How to Move Forward as an Adult If You Were Robbed of Your Childhood
I was driving to work the other morning, winding through the East Bay hills that are blossoming and blooming right now, when Nina Simone’s Little Girl Blue came up on my playlist.
I always get goosebumps when I hear this song. Not only because Nina Simone’s voice is gorgeous, but because the lyrics of the song are poignant, tender and more than a little melancholy.
And the lyrics remind me of my clients.
Specifically, my clients who grew up in chaotic, neglectful or outright or subtly abusive homes and who then (and even now) might self-identify as Little Girl (or Little Boy) Blue. Clients who are now adults with degrees, good jobs and who are living in one of the most beautiful corners of the world, but who still have a sad and tender little child inside of them because, for numerous reasons, they never got a chance to be a child in their childhood.
So, today’s post is written for anyone out there who can identify with being a Little Girl (or Boy) Blue and who feels like they didn’t get a chance to actually be a child in their childhood and is currently struggling with this in their day-to-day life.
I’ll share more about what being a child robbed of a childhood can look like, and the impacts I believe this can have, and more importantly, what we can do about it as adults now.
What stops a child from being a child in their childhood?
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass
Being robbed of your childhood is a tragedy.
I really, truly believe this and I don’t use the word tragedy lightly.
It is every child’s innate right to have a childhood, and when this is stolen from them, it’s a terrible and very sad thing.
And let me be clear: When I talk about a child being robbed or their childhood, I’m not talking about not having been able to go to Disney when all your friends got to go on summer vacation.
It can feel painful to be left out as a kid, absolutely.
And I’m not talking about your parents making you do chores and pitch out around the house when you would’ve preferred spending your time playing video games (actually, there’s some really great research out there about how being made to do chores as a kid can make you into a more happy and successful adult).
It can be frustrating and hard to not have all of your wants met as a kid, for sure.
What I mean about a child being robbed of a childhood is what happens when a child grows up in a home devoid of the love, safety, consistency and the logistical and emotional security necessary for their overall well-being and proper cognitive, physical and psychological development.
This is being robbed of childhood.
And what can contribute to this? Unfortunately, a wide and varied host of factors can contribute to this, including:
1. Being raised in a home with a parent (or both parents) who had a personality disorder, mood disorder or addiction to substances and/or behaviors and where the child felt a lack in predictability and safety with parents.
2. Growing up in an environment where there was food, income or environmental instability, possibly due to impaired or challenged caregivers or due to outside environmental factors.
3. Being sexually assaulted as a child.
4. Having an experience of being a witness to violence whether at home or at school.
5. Journeying through the isolated or ongoing trauma of a school shooting, repeated in-person bullying or cyberbullying, living or going to school in a dangerous and potentially life-threatening environment and not receiving proper support to metabolize and make sense of this trauma.
6. Living in a home where the child was over-parentified and inappropriately made to be responsible for managing the moods and chaos the adults around them created.
7. Being raised in an environment where the child was the recipient of ongoing emotional or verbal abuse.
And these are only a few examples. There are, sadly, so many more.
Effectively, children are robbed of their childhood whenever a confluence of factors, whether inside or outside their home, create a feeling of instability and insecurity and where they don’t get the time, space and support to move through key developmental tasks and milestones all children and adolescents are tasked with.
What do I mean by developmental tasks and milestones?
Developmental Tasks Theory is a psychological theory contributed to by many fine minds over the years, but the framework I really like was developed by a very interesting guy named Robert J. Havighurst, Ph.D. who was a physicist turned experimental education researcher/professor who posited human life falls into six major developmental stages and that each of these stages have critical biopsychosocial developmental tasks which, when successfully met and completed, build on one another for the maturation and progression of the individual.
Havighurt’s developmental task theory is as follows:
Infancy and Early Childhood (Birth to 6 years old):
- Learning to walk.
- Learning to take solid foods.
- Learning to talk.
- Learning to control the elimination of body wastes.
- Learning sex differences and sexual modesty.
- Forming concepts and learning language to describe social and physical reality.
- Getting ready to read.
Middle Childhood (6 to 13 years old):
- Learning physical skills necessary for ordinary games.
- Building wholesome attitudes toward oneself as a growing organism.
- Learning to get along with age-mates.
- Learning an appropriate masculine or feminine social role.
- Developing fundamental skills in reading, writing and calculating.
- Developing concepts necessary for everyday living.
- Developing conscience, morality and a scale of values.
- Achieving personal independence.
- Developing attitudes toward social groups and institutions.
