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Being treated by family members as irrelevant — the attachment trauma, or being a witness to ongoing patterns of abuse — creates another kind of psychological pattern. People’s identity is formed around questions like “What did I do wrong?” or “What could I have done differently?” That becomes the central preoccupation of their lives.
The important factors are what those challenges are, and at what age they occur. Character is formed in the first 10 to 14 years of life. These years are the most critical, and the earlier a real trauma occurs, the more lasting impact it usually has. As people grow older, they become more independent agents and can tolerate more rejection, more emotional pain.
Don’t most children live through at least one experience that they later consider traumatic or severely challenging?
Yes. Most people have very challenging lives, and major conflicts with family members is not at all out of the ordinary. Being rejected by your in-laws — this is not uncommon, of course, and it does not matter how prominent you are or whether you live in a palace. Then a major issue in the couple’s relationships becomes whether one’s spouse chooses to side with you or with their family.
Could the same experience that upends one child’s life have a smaller impact on another child’s life?
Yes. People have very different impulses, very different reactions to the same kinds of challenges. But your attachment system — who you belong to, who knows you, who loves, who you play with — this is more fundamental than trauma. As long as people feel safe with the people in their immediate environment, in their families, tribes or troops, they are amazingly resilient.
Risking or giving up those bonds, as Harry did, is a very profound step. The default position, psychologically, is to adjust your behavior and expectations to fit in with your family of origin. It takes enormous courage to sever those ties and to create new and more fruitful affiliations.