So you had a bad childhood…

bad childhood
To know whether you experienced a bad childhood, take this short assessment.
The majority of adults in the United States had parents who were ‘good-enough’. This does not mean that everything was perfect in these families. Rather there was enough consistency, support, and flexibility for children to develop.
There is a sizable minority in the population whose parents were far from ‘good-enough’. In these instances, children were not provided with the minimal conditions to develop. I define a ‘bad childhood’ as knowing that your emotional, physical, and/or sexual safety was not guaranteed by your caretakers. Once a child feels unsafe like this, his priority must be to manage his parent’s feelings and behavior – instead of focusing on his own development.

What a bad childhood can look like:

1) one or more parents were unpredictable in their availability leaving a child unable to know when she’d feel cared for
2) a parent committed the ultimate betrayal and violated sexual boundaries with a child
3) a parent flew into rages and screamed at the child for ‘unforgivable’ mistakes like tracking mud in the house or failing to do a household chore
4) a parent physically terrorizing a child with a slap, choke, punch, push or kick
5) a parent breaking inanimate objects in displays of extreme anger at the child
6) a parent demanding implicitly – if not explicitly – the child meet the parent’s emotional needs at the expense of the child’s own needs
7) a parent showing little interest in the child’s inner world – the traumatizing old adage that “children should be seen and not heard”.
A child treated this way does not have the luxury of saying “to hell with Mom and Dad, I’m going to find someone who treats me well.” Instead, they face the crazy-making task of adapting to the parent’s bad behavior so that the parent will still want to attach to the child. The parent gets a blank check to do what they want because the child needs the parent for their own survival. Human beings are born into this world small and helpless. Their only shot at survival depends on their bigger – more capable – parent’s willingness to care for and protect them. If the parent acts badly the kid will try to adapt his behavior, attitude, and/or feeling states to keep the parent willing to provide care.
Let’s go back to the list above of ways a parent can interrupt the child’s own development.

What a child might tell himself in each of the above situations:

1) “I only deserve attention when I am pleasing to someone else.”
2) “If I want to be loved by someone then I can’t say ‘No’.”
3) “I am bad, irresponsible, and lazy, that’s why I get yelled at.”
4) “I am undeserving of patience and protection”.
5) “I can be so bad that I make others enraged.”
6) “My parents’ needs are more important than mine.”
7) “My thoughts and feelings threaten are burdensome to others and make them disinterested in me.”
As you might imagine, these kinds of explanations for the parent’s shortcomings can make the kid’s life difficult. The child will likely shift these explanations into full-fledged beliefs about how to avoid danger in important relationships. An adult with these kinds of beliefs may have difficulty finding relationship partners who treat her well. If a suitable partner is found the person may feel undeserving of being treated so well.

What can be done?

I listed out the kinds of beliefs that a kid can hold when faced with a bad childhood because they signal how such difficulties can be overcome. The beliefs that were developed in the face of being mistreated by someone whom you depended upon can be brought to the fore and disconfirmed. This can happen in therapy where you have the chance to feel understood and supported in your goals for yourself. A good therapist can help you build awareness of what such beliefs might be operating in your life, how they came to be, and provide evidence that they are no longer true. If these beliefs can be disconfirmed then the adult is freed to focus on his own needs and happiness. This is basically how successful psychotherapy works.

Therapy targets beliefs from a bad childhood

Let’s work through the first scenario above and belief as it might unfold in a successful course of therapy. Joan’s* parents were preoccupied with their own lives throughout her childhood. They showed her attention when she accomplished something but otherwise expected her to fend for herself. She came to therapy complaining of being able to feel fulfilled in her job – though she was very successful – and unsatisfied in her relationship. Over the course of several months, the consistent schedule of weekly therapy provided one piece of counter-evidence to the idea that she only deserves attention when it pleases the other person. In the third month, she grew emboldened to say that she felt criticized by the way I responded to her when she said that she realized her coworkers think highly of her. I asked what she thought interfered with her knowing this earlier and noticed how she had an air of exasperation as she said she did not know. As she continued to talk she seemed much less vitalized. I asked what was happening and she said that my statement had taken the wind out of her sails because it meant to her that she should have realized this earlier. She was right and I told her as much. I asked her more questions about how it was for me to respond the way I did when she was rightfully expecting affirmation. We discussed how the most helpful part about this exchange was that someone was showing consistent interest in her even when she was saying something potentially ‘displeasing’ to that person. Over time, Joan worked hard to test and disconfirm her belief that she only deserves attention if she’s pleasing to the othe. She is now able to show many more sides of herself in relationships while expecting others to be interested and curious each side.

