Using the Eight Ages to Heal Trauma

One of the things I do with most of my individual clients is talk about psychological theory. I don’t expect they will read all 24 volumes of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, but a little psychological theory really is helpful when working with kids—understanding why we are the way we are and how what we do with kids can have such a great impact.

For example, I remember learning about Erik Erikson’s “The Eight Ages of Man” in college, and, even to this day, his simple distillation of all the most complex, mystifying psychology I’ve ever studied rings true and right. You can read more about them here (Cherry, K. A. (2005). “Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development,” Retrieved from http://psychology.about.com/od/psychosocialtheories/a/psychosocial.htm), but basically what Erikson said was that people go through eight stages (“Ages”) in their lives, and their experiences during these eight stages shapes who they are. Seems obvious, right? But it is amazing how many people don’t understand how this relates to them personally.

Here are the Ages, which are chronological:

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust
  2. Autonomy vs. Doubt
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt
  4. Industry vs. Inferiority
  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation
  7. Generativity vs. Self-Absorption
  8. Integrity vs. Despair

In the first Age, the newborn develops trust, but only if he/she has nurturing caregivers. If not, he/she develops mistrust. It is the same in each succeeding Age: The toddler starts exploring his or her world and finds some autonomy and initiative. The little kindergartner learns how to do. The teenager begins to figure out who he or she is and gets truly close, sexually and otherwise, with friends and lovers. The adult makes their mark in the world, and then carries an integrity into old age that nothing can shake. Those are the words on the left side of the “vs.” When things don’t go well is described by the words on the right side. Clearly, you want to have the qualities on the left side. But what if your experiences put you on the right?

Your Buried Trauma

If there were issues in your childhood with lousy parenting, booze, drugs, emotional/physical/sexual violence, more subtle emotional abuse, bullying, etc., whether you are aware of it or not, these negative experiences have shaped who you are. For example, trust is the first building block: if you did not have nurturing-enough caregivers, then you could struggle to trust others and/or yourself, no matter how hard you try to work around it. That underlying distrust influences every relationship you have, especially with the kids in your life, whether you are a parent, teacher, or coach.

If you’ve had bad experiences during any of the Erikson Ages, you’ve probably accommodated to your pain by taking it out on yourself. Perhaps you’re depressed, or addicted to something, be it booze, drugs, sex, work, exercise or subtle self-loathing. Your mind’s probably not too serene.

The good news is we can rectify the bad things that were done to us. It’s not easy, and you may need professional help, but for the sake of the kids you care about—not to mention yourself—it may be time to open that can of worms.

Try this: Sit quietly, and in your heart and mind’s eye, contemplate your childhood. Was there a sense of basic trust in your little body and mind? Let’s use the Levin Scale of 0-10: Zero means you were constantly terrified; ten, you completely trusted your parents, siblings, extended family, babysitters and teachers.

Number?

If your number is seven or less, you have some serious self-examination and work to do if you want to be a great grown-up. This is hard work, but remember the motivator: if your kid were drowning, God forbid, even if you didn’t know how to swim, you’d jump in and find a way to save their life, right? Well, you’re going to need to jump in your heart and mind and find ways to heal if you want to spare your kids the same kind of pain. It’s sort of like the oxygen masks when you’re flying: you are supposed to put your own mask on first and then attend to your child.

Change is possible, but it requires a new kind of honesty, because it’s going to reveal emotions from which you’ve been trying to hide, but which have still probably complicated your life and caused you great suffering. Remember: you put the lid on the worms for good reasons: it hurt, it was too scary, it was too upsetting. Denial, at times, works. Tread carefully, and be prepared to get help if it’s too much for you to handle alone.

A wonderful 17-year-old kid I’m helping told me this story the other day: “When I was in sixth grade, I was the smallest kid on the football team, and a couple of those kids had already been bullying me for a couple years. I never told my parents because I didn’t want them to worry. So one of those kids, he told me the first day of practice that football players, when they had to pee, they didn’t bother going in and taking off all the gear—they just peed in their uniform. So that’s what I did.” My guy was sobbing like the story happened that very day.

That’s what trauma does: it finds a secret pathway into your body, heart and mind and is buried there, even if you train yourself not to consciously think about it. It’s buried alive, and it comes out in your relationships, especially your relationships with the kids in your life.

Find the shovel. Find the courage. Ask for help. You have no idea how worth it it’ll be.