Children have an innocent and direct connection to the essential joy of life. Even when you see tired or irritable adults dragging through a grocery store, the children with them are usually smiling or interested in everything or just apparently happy with being in the moment.
Adults who have lost interest in life, or who feel weighed down with burdens or problems, may be able to remember and connect to those sparks of childhood joy and carry some of that into their present day. That’s a technique that psychologist Rhegina Sinozich uses, along with other mental health strategies, to break though some of the protective armor that can build up over years of trial, trauma and responsibility.
“The most powerful and effective way to get therapy off on the right note is to help clients access the power of the hope and open heartedness that’s embedded in childhood,” said Sinozich in “The Healing Power of Childhood Memories,” in Psychotherapy Networker.
With one woman who came to therapy at her husband’s urging because she lost interest in sex, Sinozich and her client developed a trusting relationship and used guided meditation to have the woman connect to a childhood memory where she felt happy and free.
The woman recalled being with her two best friends on a rope swing around the age of 11. The woman focused on feeling the freedom and fun of that experience and adding remembered details about the trees and creek and doing cannonballs into the water.
Many clients go to therapy to help them heal the wounds of childhood emotional or sexual abuse.
“Even in the midst of a childhood of abuse,” said Sinozich, “there are nevertheless powerful moments of joy.”
In uncovering those moments of joy, and tapping into them, an adult can begin to set off little sparks of joy that help lighten the shadow of whatever issues they’re facing.
Here’s an example of how Sinozich worked with her client Rosemary during a guided meditation, as the woman relaxed and began to access a positive childhood memory.
“I see some trees,” Rosemary said softly.
“Great. How does that feel?”
“Good. Kind of calm,” said Rosemary.
“Great. So just move into that experience.”
“I think I’m with some friends,” Rosemary whispered. “It’s my two best friends, Liz and Jason.”
“About how old are you?”
“Maybe 10 or 11. We’re playing by the creek. This is where we used to cannonball into the water. We’re swinging on a rope.”
Sinozich watched Rosemary’s face become increasingly animated, even though her eyes were still closed.
“The corners of her mouth slowly broke into a smile and a light filled her face. It was like watching the sun rise across her features,” said Sinozich.
“I feel it! I feel it like it’s happening now,” Rosemary beamed. “I mean, I really feel it!”
“This session was the turning point of Rosemary’s treatment,” said Sinozich.
In accessing joyous childhood memories with Rosemary, Sinozich used a combination of therapies to help heal difficult issues that were affecting the client’s marriage and her enthusiasm for life. One of those strategies was Gestalt therapy, where therapist and client focus on exploring what factors made a particular memory come up in this moment, and how the present moment is impacted by experiences of the past.
Sinozich also used Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, or EMDR, which was originally developed to help patients who had experienced severe trauma. In EMDR, the client and therapist determine a memory to target, then use rapid eye movements to process and change the disturbing feelings.
Rosemary also was guided by her therapist in inner child work and journaling. Another element of her healing work was yoga.
It’s important to remember that people who have troubling or traumatic childhood memories must be very careful in choosing an experienced therapist who is able to deal with negative memories and emotions that may be triggered while searching for the joyous memories.
Because the issue has not been directly studied, it’s not known whether a memory of a traumatic event is encoded and stored differently from a memory of a nontraumatic event, according to the American Psychological Association.
Sometimes, by what’s termed “dissociation,” a memory is deeply repressed, apparently forgotten, as a child’s means of self-protection if the trauma is too severe. Also, some laboratory studies have shown that memory is often inaccurate and can be influenced by outside factors. For example, the telling of family stories may create what seems to be a memory, even though the child may not have experienced the incident in the way others have repeated it.
Reaching deep to access childhood memories can provide a breakthrough, and a complement for many types of proven strategies, but the most important step is always to find a qualified and experienced mental health professional to guide the process.
Sinozich, Rhegina, “The Healing Power of Childhood Memories,” Psychotherapy Networker, Oct. 18, 2018
“Gestalt Therapy,” goodtherapy.org, March 16, 2018
Shapiro, Francine, “What is EMDR?” EMDR Institute, 2018
“Memories of Childhood Abuse,” American Psychological Association