Love & Sex Magazine

Can a GOOD Childhood Lead to Depression?

By Nathan Feiles, Lmsw @therapynathan

One of the stereotypes of therapy is the assumption that depression (and anxiety) are the result of a “bad” childhood. The idea that the depressed person’s parents weren’t attuned enough, or they were abused, neglected, bullied, or something else. Even clinicians can easily fall into the trap of looking for what was “wrong” in a person’s upbringing — and often there are very relevant events and patterns that can manifest in a depression. But the assumption generally is that some thing(s) “must” have happened, right?

Often, yes. But I’m not so sure this is always the case.

I have seen quite a number of people in my practice who have had, what I and they would consider to be, a “good” upbringing. The parents were attuned, supportive, and sensitive to their needs, they had fun, enjoyed their siblings (for the most part) experienced many different things, had friends, were social, traveled, etc. Sure, there were times when things weren’t great, but as a whole, their upbringing seemed good and happy.

It’s always possible that a person can defend against the negative, or convince themselves that everything was good so they don’t have to face the emotions of what was painful, but I don’t think it’s helpful to assume that everyone who reports positive feelings about their upbringing is automatically guarding against something, even unconsciously.

But, what I do end up seeing is the struggle of leaving such a fulfilling childhood. The memories of time with family and friends, less responsibility, access to friends, peers, and various forms of fulfillment on a daily basis. The childhood becomes somewhat of an idealized fantasy to re-achieve.

Many people are able to re-create their childhood in some ways, through children of their own, and creating a lifestyle that is consistent with how they were raised. But for many, re-creating childhood isn’t such an easy task — depending on the many variables involved, including the financial means, geographic and time flexibility with jobs, and many others.

The grieving of a good childhood can be almost torturous for those who experience depression. How does one leave behind such a stretch of formative life that was so fulfilling and head into the world of working hard daily to pay bills and attend to the many responsibilities of adulthood?

For many, this is a direct trigger for depression. The life that they want to have feels like it’s behind them, only to be a slowly fading memory. This can lead to various states of sadness, depression, anxiety, and even self-medicating and addictive behaviors as a means to fill the emotional void.

In “good childhood” cases (aside from generally dealing with the depression and grief), I try to help people locate the various meaningful and emotional pieces of their grief, finding ways to translate these areas into adult life meaning, and channeling those areas that cannot be re-created, into similarly meaningful and emotional life experiences.

I honestly don’t think I would categorize this type of depression as a general depression — it’s more of a depressive reaction to grief and loss. Sure, it can have a similar impact as a general depression, but in the case, it’s really a complicated and unresolved grief that has turned depressive over time. The image is that they had to leave childhood behind — cut and dry — and learn how to live a completely different style of life as an adult. However, it is actually possible to create a bridge and bring parts of childhood into adulthood.

That being said, it’s hard to fully re-live childhood — it’s difficult to have as little responsibility in any similar situation as an adult, as one had as a child. Sure, you can have family dinners with your own children, however this time you’re buying the food, preparing the dinners, cleaning the messes, and not simply showing up to set the table and eat. You’re not with your parents  now and being cared for, you’re now with your kids and caring for them. It’s going to be different in some meaningful ways, but the hope is that one can find equally fulfilling meaning of a different kind in the present.

Getting that “being a child” feeling back is something the person with the good childhood craves — and this is where the process of mourning the losses is essential. But rather than only taking adulthood as a loss of an ideal childhood, it’s important to find ways to create similar meaning for oneself as an adult. It may not feel “the same” as being a child, but shifting perspective can open the space for similar fulfillment in a new way.

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