, given that we know this, there should be bucketloads more support for pregnancy women, it’s a really important time for them and also their unborn child.

  • After birth, the relationship between babies and their main caregivers is massively important (mums, but also their other parent, grandparents, or in the case of babies living in kibbutzim, all the caregivers around them).

  • Before the classic studies that established this, affection and closeness were thought to be relatively unimportant in parenting.

  • We now know that providing love, a sense of security, and helping a child to recognise and name their own emotions are just as important as providing food, shelter and warmth.

  • Some of the research which suggested that affection was important came from animal studies. Lorenz, a scientist who studied animals in the 1930s, raised greylag geese from the time they hatched and found they “imprinted” on him – they followed him around everywhere! (There are some great videos of this on YouTube). Babies don’t “imprint” but they do form strong attachments with the people who care for them – and their caregivers form strong attachments back.

  • Another classic animal experiment (which wouldn’t be allowed today because of the monkeys, but which we’ve learnt a lot from) involved baby rhesus monkeys and took place at Stanford University with a researcher called Harry Harlow.

  • Baby monkeys separated at birth from their real mothers preferred to be with a cloth-covered soft dummy mother than with a harsh wire monkey that they couldn’t cuddle, even when the wire mother was the one with the milk bottle. Comfort was important.

  • Studies looking at human attachment have spanned decades and are still going on, but many use definitions of attachment that two researchers John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth both came up with. They thought of attachment relationships as being a system that acts to keep the infant close to a caregiver in times of danger – and that also acts to keep the caregiver close to the infant.

  • Our early relationships hopefully set us up to feel safe enough to explore the world and also to know we can return to our caregivers in times of stress or threat. Even as a grown-up, in times of stress we’re likely to go to those we are attached to – whether that’s our parents or other people we have formed attached relationships with.

  • How about our sense of who we are? Our sense of identity develops from when we are small and keeps developing throughout our adult life. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t feel like my sense of self got “sorted” at age 18 and never changed. Where does it all begin, this sense of who we are?

  • Consider this experiment: Draw a blob of lipstick on the nose of a child who is younger than about 18 months and show them their reflection and they tend to reach out to touch the reflected red dot, or even search behind the mirror for the other child. From about 18 months, children reach to touch their own nose instead, understanding that the image in the mirror shows a reflection – the beginnings of a sense of self.

  • Our identity as a boy or girl is indicated to us from really early on too. The research into differences between the sexes, despite what Mars and Venus stereotypes would have us believe, suggest that there are not specific brain differences making men or women better at one thing or the other, instead gender differences are largely shaped by what society teaches us is “good” for boys and girls.

  • TV adverts, shop marketing, seeing what toys our parents gravitate towards, and even the simple act of people saying “hello boys and girls” instead of “hello everyone”, can make us think from really early on that there should be differences between the sexes.

  • What about the effect of our teenage years? What do you remember about being an adolescent?

  • Any particular smells or tastes come to mind? Lynx perhaps? Or Archers and Lemonade? And did you fit with the stereotype of teenagers that is so often around? I had my share of naughtiness, but I also had a lot of sensible habits and a lot of worry about what other people thought about me.

  • We know now that teenagers’ brains are different to adult brains. The areas involved in social reward develop quicker than those involved in planning, problem-solving and decision making. So teenagers are disproportionately rewarded by how their friends see them, and are less able to make decisions based on longer-term consequences or to break down a problem into different parts.

  • Our brains don’t fully develop until about our mid-twenties, which explains a lot about some of my decision making before then.

  • So child development has loads to say about how we develop a sense of who we are. One of my favourite theories acknowledges that this might not get resolved by the time we reach ‘adulthood’.

  • James Marcia’s theory of identity formation acknowledges that we can be knocked off balance by positive events as well as negative events throughout our lives. A promotion, a new relationship, a move that we have been planning for ages, can still make us feel disoriented in our sense of who we are.

  • Being knocked off balance like this and then reaching some kind of equilibrium again is totally normal, the stuff of grown-up life, and so are those 3 am existential panics that crop up every so often.

  • Our sense of self includes a sense of self-consciousness, which although it is not as painfully awkward as in our teenage years, still hangs about a bit and enables us to take a view on who we are, and maybe also who we want to be.

  • By looking back at who we were we can sometimes move forward in a slightly different direction, or at least have a better sense of where we’ve come from.

  • That’s why I think we should all know about this stuff. It can be useful, and it might help us be a little kinder to ourselves.

  • For more on this read Lucy’s book – Blueprint: How Our Childhood Makes Us Who We Are. Lucy has also written a book for children all about mental health which is due out in January 2020. Instagram: @drlucymaddoxTwitter: @lucy_maddox

    Blog: psychologymagpie.com

    Website: lucymaddox.co.uk

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