The first step: vowing to do better than what was done to you. The next step: learning how to unlearn. Think of this advice and hard-won wisdom as a blueprint for giving your child what you never had.

By Jacquelyn Mitchard
December 04, 2020
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Credit: Illustration by Boyoun Kim

It was bad when their screaming matches erupted in fisticuffs, my father punching my mother and pulling her hair. It was bad when we tried to intervene and they turned on us, teeth bared, threatening to throw us out or put us in foster care. It was bad when they were drunk, which was most of the time. But the worst was when they left us alone, sometimes for days, when the house parties they went to spiraled into three-day bacchanals.

These were the days before cell phones: We couldn’t find them. Food ran out. I remember one early January day, tracking my folks down after calling a dozen of their friends, begging the woman who answered after 20 rings to bring my mom to the phone. “She’s dancing,” the friend told me. “Could you call back later?” Instinctively, even at 10 or 11, I believed it would be even more dangerous to tell on them. Would they take us away, put them in jail? To the world, we looked normal, exemplary—attractive parents, accomplished children—which made it even more sinister that we never felt safe.

And yet my own children have never felt anything but safe. While I know that I’ve let them down and upset them in all kinds of ways over the course of raising them, I also know that I have been an almost ridiculously stable parent—predictable, vigilant, a homebody whose idea of crazy is a second glass of champagne on Christmas Eve.

The conventional wisdom is that dysfunctional families are a gift that goes on giving, generation after generation. But without getting too grand about it, I’m a very good parent. I became one the way I became a good student: I studied. The writings of Dr. Spock and Dr. Sears; the unintended example of friends’ parents. Most of all, I learned to be a good parent to myself, accepting that I wouldn’t always make the right choices but that there would almost always be solutions for those times when I didn’t.

Certainly, the easiest way to become a great parent is to have one or two yourself. But I dare to suggest that my harder-won competence might in some instances go deeper than that of my peers. As the experts I interviewed for this story and my own experiences taught me, I may be a better parent because I’ve seen firsthand the damage bad parenting can do, because I’m even more motivated to do the right thing than some of my peers who had luckier childhoods, because I’m determined to offer empathy where none was offered to me, and because I am acutely aware that I’m not just raising today’s young people but also tomorrow’s parents.

Most of all, I have courage. My own childhood was something I’d never wish on anyone, but it made me strong. If you grew up in a manner you would not wish on your own children, you likely have similar strength. And even if you had the loveliest parents alive, there is plenty of advice herein to help you parent better when, say, you’re burned out, going through a rough patch, or just feeling discouraged.

How Bad Parents Wreak Havoc

Toxic parents have a big arsenal to help them do their destructive work. They lie, manipulate, accuse you of things you would never do, hold grudges for things you did long ago. They judge, withhold comfort, push you into situations from which only they can “save” you, criticize, yell, and sometimes hit. Nothing is good enough for them, no matter how hard you try: If you get straight A’s, how come you’re not a star athlete? They say they know everything about you but never seem to listen when you try to talk about your feelings. They compare you—to their shining selves, your sister, your friends—and yet seem jealous of every piece of luck that comes your way. They humiliate you in front of others, then insist they were “just kidding.” They fight with each other; they fight with you. They try to convince you that it’s you, not them, who is mentally unstable. They make it clear, subtly or not so subtly, that what’s wrong with their life is you, and they were happy before you came along.

“If these kinds of experiences happened in your own childhood, it can feel tremendously isolating even though you are one of many,” says Nerissa Bauer, M.D., a behavioral pediatrician who writes the blog Let’s Talk Kid’s Health. “It can be painful, embarrassing, and difficult to remember and share what you went through.” After all, most of your friends are likely close to their parents, so they may underestimate the pain of your experiences and advise you to just talk it over and make up.

Our brain has an uncanny knack for storing the messages we received as children. A child who never knows when a temperamental parent is going to lash out at them, and who has been told that they are unlovable and insignificant, has stored years of those messages. They can grow up untrusting, quick to anger, and suspicious of attachment, according to child-development educator Karen Young, author of the psychology blog Hey Sigmund. It’s human nature for even capable, intelligent adults to fail to realize that they’re still relating to the world like a small child in an unsafe environment.

In this way, people with cruel or manipulative parents are vulnerable to repeating the pattern, and many worry that they will do just that—or, conversely, swing so far in the other direction to avoid repeating their parents’ mistakes that they do an opposite kind of harm. For example, a mother who grew up constantly being criticized might belittle her own child or, just as damaging, never correct their behavior at all. For others, a difficult childhood can result in a paralyzing lack of confidence, or fear that they will hurt their children in the way they themselves were hurt.

