How Our Childhood Affects Our Sense of Self-Worth
“Dad,” the teenager called gently, but her father ignored her. I was sitting across from them on a train. The teenage girl was with her two younger sisters and mother at a table, and her father was in the next row of seats with another man.
“Dad?” she tried again, but he did not acknowledge her – she tried on and off for five minutes and then gave up. He was not there for his daughter and he dealt her a public humiliation on top of it. Meanwhile, her younger sister climbed on their father’s knee and he hugged her in tight.
The teenager was being given the message that what she had to say was not worth listening to and, even more damaging, she, his own daughter, did not merit acknowledgment.
As children our sense of who we are is reflected back to us by our parents or those in loco parentis. If you are told you are gorgeous and clever then you will probably come to believe it. And if you are told you are lazy or bad you may believe that too. While young children are still learning to self-reflect and have self-awareness they mainly have others’ opinions to go on. And that continues throughout our lives to some extent (hence the need, perhaps through therapy, to develop a sense of self-awareness and self-worth). As teenagers, when we are wondering “who am I?”, we are open to scrutiny from our peers – not always reliable witnesses – to help discover that.
So at a time when we are developing as a person, through childhood and adolescence, our sense of self can be in the hands of those around us, whether they are loving and kind, bullying, angry, judgmental, unreliable, lacking in self-esteem or just muddling through the best way they can.
Parents who are alcoholic or have other addictions are often physically present but mentally absent from their children and unable to take responsibility, sometimes to the extent that the child is put in the adult role of caring. The result is that their children may not feel they are listened to when the parent is mentally elsewhere and so they too can grow up feeling silenced, sensing that no-one has the time to hear them.
Children can feel unheard in other ways. One woman recalls her father getting angry whenever she spoke to him, her words being referred to as an “interruption”, whether it was “disturbing” him from his work or even watching the television: game shows were more interesting than she was, she heard.
Sometimes behaviour that we learn in childhood - behaviour that keeps us safe - is carried into adulthood where it no longer serves us. This can be the case with those who grew up with an abusive parent. Clients can recall keeping a very low profile as children, hiding in the corner or another room, staying below the radar of the (physically or emotionally) abusive parent. This can work, at least sometimes, and so the child learns that safety lies in staying quiet. Naturally later in life they keep a low profile knowing that they won’t be hurt if they stay out of people’s way. But, of course, it makes their lives smaller too.
As with much therapy, the key is uncovering where limiting behaviour stems from and it is the same with feeling as if you have no voice. When was that belief planted in you? And the next step of therapy is to work on validating you as a person, who has just as much right as others to be heard. Just as hopefully, one day, the teenager on the train will learn.
Photo by ANDRIK LANGFIELD PETRIDES