Developmental Tasks of Adolescence (13 to 18 years old):
- Achieving new and more mature relations with age-mates of both sexes.
- Achieving a masculine or feminine social role.
- Accepting one’s physique and using the body effectively.
- Achieving emotional independence of parents and other adults.
- Preparing for marriage and family life and preparing for an economic career.
- Acquiring a set of values and an ethical system as a guide to behavior; developing an ideology.
- Desiring and achieving socially responsible behavior.
Developmental Tasks of Early Adulthood (19 to 30 years old):
- Selecting a mate.
- Achieving a masculine or feminine social role.
- Learning to live with a marriage partner.
- Starting a family.
- Rearing children.
- Managing a home.
- Getting started in an occupation.
- Taking on civic responsibility.
- Finding a congenial social group.
Developmental Tasks of Middle Age (30 to 60 years old):
- Achieving adult civic and social responsibility.
- Establishing and maintaining an economic standard of living.
- Assisting teenage children to become responsible and happy adults.
- Developing adult leisure-time activities.
- Relating oneself to one’s spouse as a person.
- Accepting and adjusting to the physiologic changes or middle age.
- Adjusting to aging parents.
Developmental Tasks of Later Maturity (60 years old and over):
- Adjusting to decreasing physical strength and health.
- Adjusting to retirement and reduced income.
- Adjusting to death of a spouse.
- Establishing an explicit affiliation with one’s age group.
- Meeting social and civil obligations.
- Establishing satisfactory physical living arrangements.
Now, imagine if you grew up with any of the above scenarios I listed earlier, scenarios that could rob you of your childhood.
If you grew up with a parent or caregiver who had narcissistic tendencies, or was raging one moment and all confusingly kind and sweet the next, or was an active alcoholic and domestic abuser, how much emotional energy do you think you would have available living in an environment like this to devote to “building wholesome attitudes toward oneself as a growing organism” or “developing conscience, morality and a scale of values?”
Realistically, not much.
Your life energy would likely have mostly gone toward trying to survive and cope with the unpredictability and lack of safety in your home.
And even if you grew up where the environment was seemingly less chaotic and threatening, how well can a child, and later a teen, achieve “new and more mature relations with age-mates of both sexes” if this child/teen was the recipient of endless criticism and messaging they weren’t good enough (too fat, too ugly, too loud, too much like their mother, etc.)?
Would a teen really have the sound sense of self to appropriately form relationships if their self-esteem was consistently chipped away at by caregivers? Would they even be able to identify healthy and appropriate relationships then?
Not optimally, no.
The bottom line is this: If you experienced complex relational trauma, child abuse or were otherwise robbed of your childhood’s safety, security and appropriateness, you likely would have been preoccupied to a certain extent with surviving your day-to-day reality in whatever way. Due to this, you may not have had the mental, emotional and even physical ability to focus on achieving these key developmental tasks and goals.
(Sidenote: This is why it’s utterly fruitless and unfair if you come from a background of childhood trauma to compare yourself to peers and their accomplishments who came from non-traumatic backgrounds.)
But/and, because successful completion and mastery of the developmental tasks in each life stage lend to achieving the tasks of the next, children who were robbed of their childhood may very well feel the impacts of this well into their adulthood.
What are the impacts of a child being robbed of childhood?
“Many abused children cling to the hope that growing up will bring escape and freedom. But the personality formed in the environment of coercive control is not well adapted to adult life. The survivor is left with fundamental problems in basic trust, autonomy, and initiative. She approaches the task of early adulthood ― establishing independence and intimacy ― burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and in memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships. She is still a prisoner of her childhood; attempting to create a new life, she reencounters the trauma.” ― Judith Lewis Herman, MD
The impacts on adults who didn’t get to be a child can be as wide and varied as the factors that contributed to their trauma in the first place.
The quote from Judith Lewis Herman, MD — a pioneer and great mind in the work of trauma recovery — sums it up: Someone raised in an unsupportive environment may have challenges with the primary tasks of adulthood: independence and intimacy, both with oneself and with others.
This may look like a struggle to form and keep appropriate, healthy and connected relationships. Or not even having realistic expectations of what a romantic relationship can look like.
Maybe this looks like being terrified of conflict and playing the role of caretaker and having poor boundaries because advocating for yourself feels terrifying. Or perhaps this may look like an inability to self-reflect and act with self-agency on and toward the career that you truly want.