How Your Childhood Shows Up in Your Parenting

It’s trickier indeed for those who grew up without good role models at home or those who had more than a few of what clinicians call ACEs (adverse childhood experiences). These include such traumas as parental separation or illness, witnessing domestic violence, or being the victim of verbal abuse. Everyone has a few, but a multitude of ACEs can, according to Dr. Bauer and others, have lifelong negative effects, including poorer physical and emotional health. In a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 61 percent of respondents said they had experienced at least one ACE in childhood, and almost one in six reported four or more. Women are more likely to have undergone ACEs, as are Black and Latino adults. Multiracial individuals are the most likely to experience ACEs.

There are days when Whitney, a mom of two who asked us not to share her last name, is terrified she will “mess up” her own children because she herself feels “flawed and messed up.” Nothing in her life merits this description: She’s a high-school teacher, writer, wife, and mother. Hers is the legacy of parents who raised her to try everything, with all her might, all the time, never showing weakness. Years later, fighting an eating disorder, she was told by her therapist that she was battling “faulty core beliefs,” among them that she needed to be perfect. Her older son is not yet 4, but she believes her first job is to help him understand that failing at something is not the same as being a bad kid, and that her love is his birthright: He will never need to earn it. Of her parents, whom she loves dearly, she says, “People do the wrong things not because they are bad people.” They were hardly more than teenagers when Whitney was born prematurely. Doctors said she would suffer developmental delays. “My parents set out to prove them wrong.” They pushed too hard.

Michael Degrottole says his father “didn’t like being around his family. He wasn’t big on kindness, and he was terribly bigoted. And he could be brutal, not so much with me because I was a shy, sensitive kid who backed off from conflict. But when my brother stood up to him, he took a beating.” Before having children of his own, Degrottole loved his work with the families of children with special needs but didn’t know if he wanted to be a father. “I didn’t want to fail,” he says. He waited until he was nearly 50 to welcome his first child and now, a father of three, is an engaged, loving dad. Still, there are times when he’ll open his mouth and hear his father’s voice come out. “I have to stop myself and tell myself I’m going too far.”

Kristin, a mother of three who asked us not to share her last name, decided as a child that she was going to be patient and even-tempered, like her mother, instead of erratic and angry, like her alcoholic father. Growing up and becoming a mom both underscored her intentions and put them in perspective. She realized that while her mother never exactly condoned her father’s behavior, she didn’t observe her mother intervening in the moment. Yet she realizes now how difficult parenting can be. “I do get angry,” she says. “It’s okay to show that you’re angry. That’s only human. But when I do, I really try to make sure my kids know that the anger is specific to the situation, not about them personally, and that it’s not ongoing. That’s the tricky part.”

Credit: Illustration by Boyoun Kim

How to Do Better

The first step often is an honest inventory of your own strengths and weaknesses. You know you love your children. You know you don’t ever want them to wonder, as you did, if they’re remarkable or even worthy. Don’t leave anything out: You like to laugh. You pack a great lunch. But do you have a short fuse? Does discipline quickly default to yelling or sarcasm? Do you have a creeping tendency to insist you’re always right? Can you be distant when you’re hurt? Do you have a child who is expressing their own chronic stress through depression or whose way of expressing their distress is by getting into trouble?

If any of these traits describes you now or in the past, you’re not alone, and there is hope in your awareness. Psychologist and Parents advisor Lisa Damour, Ph.D., cohost of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting, asks, “How will you make meaning of that very difficult childhood? Being a parent causes emotions to surface that are very uncomfortable—for everyone. If you had parents who didn’t handle dark feelings well, that means there will be extra work to do. But the more we understand our inner lives, the more options we have to move forward.”

Many parents need help doing that work. Fortunately, we live in a time when there is no longer a stigma attached to getting that help, whether from an online community or in a therapist’s office. Emotional difficulties are as real as any physical ailment, and you wouldn’t set out to cure your own strep throat. Says Dr. Damour, “People who can get themselves to my office are already showing a tremendous amount of strength. Nobody comes with all the answers.”

It takes only one good role model, says therapist Leslie Moreland, of Sandwich, Massachusetts, who has seen the power of such relationships over and over in her years of work with troubled families and teen parents. “It can be a coach, a pediatrician, an aunt, a teacher, someone who sees the good in you,” she says. “That one person can start to turn it all around.”

