Do the first seven years really shape us for the rest of our life?

The first seven years

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” So said Greek philosopher Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago.

He was saying what many therapists will most certainly agree with from their experience of helping people. So much of who we are is shaped in the first years of our life.

It is not surprising to a certain extent as when we are young we are being moulded, having our brain wired. We are taking the first look at what can be called the “family blueprint”:  learning how to respond and react, essentially how to live life.

This then affects and has an impact on us for the rest of our time on this planet.

Total dependence

Total dependence

Human babies are quite unique in that we are born far earlier in our development than most other living things. We are much more dependent on our parents in the beginning and first several years than most other living things.

We cannot walk, feed ourselves, give ourselves shelter or ease our own pain. We are totally reliant.

In fact, our brains double in size in the first year after being born. By the time a child turns three, they are forming one million neural connections each minute.

A developing human brain is soaking up and adapting to so much of its environment in those early years. This is a vital part of survival as we learn to navigate the big strange and interesting world we’ve newly arrived in.

Mind, body and soul

Mind, body and soul

A wonderful phrase to keep in mind, perhaps especially around young children is: “Everything we say and do shapes the world around us.” This is because young children have brains that are like sponges, taking in everything they see and hear.

They will be learning how to respond to living life on life’s terms. That is, if their father regularly gets sulky and consumed with self-pity at seeing something he doesn’t like, the children will most likely grow up imitating this behaviour.

Or if the mother switches swiftly to anger at many situations she doesn’t like, her children will most probably react in the same way as they grow up and when they are grown up. This not only has an effect on emotions but physically too.

It may be that a certain family has a long line of heart problems. This could be purely physical and inherited – but it is likely too that because anger is not good for the heart this “family blueprint” reaction, that has been passed down the generations, plays at least a part.

Generations of compressed trauma

Our brains develop in the best way if they are growing in a nurturing environment during early life. However, if the environment is traumatic the brain doesn’t develop in the manner it should.

This is the case in many dysfunctional family homes. Also, some communities are not healthy for brain development; even some nations if, for instance, there is a war ongoing in that country.

Many mental health experts believe this can be a factor in certain mental health conditions. In those first seven years, in particular, our brains are being programmed just like a computer – but sometimes it all gets wired up in the wrong way with devastating consequences.

Parents who bring up their young children in an unhealthy environment are almost never doing this purposely. Usually, they are merely following the family blueprint and passing it down to the newest generation.

Coping mechanisms

Those parents are usually using their own coping mechanisms for their own dysfunctional childhood. For instance, if childhood trauma was experienced, its negative impact doesn’t stop just because those children become adults and then parents.

Tragically, the coping methods of wounded people are often unhealthy and dysfunctional. They can even be abusive.

It means someone is much more likely to develop an addiction or a mental health condition such as depression or anxiety. So unless someone finds recovery, it will usually be passed from generation to generation in some way.

Many of these coping mechanisms become thought of as the person’s character traits. But they are not the true self.

“It’s not a conscious choice; it’s more an automatic decision the young self makes to stay afloat in stressful emotional waters,” says physician and author Dr Gabor Maté. “Through no conscious will of your own, and for perfectly understandable reasons that had to do with your own emotional survival and thus were valid at the time, you have developed a personality style that has turned out to be bad for your health in the long run.”

Secure or anxious

One of the most important parts of life is how we interact with other people. It is obvious to see how our childhood shapes this – that is, how we are in our relationships, including with our significant partners.

In the 1950s, psychiatrist and psychologist John Bowlby identified four types of attachment styles that develop because of childhood experience – how as children we interacted with our parents. Relationship and mental health experts still refer to these today to help people.

The four attachment styles are:

  • Secure attachment. Someone feels secure, so they have healthy relationships.
  • Anxious attachment. This person is extremely needy and untrusting in relationships.
  • Avoidant attachment. People with this attachment style are not usually in a romantic relationship and spend lots of time alone.
  • Disorganized attachment. This is a hybrid of anxious and avoidant attachment styles.

Toxic shame

Toxic shame

At the start of our life, we will also be under the influence of our parents in developing our inner beliefs about ourselves. If, for example, we grow up in a house where we are frequently criticized we will most likely grow into an adult with low self-esteem and poor self-confidence.

Toxic shame – when someone carries shame that isn’t their shame, and that most often comes from a parent – leaves people feeling flawed inside, no matter what they achieve in life. As well, if a child is emotionally, physical or sexually abused in some way they will struggle with self-love for the rest of their lives unless they seek help from someone with expertise in these matters.

We cannot say that everything about us as adults is due to our childhood. It clearly does have a huge impact – but as adults, we also have the choice to learn new ways of living.

We are always capable of making the decision to “rewire” ourselves or rip up the family blueprint to write a new one that works for our lives. In understanding why we were struggling we can also begin to understand why other people – including our parents and other key caregivers – might have been the way they were too.

So we can always make the decision to heal ourselves through recovery – and there is always a solution. Our center is ideal for this and we’ve put the most effort into making sure it is this way.

Our expert team at Centres For Health & Healing has decades of expertise in helping with all mental health conditions and emotional disorders. Call us today to discuss how we can help you or someone you love.

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