Possibly, this may look like living with an eating disorder to help cope with and numb out the intolerable feelings of fear and panic you live with. This may look like being frozen with ambivalence about whether or not to start a family because you spent the first half of your life being made to caretake for everyone around you and you fear being trapped into doing so more.
Perhaps this looks like not even being connected to your body and your sexual identity because you were raised with “shoulds” and not encouraged to reflect on what and who you truly want. Maybe this looks like having “achieved” all of the tasks that society set out in front of you — a few advanced degrees, a good job, a great paycheck — but feeling emotionally deadened and depressed on the inside at the end of the day.
Whatever and however this looks for you, what’s likely is being robbed of a childhood may still have impacts on you, be they large or small.
I invite you to get curious about how this may show up for you by using the framework of Havighurt’s developmental tasks above.
And what do we do now if we’re an adult who was a child robbed of childhood?
“No recovery from trauma is possible without attending to issues of safety, care for the self, reparative connections to other human beings and a renewed faith in the universe. The therapist’s job is not just to be a witness to this process but to teach the patient how.” ― Janina Fisher, Ph.D.
First, we must come to terms with the reality of our past. We must face the truth we were a child who was robbed of a childhood.
And then, sweetheart, you have to grieve this.
Grieving something so abstract and enormous such as losing your childhood can be a lengthy, emotional and seemingly never-ending process. But if we don’t allow ourselves the room to feel sad about what we lost, we will hold back our growth.
And while it’s true that we can never turn back time and get our actual childhood back, I believe, with some creativity, intention and skillful support, even while we’re still grieving our lost childhood, we can work toward any developmental tasks we may have missed, and also weave practices, behaviors and elements into our adult life that can help soothe and meet the needs of that little girl or boy blue inside of us.
What might this look like?
There are thousands of ways and this will be highly subjective to you and your personal history.
This may look like a combination of seeking out professional support and doing some fundamental psychological work. Even as you work toward relationships you deeply desire in the world, it also may include giving yourself some of the tangible joys your inner child may still long for.
Some reparative experiences and possibilities may look like:
1. Getting into therapy to work on learning what appropriate and healthy relationships look like and how to seek out, nurture and be in these kinds of relationships.
2. Creating a safe and nurturing physical environment to allow yourself to feel safety you may never have felt before.
3. Seeking out professional support to mourn the past, learn how to process and tolerate your feelings and address any maladaptive behaviors or patterns you developed to cope with childhood.
4. Being responsible and providing income and job stability for yourself so your nervous system can be given a chance to relax with the basic foundation of life in place.
5. Allowing yourself to question and experiment with who you’re sexually attracted to and perhaps letting yourself live this out more.
6. Experimenting with your dress and appearance, finding what feels authentic to you and expressing this in the world.
7. Being mindful and curious about your values system and if you’re living them out in the world and pivoting and adjusting in any ways you may need to.
8. And it can look like tangibly giving yourself the things you longed for as a child, but never got a chance to do:
- Going to summer camp (yes, adults can go to summer camps).
- Borrowing young adult novels from the library instead of nonfiction despite “how it looks” because you simply enjoy it.
- Carving out an afternoon on the weekend to play video games to your heart’s content.
- Treasure hunting on Ebay the toys your guardian may have put in a garage sale because “you were too old for dolls.”
- Creating wonderful, nourishing holiday rituals for the family you choose to build so you can have the holidays you never had as a kid.
- Taking that trip to Disney after all.
Really, truly, in my mind, it means giving yourself the best chance possible to have a life as an adult that’s as enlivened, rich and congruent with your soul’s longings and values as possible.
It’s really sad any child gets robbed of their childhood.
If I could wave a magic wand, I would protect the world’s babies, children and teens so they have all the love, safety, security, guidance and support they need to become whole, esteemed and resilient adults.
But, in the absence of that magic wand, I hope my words can help you be curious about your own experience and what it might look like to support yourself if you identify with having been robbed of a childhood, if you identify with being a Little Girl (or Boy) Blue.
And, remember, at the end of the song, Nina sings:
“Why won’t somebody send a tender blue boy to cheer up, little girl blue?”
I smile when I hear this line and think the savior we may have longed for in our childhood — or if not a savior, simply a companion to stand with us through the pain and chaos — may not have come to us then, but we have the chance to be that proverbial companion to ourselves now as we face our past, grieve and mourn it and move forward trying to build the most beautiful and enlivened life possible for ourselves.
So, tell me in the comments: What did this article bring up for you? What’s one way in which you can support yourself now as an adult if you were robbed of your childhood? Leave a message in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you.
Unsplash image by Karim Manjra