*All clinical illustrations are composites learned in my training, work with clients, personal experience, etc.  They are never based on any particular individual.

Jay Reid is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (LPCC).  If you had a bad childhood and are interested in therapy,  I encourage you to  contact me for a free 15-minute phone consultation to see if we might be the right fit. 


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  1. My immature alcoholic father took me fishing and placed me on a train trestle when I was 9 years old. I was subsequently hit the Long Island Railroad. My mother was essentially unemployable. She found work, or should I say water found its own level with the mentally disabled. But in her misery, her m.o. was to be alone with her television and her box of white zinfandel. With that brief synopsis, she let me go camping with a stranger who sexually abused me. Now that I have children all these horrific stories are replaying over and over again. I can’t believe what went on this house. My cousins have suffered too from this white trash, poor, alcoholic and socially dysfunctional family. I hate life. I wish I was taken out of my home after getting hit by a train and suffering physically and mentally. I have so much to say.

  2. You probably have the tightest grip on this topic that I’ve read all night, or in general for that matter. For all those that it’s not too late for, I hope they find you or someone as qualified.

    1. When I was little my only memory of my father was him choking me till I had no air left. My mun saved me and sold herself for me and my sibling. I hated it, all of it and I hated myself. She would say sometimes that it could have been easier if we weren’t have born. I blamed myself then my mom. I hated men. That man that brought my mum sexually abused her then I had my other sibling. Then when I was 6 he abused me. I hate to think about it. I hate men. When I was 7 we left and she met someone else. He mentally abused me and my siblings. He physically hurt my mum, I hate men. He physically hurt my siblings. She forgive him. I hate men.
      After keeping secret all that time my uncle, step dad and cousin abused me. I decided to take my life.
      When I was 9 I failed. And my mum hit me and we ran away again.
      She kept meeting men trying to find the right one. She blames me for making all the man leave but I hate men.
      I hate men I hate them
      I hate Myself for hating men
      I’m sorry

  3. Wow…Thank you!!!🙏
    Your words really hit home with me.
    Because I am “blessed” to have my parents living with me @88/93 years , I’m learning they were (and still are) emotionally unsafe, implicit, assuming narcissists.
    I am also learning about myself.
    Let me tell ya…
    the ultimate definition of “BitterSweet”!!!
    I realize now, my ex of 23 years mirrored my parents behaviors, I imagine there was comfort in that somehow. We were a great genetic match, but so sad that our family is now broken.
    I thought I had a good childhood until I realized I didn’t, we don’t know what we don’t know…
    We know what we want to believe.
    Then we go thru trauma.
    Then we evolve.

  4. Interesting read. My father was an alcoholic, beat the living sh*t out of my mom, in front of us kids. Being older, I would protect my little brother when he was scared. Our father never hit us but all these years later and I still have nightmares about what I witnessed against my mom. I didn’t know why he was hurting her? What did anyone do to warrant that kind of behavior? She was so nice. I can still hear her screams and pleas to stop and then see when he wouldn’t…. Why didn’t he stop when she said to stop?!!!!

    One day after my mom got the courage/resources to take us and leave, we were visiting my father. We were staying in a motel because he didn’t have a house. He was drunk and he sexually abuse me. I was in elementary school and frankly didn’t even know what was happening just that I hated it but couldn’t move because I didn’t know where to go to be safe and I didn’t want him to hurt us more. I hated that trip. Lots of shady stuff happened on that trip and I clung to my brother for protection and safety. I hated that the ONE person who was supposed to adore me, help me, protect me, guide me through life would take advantage of me and hurt me so badly and do none of the basic things a father should be able to provide….it breaks my heart even to this day. Even to this very day, I envy my friends who have kind fathers. I always wanted that too. Why didn’t I get a good one? I deserved one too, didn’t I? I knew for sure that if I ever had children, that they would have to have a kind father.

