As an adult psychiatrist, I spend a lot of time thinking and talking about childhood, and there's a good reason for this. It's become abundantly clear over the past 20-plus years of doing psychotherapy that childhood experiences are at the root of adult problems.
Every person who's walked through my office door suffering from depression, anxiety, relationship or work problems, low self-esteem or addiction has a history of some type of adversity in their childhood. It's become clear to me by listening to their stories that were it not for these painful events, the person wouldn't be struggling as much as they are, today.
When we look at a young child who's beginning to show signs of emotional disturbance or behavioural issues, what we're seeing is that something has happened to them, or something is happening, that is causing them the beginnings of a problem.
"If we're to do the best for our children, we have to understand the basic emotional necessities of childhood and the types of events that are likely to cause a child difficulties, now and in the future."
Whether we're dealing with a child who seems mostly well-adjusted in the moment, or one who's begun to exhibit signs of more significant dysfunction, those of us in the helping fields want to do everything we can to optimize the child's emotional and psychological well-being so as to prevent future problems.
If we're to do the best for our children, we have to understand the basic emotional necessities of childhood and the types of events that are likely to cause a child difficulties, now and in the future.
When it comes to the necessities of childhood, we have to remember that perfect parenting is neither necessary nor possible. A child just needs, as the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott so aptly put it, "good enough parenting."
Good enough parenting means that the child is loved and valued for who they are, not for how they behave, and the child is nurtured, cared for and protected, but not coddled. In fact, the "good enough" parent allows the child to be disappointed and frustrated at times, so that they learn to tolerate and cope with these types of experiences in adulthood.
And interestingly, "good enough parenting" also applies to the other adults in a child's life; the adults who teach, guide and support the child. Each one of these adults has an important role to play in the child's development and emotional well-being.
"When we think about the experiences that lead to difficulties in childhood and beyond, there are two distinct types: the absence of certain necessities or the presence of hurtful events."
Children need to feel important, but not so important that their agenda supersedes that of the parent. Overly-permissive parents who indulge their children are depriving them of the guidance and limits they need in order to develop appropriately and function optimally as adults.
Love, affirmation, guidance, protection and limits: these are the necessities of childhood. When a child is raised with all of these things, they're far more likely to grow into high-functioning adults with good confidence and self worth, who have constructive coping strategies in difficult times.
When we think about the experiences that lead to difficulties in childhood and beyond, there are two distinct types: the absence of certain necessities or the presence of hurtful events.
If a child is neglected; if they're not praised enough -- perhaps from a parent's misguided notion that this will give them a "swelled head" -- or if they're not encouraged to do things, the child will grow up with a lack of confidence and self-worth.