by Tommy Carreras
For a long time, I enjoyed joking about how adults tend to act like “tall toddlers” – myself included! And for a long time, it was just a comical way I made sense of the irrational things we all seem to do.
But as I learned more about brain development (and spent some time in counseling), I started to see that my joke was closer to the truth than I had initially realized.
Who I am today is the culmination of who I have been every moment up until now. Every decision I make, every emotion I feel, every tragedy I suffer (or cause), every friend I gain (or lose), it all works together to build the current version of me.
The good, the bad, and the ugly: they’re all a part of the story.
And even though that idea tends to make logical sense to most people, it’s still easy to look back harshly on who we were.
We might get stuck in these mindsets:
- “I was ignorant.”
- “I was naive.”
- “I was stupid.”
- “I was toxic.”
- “I was unlovable.”
- “I’ll never be _____ again.”
There are many complex rationales behind these thoughts. One explanation might be future bias: a psychological theory that suggests we “devalue the pains of our past selves relative to the pains of our future selves.”
In my case, future bias might play out in my willingness to throw my past self under the bus because I don’t want my future self to act, feel, or think the same way.
Unfortunately, this fraught relationship with our younger selves is doing more damage than we might imagine.
The Truth about Brain Development
Our understanding of the world forms while we develop. New information and experiences create a sort of “base programming” about how the world works, who we can or can’t trust, cause and effect relationships, and our self-worth (or lack thereof).
Our brains grow in a specific way: we’re born with all the brain cells we’ll need for our entire lives, and as we make connections between the brain cells, we learn and grow. But not every connection happens at the same rate; some develop much faster than others, and they work together to form complex systems. The systems that start this “base programming” develop at an incredibly fast pace, but the rational and logical parts of the brain develop very slowly – and hardly at all for the first few years.
We are still primarily influenced by the emotional systems of the brain much more than the rational systems, even into our teenage years.
The University of Rochester Medical Center describes this well:
The rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until age 25 or so. In fact, recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This part of the brain responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.
While our emotional systems continue to develop over time, they are much nearer “completion” when we are still children. What we define as “maturity” is primarily based on the growth of the prefrontal cortex – the rational part of the brain that evaluates consequences, considers decisions with a long-term focus, and makes sense of painful or confusing situations.
Understanding Brain Development to Develop Self-Compassion
Here’s why understanding how the brain develops in childhood can be so impactful for us as adults: your younger self is not a different version of you. It’s just you with less information and processing power.
And if that’s true, then THAT you is still YOU. You can’t disregard the past or its effect on you, and talking poorly about your past self just paves the way for a destructive view of yourself in the future.
The CDC explains the foundational nature of the first years of brain development very well:
Although the brain continues to develop and change into adulthood, the first 8 years can build a foundation for future learning, health and life success. Positive or negative experiences can add up to shape a child’s development and can have lifelong effects.
Children are born ready to learn, and have many skills to learn over many years. They depend on parents, family members, and other caregivers as their first teachers to develop the right skills to become independent and lead healthy and successful lives. How the brain grows is strongly affected by the child’s experiences with other people and the world. Nurturing care for the mind is critical for brain growth. Children grow and learn best in a safe environment where they are protected from neglect and from extreme or chronic stress with plenty of opportunities to play and explore.
If the foundation is bad, broken, or even slightly compromised, the whole structure is at risk. That doesn’t mean we can’t fix what has been damaged, but healing requires empathy.
No one is working with an uncracked foundation: we all have been wounded, we all have suffered. And when that happens during the foundational years of brain development, before you have the rational “sense-making” tools that you have as an adult, you carry those cracks until they’re mended.
Disregarding the damage, avoiding our needs, and denying our healing does nothing but deepen the suffering. Until we recognize our pain for what it is, we will continue operating with the base programming that causes more pain.
The first step toward to being kinder to your younger self is understanding more of the “why” behind your behaviors, emotions, and thoughts.
Assessing Your Childhood Needs
Nationally-renowned parenting expert and vice chair emeritus of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Colorado, Dr. Harley Rotbart, identified eight essential childhood needs that lay the foundation for health, happiness, and success in adulthood.
When we develop a greater understanding of what contributed to our “base programming” by exploring these childhood needs, we can identify how they were unmet in the past and find ways to meet them in adulthood.
Here are eight essential needs that contribute to the most influential building blocks for psychological health.
As kids, we need to feel like our physical, mental, and emotional safety is honored and protected. Our caregivers need to provide the basics (shelter, food, clothing, and medical care) but also protect us from harm. We need to feel like we have a safe place with caregivers who can ensure our security.
