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 wellbeing and proper cognitive, physical, and psychological development.
This is being robbed of childhood.
And what can contribute to this?
Unfortunately, a wide and varied variety of factors can contribute to this including:
- Being raised in a home with a parent (or both parents) who were personality disordered, mood disordered, or addicted to substances and/or behaviors and where the child felt a lack in predictability and safety with the parents.
- 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.
- Being sexually assaulted as a child.
- Having an experience of being a witness to violence whether at home or at school.
- Journeying through the isolated or ongoing trauma of a school shooting, repeated in-person or cyber-bullying, 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.
- Living in a home where the child was over-parentified and inappropriately made to be responsible for managing the moods and chaos that the adults around them created.
- 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 creates 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 that 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 that human life falls into six major developmental stages and that each of these stages had critical biopsychosocial developmental tasks which, when successfully met and completed, built on one another for the maturation and progression of the individual.
Havighurt’s developmental task theory is as follows:
Infancy and Early Childhood (Birth till 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 (6–13 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 (13–18 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 (19–30 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 (30–60 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 narcissist or sociopath who was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, raging one moment and all confusingly kind and sweet the next, or if your caregiver 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 towards 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 that 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 her self esteem was consistently chipped away at by her caregivers? Would she 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 you could that 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 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 towards 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 that 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 that we were a child who was robbed of a childhood.
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 was lost to us, 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, and even while we’re still grieving our lost childhood, we can work towards 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 while 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 effort towards crafting the work and relationships you deeply desire in the world while also giving yourself some of the tangible joys your inner child may still long for.
Some reparative experiences and possibilities may look like:
- 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;
- Creating a safe and nurturing physical environment to allow yourself to feel safety that you may never have felt before;
- 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;
- 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;
- Allowing yourself to question and experiment with who and how you’re sexually attracted to and perhaps letting yourself live this out more;
- Experimenting with your dress and appearance, finding what feels authentic to you and expressing this in the world;
- 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 that you may need to;
- And it can look like tangibly giving yourself the things you longer for as a child but never got a chance to do:
- Going to summer camp (yes, adults can go to summer camps);
- Borrowing YA 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 garage sale’d because “you were too old for dolls”;
- Creating wonderful, nourishing holiday rituals for the family that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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 that 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.
If, in reading this article, you saw yourself in it AND if you could use some support establishing healthy boundaries with those in your life that challenge you, I want to let you know about my upcoming course “Hard Families, Good Boundaries.”
Here’s the thing: Identifying your needs and wants and asserting your boundaries skillfully is a big, complex issue and something I’ve spent nearly a decade helping others learn how to do.
I’ve often wanted to reach way more people than I can ever see in my therapy practice who want my support around this and that’s why I’m excited to say that I’m launching my first ever online course – “Hard Families, Good Boundaries” – very soon and would love to have you in my first class cohort!
This course will teach you:
- What boundaries actually are and how to know if yours are being crossed;
- Why having and holding clear and firm boundaries actually benefits you and that other family member;
- How to hold boundaries even when you’re afraid to (and especially when you feel like you “can’t”) ;
- The critical steps you need to take in order to cope with any external or internal backlash (strong, hard feelings from them or from inside of you).
If you’re interested, please join the waitlist here and I’ll let you know when the course pre-sale goes live.
I’m soooo excited to teach this. Will you join me?
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