An emotionally healthy childhood can’t be idiosyncratic, dependent on a particular environment, or come down to good luck. There are distinct themes to identify. With optimal development in mind we can start to form a map. From there, we can see with greater clarity where we are taking a left turn, what we have to be grateful for, and where we feel our greatest shame. At a societal level, this map might serve as general direction toward what there is to achieve in order to create a more emotionally stable and therefore slightly saner world.
An emotionally healthy childhood could give us the following:
A lifelong advocate. Someone will put themselves profoundly at our service. If as adults we have even a measure of mental health, it is undoubtedly because, when we were small and dependent, there was a person (to whom we essentially owe our lives) who pushed their needs aside for a time to focus wholly on our own. They understood our babble and heard us into speech; they gave us their best guesses on treatment when we were sick; they calmed our fears, consoled us in our insecurities, and protected us from harm. They provided a protective barrier from the chaos of the world, showing us just enough of it—carving up our experiences for us in manageable pieces. Without thanks or sympathy, they didn’t expect us to ask how their day went or how well they slept. They catered to our needs, so that we would later on be able to submit to the rigors and slights of daily life. This lop-sided relationship was temporary, but by modeling with consistency, made certain our ability to form a healthy one.
We generally think of egocentricity a quality resulting from too much love or attention. But it’s actually the opposite. An adult who is ego-centric never got their fill as a child. Self-centeredness has to have a clean run in the early years if it isn’t to haunt and ruin the later ones. Those we regard as narcissists are simply unfortunate people who never got the chance to be exceedingly admired at the start.
In an emotionally healthy childhood, our advocate is there to give us the benefit of the doubt. They offer us a positive spin on our behavior. We are assessed by what we might be one day, not by what we are right now. From this we learn kindness and charity.
If our advocate is a harsh critic, for example, they might say that we were ‘attention-seeking’. They imagine that what we most need is a hug and some encouraging words. We might have acted meanly. Our advocate adds that we must have been feeling threatened. If we dropped something accidentally or were negligent; our advocate remembers that tiredness could have explained it, or they were distracted by a new visitor.
Our advocate constantly searches for the story behind the story. They look under the surface for more compassionate explanations. They help us to be on our own side, to like ourselves. If we actually like ourselves, we learn not to be too defensive about our flaws. We learn there is always something to work on, constructively, and we learn to accept ourselves as we are.
In a healthy childhood, the relationship with our advocate is stable, dependable and long-term. We have faith they will be there tomorrow and the day after. They aren’t explosive or fragile. They are almost boringly predictable—so much so, we might start to take them for granted. As a result, we project this trust on to other relationships we develop throughout our life. We are able to believe that what has gone well once can go well again. This belief influences our choice of friends, adult partners, bosses—everyone. We aren’t fascinated by people who are abrupt with us or unreliable; we don’t relish being punished, judged, or mistreated. We can pick out influences who are kind and nurturing, and don’t view them as weak or deficient for being so.
If trouble strikes with our kindly partners, we don’t go into an instant panic. We don’t immediately try to defend ourselves by turning away, avoiding or cutting them off. We can confidently set about trying to repair a love we know we deserve.
In a healthy childhood, we aren’t always required to be wholly good. We are allowed our emotions. We can get angry and sometimes be disgusting. We can say ‘no more, absolutely not, no way’ when we disagree, or settle a dispute with ‘because I feel like it’. Our advocates are adults and know we all, no matter what our age, have our own flaws. As a result, they do not expect a child to be fundamentally better than they are. We do not have to comply at every turn to be merely tolerated. We can let others see our see our shadow sides.
This kind of freedom within our family systems prepares us one day to submit to the demands of society without having to rebel in unproductive, self-defeating ways (rebels being, at their core, people who have had to obey too much too early). We can tow the line when it’s in our long-term interest to do so. At the same time, we’re not overly cowed or indiscriminately obedient either. We learn to find a sound middle point between being completely submissive and self-destructive defiance.
In a healthy childhood, our advocate isn’t jealous or competitive with us. They can allow themselves to be overtaken and superseded. They have had their moment in the spotlight, or else are having it elsewhere beyond the family. They can be proud rather than resentful of the achievements of the (usually same-sex) child. It doesn’t need to be all about them.
The good advocate doesn’t live through the child’s accomplishments. They want them to do well, but for their own sake, and in their own way. There is no particular script that the child has to follow to be loved. For instance, the child doesn’t need to become a doctor or a famous soccer player because that is the path their parent chose. The child isn’t required to support their advocate’s self-doubt or pump them up to others.
In healthy childhood, the child learns that things that break can be fixed. Things that spill can easily be picked up. Plans can go awry, but new ones can be made. The advocate models for the child how to self-soothe, calm down, keep going, and remain hopeful. A voice of resilience, originally external, becomes the way the child learns to speak to themselves. There are alternatives to panic.
Notably, even emotionally healthy childhoods suffer from thins going awry. No one has hung their reputation on the notion that anyone’s childhood could ever be perfect. The advocate does not see it as their role to remove every frustration, pad every sharp corner, or remove every obstacle. They sense that a lot of good can come from having the right, manageable kind of friction through which the child develops their own resources and individuality. Having contact with bearable disappointment, the child is prompted to create their own internal world, in which they can dream, generate new plans, learn to self-soothe and build up their own resources.
Even emotionally healthy childhoods suffer from things going awry.
The child can see that the advocate is neither entirely good nor wholly bad, and therefore is worthy of neither idealizing on a pedestal nor casting out in disparagement. Just as the adult accepts the child with its faults, the child learns to accept the adult with theirs with a blend of melancholy, maturity and gratitude. They learn that, like their advocate, they need to accept that everyone they come into contact with will be a mixture of positive and negative, and that the presence of negativity or flaw is not cause for banishment. As adults, they won’t fall deeply in love and them (becoming fast friends or quick lovers), nor will they become furious at the first moment of let-down (by ghosting or giving off a vibe of being cast out). They have a realistic sense of what can be expected of life alongside another human who is, like them, good enough.
Unfortunately, despite all our advances in technology, education, and material resources, we are not much more advanced in the art of delivering emotionally healthy childhoods than previous generations. The number of breakdowns, inauthentic lives keeping up with some external image of success shows no marked signs of decline. We are failing to offer one another tolerable childhoods not because we are malicious, apathic or uncaring but because we still have so far to go before we know how to do that most apparently simple yet infinitely complicated of things for ourselves: emotional intelligence.
One tool that might just get us there is coaching.
This blog post is part of a series related to The Little Book of Coaching pending publication.