    Throughout childhood, I was there emotionally for my mother- parentified as my therapist says. It really stunted my own growth but it is what it is….she wasn’t capable of more and was doing her best to survive life on her own with two small children. I came to understand that my mom overcame her own multiple major childhood traumas and was very limited in her capacity. I love my mom. She is a good mom and still always tries her best.

    My father was diagnosed with some mental illness years back. I cut my father off 20+ years ago. Being without him in my life has brought my life peace and stability (a whole other topic!) however I still fear the thought of him, and still wish I had gotten a good one.

    I met and married a quality man. He is stable, happy, hardworking, lighthearted, loving, funny and exactly what I need. We have been married a long time and have children and he provides us with a good, happy/content life. (My dream came true!) I recently started therapy to help my with the traumas I faced. The cycle of dysfunction will end with me. My children will never know the kind of pain I knew, so help me God. I overcame/am overcoming so much. There is hope out there for you too. I wish everyone peace. Thank you for reading this small sliver of my story.

    1. Wow, your comment really gave me some hope. My own family growing up was very dysfunctional and emotionally abusive. I spent the majority of my 20s institutionalized because my parents put me there when I started exhibiting major mental issues due in a large part to my upbringing…
      I am much better now, off my meds and really trying to process and heal if possible, recognize things for what they are.
      What made me respond to you is that I am 9 weeks pregnant and realizing that the man I am with is likely an emotionally abusive narcissist just like my mom. I’ve read that sometimes people will go for partners like that. I’m scared I’m a narcissist too, but idk because I can take accountability and attempt to get better. Anyway I’m feeling very unsafe with my boyfriend and I don’t know what to do. He made me believe that he was perfect, unconditionally loving, but when I even step out of line a little (which tends to happen being pregnant) I realize his love is conditional and to him, he is flawless and I am bad in every way. The last thing I looked up on google after he attacked me was, how do I change everything about myself… I’m so frightened for my baby. He doesn’t want me talking anything but good to anyone and cuts me off from everyone else, reads through my phone then lies to everyone’s face that he doesn’t.
      It’s hard for me to acknowledge because he makes me believe I need him, constantly making me believe I am less than him too, loving me the same way my mom did… I get angry when he disrespected me then I get attacked because I am being abusive for speaking up for myself. I’m scared to ask him to do anything even being pregnant and I’m scared to not do the things he tells me to do for him because he has a very violent past.
      I guess, I don’t know, I don’t feel like I have many people to turn to. The last thing I want to do is traumatize my child dear God. I just want to end all the pain. I keep hurting myself, I tried committing suicide the night I found out I was pregnant because he kept calling me ugly and putting me down then said I would spend the rest of my life in a white padded room when I started to cut myself. My two biggest triggers. He was drunk and high though. I’m scared to have this baby.
      I know a lot of single moms.
      Is there hope he can get better?
      I don’t want to be alone.

  5. It’s incredible how many of us had bad childhoods due to lackluster or downright abusive parents. Not sure whether to feel horrified or a bit relieved that mine wasn’t the only one! So glad the abuse will stop with those of us who recognize now that it wasn’t our faults, as we were just babies and children who did not know any better way of life (how could we?) and just tried to survive the crappy hand we were dealt.
    To the previous commenters, I’m sorry for your pain but glad you’re all seeking answers on your paths to healing childhood abuse and trauma.

  6. My mother and father were alcoholics and should never have had children. I copped it the worst as the eldest child. My mother called me Charlotte the Harlot from the age of five and put cigarettes out on me. My father did nothing. He was weak and should have protected us. My sister was not targeted and my parents adored my brother. I was sent away to live with my grandmother and I rarely heard from my parents. My grandmother saved me in many ways. She gave me love and security.

    However, when I was older I had to live with my parents again and it was hell on earth. I had to cook and clean the house, do all the laundry and attend school. I excelled at school and I was ridiculed for it and never once did they say anything positive.

    It has impacted my life, I am 60 now and I still carry the scars of childhood. I have been married three times and while I suffered no abuse, I was driven to succeed in my career and I was not good at relationships with men. My children are all adults now and I am so proud of them. We tell each other we love you every time we see each other or on the telephone. I always made sure that they were loved and secure. I thank my grandmother every day for giving me a glimpse of a happy home and tried my very best to emulate it.