Our stability comes from our sense of community. Stability can deepen our feelings of security, and a lack of stability can shatter them. For those of us who grew up in broken families, we may have sought a sense of community outside of our homes, bonding over shared values, interests, or circumstances. According to Dr. Rotbart, “Kids and families should be a part of larger units to give them a sense of belonging, tradition and cultural continuity.”
One of the biggest struggles for caregivers is guaranteeing a sense of consistency for their kids. Our other needs rely on this need; how can we establish feelings of safety and stability without consistency? In fact, inconsistent positive parent-child interactions can disrupt our positive self-perceptions and contribute to insecurity, self-doubt, and low self-efficacy.
Consistency helps us form better brain connections, regulate our nervous systems, and establish emotional stability as toddlers. According to the University of Georgia, caregivers can foster a sense of consistency by responding when their children cry, following a routine, setting appropriate rules, reinforcing positive behaviors, maintaining consistent childcare providers, and avoiding rigidity, inflexibility, and excessive control.
4. Emotional support
Dr. Rotbart notes that caregivers should encourage trust, respect, self-esteem, and independence using words and actions that support our emotional health.
In an article for The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Shauna Tominey emphasizes nurturing conversations that communicate compassion and warmth. She notes that when caregivers pay attention to their children’s cues and respond accordingly, they reassure us and let us know that we’re loved for who we are. These experiences help us learn to trust the adults in our lives, teach us how to manage big emotions and challenges, and encourage us to approach others with compassion.
Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child notes, “Responsive relationships early in life are the most important factor in building sturdy brain architecture.” Our brains develop better when we can trust that the adults around us will support our emotional needs.
As children, we rely on love – it’s not a luxury but a basic need. A lack of love can have devastating long-term mental health impacts. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) like violence, neglect, and abuse can alter our brain development, affect how we respond to stress, and increase the likelihood of chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.
Education isn’t just about ensuring a safe school environment but also providing the tools we need to learn, grow, and make choices that support our long-term wellness.
A lack of reliable, quality education can create barriers to employment and earning potential in adulthood. We need critical thinking skills to successfully manage our physical health. According to Dr. Lisa Flook, senior researcher at the Learning Policy Institute, school helps us form meaningful relationships and develop our emotional skills, identity, and overall well-being.
7. Positive Role Models
Caregivers are our first and most important role models; we learn from them even before we master the ability to communicate. When we have good role models as caregivers, we’re more likely to develop positive behaviors – they act as a blueprint, heavily influencing our character well into adulthood.
But the inverse is also true: if we were exposed to negative role models, we’re more likely to struggle with negative behaviors. As children, we need relatable, positive role models to help us envision what’s possible and mimic those behaviors.
Appropriate rules, boundaries, and limits help us learn structure as children. According to Dr. Rotbart, we can lose respect for our caregivers and other adults when we’re forced to be adults before we’re ready.
A lack of structure can be extremely confusing and even traumatic for us as children. We need to know what to expect – that’s a huge part of understanding boundaries and learning healthy attachment styles.
Moving Forward With Self-Compassion
As you process what your younger self experienced, you can extend more grace to the infant that felt unwanted, the child that felt misunderstood, or the teen that felt stifled. Naming those experiences is a powerful way to understand your own base programming and make connections to how you approach the world in the present.
In his book 12 Rules for Life, Dr. Jordan Peterson says, “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” That responsibility begins by accepting and caring for your younger self, who fought through life on a sometimes deeply painful path to get you where you stand today.
Who you were is a significant part of who you are. As you begin to accept who you were, you will start to understand who you are today in a whole new light. And with that new foundation, you can develop a new vision for who you could be.
- Lippold, Melissa A et al. “Day-to-day Consistency in Positive Parent-Child Interactions and Youth Well-Being.” Journal of child and family studies vol. 25,12 (2016): 3584-3592. doi:10.1007/s10826-016-0502-x
- “What Every Child Needs.” Children’s Hospital Colorado, https://www.childrenscolorado.org/conditions-and-advice/parenting/parenting-articles/what-children-need/.
- Tominey, Shauna. “Five Ways to Talk with Your Kids So They Feel Loved.” The Greater Good Science Center, 18 Mar. 2019, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_to_talk_with_your_kids_so_they_feel_loved.
- Winston, Robert, and Rebecca Chicot. “The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children.” London journal of primary care vol. 8,1 12-14. 24 Feb. 2016, doi:10.1080/17571472.2015.1133012
- “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).” Vital Signs, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 Aug. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/aces/index.html.
- Flook, Lisa. “Four Ways Schools Can Support the Whole Child.” The Greater Good Science Center, 23 Apr. 2019, https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_ways_schools_can_support_the_whole_child.