Reframing the Challenges of Childhood
It’s easy to look back on the trials of our youth with angst. But what if we consciously chose to deconstruct and reshape these painful narratives?
I’m 8 years old, trying to focus on what my tall, lanky, fourth-grade geography teacher Mr. Brow is saying. This is my first day in a new school (the bilingual Colegio Americano), a new city (Quito), and a new country (Ecuador).
Suddenly, apropos of nothing, I erupt into loud, noisy sobs. All the kids stare at me, wondering what’s going on. Mr. Brow frowns, obviously concerned. I can’t explain it myself, though this is hardly the first time I’ve started sobbing in class for no reason.
I’ve been breaking down during the first week in a new school ever since kindergarten. And by age 8, my young self has had plenty of opportunities because I’ve already attended a lot of schools: in Budapest; suburban Washington, D.C.; Buenos Aires; and now Quito—all postings where my father was assigned as a U.S. diplomat. Before starting fourth grade, I dreaded the first week, desperately hoping I wouldn’t break down, but once again I did. This pattern seemed inevitable, something outside my control, but fortunately I finally outgrew it before my father’s next posting.
Our family moved every two to three years, and in the ’50s and ’60s, an era of “benign neglect,” I doubt my parents thought twice about subjecting their kids to so much turbulence.
More changes were to come. Because I changed schools seven times between the ages of 10 and 18, almost once a year, I’m amazed I never turned to unhealthy habits like drinking or drugs. The most difficult chapter was the year I was 16, attending an Episcopal girls’ boarding school in Raleigh, North Carolina, while my parents were on the other side of the world.
I began to see that whatever challenges I’d faced growing up, they had helped me become stronger.
Switching from the international school in Lahore, Pakistan, to a girls’ boarding school in the insular, parochial South in the mid-’60s was the biggest culture shock of my life. I had never heard of Villager blouses, London Fog raincoats, or Pappagallo shoes, all of which were identity markers of the Southern teenage girl’s culture at that time. Although in Pakistan I’d been a typical rebellious teenager, it was a different matter living halfway around the world from my parents, with self-sticking, slow-mail airgrams as the only available form of communication.
Desperately lonely and homesick, I found comfort by sneaking down to the school basement several times a day to buy ice cream sandwiches from the candy machine—10 or more daily, sometimes stealing change from other boarders when I ran out of my own. One February afternoon, a fellow student found me in her room looking for a dime in her wallet. Although being caught was awful at the time, I’m grateful now that she found me because it forced me to seek help from my English teacher, a kind, sympathetic soul who listened quietly as I tearfully poured out my soul. Just talking to her made me stop.
Difficult times! And yet, despite the challenges of that year, today, more than 50 years later, I remain close friends with several girls from that era.
A Shift in Perspective
My mortifying meltdowns in elementary school, along with the loneliness I felt at boarding school, remind me that my family’s itinerant lifestyle and the role of being the “new girl in school” wasn’t easy for me. So it might seem strange that today I look back on myself as having been a reasonably happy, carefree young girl.
Not that I always have thought this—my lens keeps changing. As a young adult I viewed my childhood as very difficult, but that was in the ’70s, when no one I knew thought they’d been happy in their youth. Instead of playing soccer or going to bars after work, my peers and I spent our free time in encounter groups and Gestalt therapy, merrily blaming our parents for what we considered our traumatic childhoods.
A turning point in my perspective came in my early 40s, when I read minister and therapist Wayne Muller’s 1992 book, Legacy of the Heart: The Spiritual Advantages of a Painful Childhood. I began to see that whatever challenges I’d faced growing up, they had helped me become stronger. Even with all the turbulence and different schools, I wouldn’t have traded my childhood living overseas because of its cultural richness and the stimulation I received. Despite my difficult first week in Quito, for example, I made Ecuadorian friends there who I reconnected with 20 years later during a visit to the country.
A few years after reading Muller’s book, while visiting my in-laws in England, I was browsing in the memoir section in Waterstones—the British equivalent of Barnes & Noble—when I noticed an entire shelf labeled “Painful Childhoods.” Staring at the label, I burst out laughing; it captured the age perfectly.
In our modern culture, the lure of the painful childhood is powerful (I should know, having spent 20 years there). And if I wanted to, I could still make a case for it. Occasionally I’m tempted—there’s something seductive about the idea. But ultimately, I don’t choose to construct a painful narrative around my childhood.
Reshaping the Past to Find Freedom in the Future
By my 50s, I had become more philosophical. Since memory is famously slippery and deceptive, I figured I’d never know what my childhood was really like. Far from a problem, this freed me to view it any way I chose. My choice was to see it as good enough—not idyllic, but a long way from tragic. I felt more resilient not feeling sorry for my younger self.
I recently turned 70, and once again I feel differently. Photos of myself as a kid show me looking relaxed and comfortable, laughing, smiling, and being silly—far from traumatized! Around 14, I start to look more cultivated, like I’m carefully curating my persona. Not as innocent and unguarded as my younger self. But what teenager doesn’t craft their image over and over? Trying on different selves is exactly the point of adolescence.
I doubt many teenagers are spared difficulties or have a simple, carefree life. In the team-building seminars I’ve led as a business trainer, I ask audience members who in the group were the “last chosen,” as I was, for sports teams in P.E. Many people respond, and all agree being last was awful. When I ask who in the group were the team leaders, far fewer raise their hands, but to my surprise, their role turned out to be hard too.
“I hated having to choose. If I picked a friend for my team, I knew other kids would accuse me of playing favorites, but if I didn’t, my buddy would be pissed or hurt,” one executive told the group. Listening to him, I realized that probably no one emerges from high school without a few wounds.
How I view my childhood at 70 is different from how I viewed it at 50, which in turn was different than the way I saw it at 20 and 40. Today I think of my childhood as mostly happy. But who knows? When I’m 80, I may feel differently. My father, who is exactly 30 years older than me, turned 100 six months ago. If I live anywhere near as long as he has, I’ll have plenty of time to change my mind again—and given my history, I probably will.
Help for Deeper Trauma
For those whose childhood traumas were of a deeper nature, including experiences like emotional and physical abuse, healing takes much more effort than merely reshaping memories. In addition to professional therapy, a variety of tools exist that can support people on their healing journey. Meditation, prayer, journaling, receiving energy work from a trained energy medicine practitioner, and specific exercises like breathwork and mirror work can help. Working regularly with a spiritual advisor is also extremely helpful.
Unity provides a number of resources for deeper healing, including the Unity Prayer Ministry (formerly Silent Unity), various healing-oriented retreats, books and other publications, and online articles.
This article is an online exclusive of Unity Magazine®.