Forging a New Path

Take small steps, advises Young. If you haven’t been a warm and welcoming mom or dad all the time, it may feel clumsy and awkward at first to make a shift toward loving care. The beginning of healing can feel like the beginning of an exercise routine: painful, even unsafe, with an overwhelming drive to go back to the way it was before. Instead, let your eyes light up when your child comes into the room—even if you’re not feeling it. Sit down together to say your good nights, and really mean that you hope the night will be good. “You’re opening a new brain pathway,” says Young. “And when it feels like a real struggle, remember that when you change one part of a response, the others will start to change around it. Have patience with yourself. Just because you know how to play tennis now doesn’t mean you’re ready to go out and win at Wimbledon.”

Every positive experience helps build stronger pathways. Research from Brigham Young University in 2019 suggests that “counter-ACEs,” or positive childhood experiences, have a beneficial effect on health and well-being regardless of the number of ACEs a child experiences. In fact, the absence of these positive experiences can be more detrimental than the adverse experiences themselves. Every time your children can rely on you to react in a predictable, positive way, their emotional resiliency, that quality that will allow them to bounce back from tough experiences, grows stronger.

What if your own parents are still part of the picture? You can find ways to engage with your parents if it feels right to you. Maybe they’ve cleaned up their act; maybe they want to be part of your children’s lives. Even for functioning families, holidays and special occasions, laced with nostalgia, excitement, and often alcohol, can be breeding grounds for conflict. If you’re invited to a gathering, it may raise all those lost wishes that this Christmas, this Thanksgiving, would be different. A difficult parent may save up resentments to air in person: If this starts, be proud if you can gently make your excuses and leave. Your kids may be disappointed, but they will see that you remained self-possessed.

Even if your parents are perfectly behaved and loving with their grandkids, it can be a mixed blessing: It’s only human nature to be wistful about what you were denied. Whitney sees her mom and dad as calm, wise grandparents to her preschool-age sons. “But when I hear how they speak to my younger sister, telling her that her depression was ‘just looking for attention’ and to not be a ‘head case,’ I know that if I didn’t have children, I might not spend so much time with them.” And if you have no desire to see your parents at all, that’s okay too. Although forgiveness as a ritual holds a popular place in modern culture, it isn’t necessary to let bygones be bygones in order to move forward and be a good parent. That’s a deeply personal choice, says clinical psychologist Alyson Corner, cofounder of MyHorridParent.com. And it’s one you can make in your own way and in your own time.

It’s in our families that we first feel acceptance, says Tracy Lamperti, a licensed mental-health counselor in Brewster, Massachusetts. It’s there that we practice the social skills we take to the larger world. It can be an enormous effort for parents to put aside a traumatic history, but your kids need to know that their parents are a safe place to bring the hard stuff. “A child wants to know, ‘Who’s going to hold me if I’m upset because someone was picking on me at school? Do I develop defense mechanisms and say it doesn’t bother me, or is it safe to just hash it out?’ They want to know that these are their people, their tribe. That they can be there for each other,” Lamperti says.

When we were both very young parents, my brother said something to me that I think of all the time: “If Mom and Dad left us out in the water, well, then our kids are going to be safe on the sand, and their children are going to be up on the hill.” Just as trauma can resonate through generations, so can healing.

What a Good Parent Gives Their Kids

An unqualified apology.

One hallmark of bad parenting is the inability to admit fault. When you’re wrong, it’s a gift to validate your child’s perceptions by saying you’re sorry—no excuses. It’s not their fault that you’re tired or worried about work. Don’t gloss over the mistake. Describe it and point out how it could have gone better.

Discretion.

It may be hard to resist complaining to your children about your parents (or frustrations or fears), but it’s important that you not burden kids with information they may not be capable of grappling with or place them in the role of confidante.

Resources.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is committed more than ever to recognizing that children’s physical health is connected with their family’s emotional health, according to Dr. Nerissa Bauer. Don’t be afraid to raise big issues, from safety to substance abuse in the family, with your child’s doctor so they can connect you with help. Your shame over these problems is understandable, but it is not worth putting your children at risk if something is amiss at home.

Time.

You’re rushed. Your child is rushed. But if you can extend saying good night, or simply sitting together or looking your child full in the face, even for another minute, it will increase your connection by orders of magnitude.

A time-out … for you.

If you feel your parents’ ways rising up in you, says therapist Leslie Moreland, walk right out of the room. Keep walking. Have a cup of tea. Sleep on it. Nothing has to be settled that minute.

Persistence.

Your kids really want you to succeed with them, and they’ll give you plenty of do-overs. According to Dr. Bauer, it takes more than a few fails to shake their faith in you, so don’t give up. When it means giving better than you got, you get credit for trying again, and again. As the old parenting adage goes: “You get a million chances.”

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine’s January 2021 issue as “How to Be a Good Parent After a Bad Childhood.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

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