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How Does Childhood Affect Us?

Question:

How do the things that we experience in childhood – either good or bad – affect us in later life? One of my friends has been on marijuana for years and is now suicidal, could her wanting to use drugs and her depression have anything to do with her childhood?

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Answer:

Your question is the starting point for an entire field of psychological study known as Developmental Psychology. Literally hundreds of Developmentalists (and Clinicians too) are probably at work right now trying to figure out ways that childhood experience affects adult behavior as you read this. The simple answer is that childhood experience impacts but does not determine adult behavior. This is to say that bad childhood experiences can definitely result in problematic adult behavior, but that this is not always the case. Conversely, good childhood experiences usually produce good adult behavior but that this is also not always the case. We know that the quality of a child’s attachment to caregiving figures is critical in determining how they act as adults. Child abuse tends to produce adults with disordered behavior, difficult relationships and painful psychological lives. Conversely, children who know instinctively that they can trust their parents to care for them tend to do better in adult relationships than do abused persons. Some children can survive a heap of abuse if they have even one high quality caregiving relationship. The relationship is not exact however. There are some kids who just end up not doing well as adults despite exemplary parenting.

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p> Regarding your friend, her depression, suicidal thoughts and drug use may indeed have in some way been influenced by difficult childhood conditions. The past did not cause these reactions so much as it may have helped make her more vulnerable to depression and drugs. Then again, how you get somewhere and why you stay there are two different things entirely. Your friend today is making the choice to be a drug user, and your friend today has the choice to work on help for depression and suicidal thinking. The past may have helped her to go down these roads, but it is not what is keeping her here now. Part of recovery from these sorts of conditions will likely be the willingness of your friend to take present-day responsibility for her health and her future. She will be less likely to get sober and to work on her depression if she blames the past and insists on remaining a victim of it. She will have an easier time (not a simple time but an easier time) getting well if she comes to realize that she has the power to influence her future. So there you have it.

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