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What does my childhood have anything to do with this?

Hello from the wonderful and busy world of CWK Counseling!

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. I’ve spent the last 15 months growing a thriving private practice, cramming in all the enneagram wisdom I can, and workshops galore. I have updated my webpage; take a look at the continuing education page and see some of the things I’ve been up over the last year.

As some of you know, and lots of you don’t—I started out my career thinking I would work with kiddos. I started babysitting when I was 12, faithfully worked in church nurseries, nannied through college and beyond, and taught preschool and tutored while in graduate school. Kids have always been on my radar as the population I would work with. Apparently, God had different plans. I now work with adults but my work with early childhood development through high school has prepared me well for the work I currently do. Would you guess that we’re all on a continuum? We have been and will always be what we are becoming. Childhood to now, it all counts.

You may be asking yourself, “Caroline, you are a therapist. What are you talking about and what does have anything to do with me?” Well, let me just tell you: learning differences follow us into adulthood, for better or for worse. I’m going to break this blog up into a couple of parts because who has time to read a ton at once. There is nothing more irritating than recipe for macaroni and cheese where you have to scroll through 12 pages of ramblings before you get to how much flour and cheese you need. I’m looking at you, food bloggers. So, I’m going to break it up to, hopefully, make it easier to digest. I’m going to talk about negative childhood messages we take from being different, how therapy helps with that, and what you can do for yourself or your child in response to this information.

It takes children about a nanosecond of being in a classroom for them to figure out if they can operate with the pack. Do they get in trouble more than others? Can they emotionally regulate? Does everyone else seem to finish their work first? Does the teacher seem frustrated with them? A lot of people like to think kids don’t notice things—kids notice everything. I have a friend who, when in preschool, was asked what she would like to drink for lunch said, “scotch and water in a Styrofoam cup, please.” I cannot even begin to all tell you the things my little people told me about their family and life at home. It is always interesting to me to see the connection between anxious parents and children. If a parent is tightly wound or generally stressed, kiddos come in with that energy all over them. They notice their parents and they notice their teacher. These are their reference points for how they fit into the world.

So, what does this have to do with learning differences? Everything. I had a client tell me that by the end of first grade, she knew she was the “dumbest kid in the class.” That has followed her into adulthood. It affects her relationship with herself, her friends, her love life, her job, and overall, how she lets others treat her. Early childhood experiences color our world. In EMDR language (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the blog about Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), we develop negative core cognitions about ourselves. Because children are so egocentric, they assume everything is about them. I read a case study about a client that spent her whole life thinking she wasn’t smart because of a happenstance incident with her mom. She came in and presented her mother with a paper from school. The mom looked at her disapprovingly and the lie was sown—she was “dumb.” As adults, we can hear that story and think of all kinds of reasons for a disproving look. Maybe the mom had a headache, she’d just had a stressful phone call, maybe she didn’t even look at the paper because her mind was somewhere else. It was in no way malicious, but tiny minds don’t have the benefit of perspective. “If mommy is unhappy, it must be something I have done.”

Many kiddos with learning differences conclude that they are inherently broken. Somehow a piece of them is missing that everyone else seems to have. And they seem to have it effortlessly. They think, “If I can’t operate like everyone else, it’s because something is wrong with me.” Not that the system is broken, the teacher is unfamiliar with how to accommodate learning differences, or that they simply need a different style of presentation of information; they are the problem. Schools have come such a long way in supporting students with learning differences but unfortunately for many of my clients, that train left the station much later than they left school (I will post about systemic learning problems and solutions in a later post). They have spent their adult lives feeling inherently less than those around them. Miraculously, many of them end up in my office where we can start a process of healing that inner child and the wounds they suffered.

Many times, adults don’t know their learning difference has followed them into adulthood. They have figured out how to cope and tricks to pick up the slack (more about that later). I learned early in my career of working with young men with substance use disorder and dual diagnoses that asking about school is important. What was school like? Tell me about your friends. What was your overall impression of teachers? Is there one teacher that sticks out as someone that was helpful to you? What was homework like at your house? Did anyone ever bring up a learning difference with you or your parents? It’s a question I still ask early on in getting to know my clients. I had a client who I had somehow never discussed this with. One day he said something about auditory processing therapy, but he couldn’t remember much about it. I said, “You’re a learning difference kid?! What?! This all makes sense!” After that, we were able to get down to the root of his passivity and conflict avoidance. It was a total game changer.

So that’s where I’ll leave it today. If you are reading this and identifying with anything, I would encourage you to think back to the negative cognition or thought you adopted about yourself while in school. See if you can trace that belief to current situations. I’m interested to hear what you find out.

10-4. Be kind to yourselves, make good choices, prefer others, and remember that we are all good at hiding things—you never know what someone else is experiencing so give them the benefit of the doubt.


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