Children need love, validation, and a sense of security to grow into well-adjusted adults. These implicit needs are present at birth, and parents play a crucial love in offering this support.
When parents don’t “measure up,” children may feel insecure and incompetent. They might struggle with issues related to emotional dysregulation, poor impulse control, and low self-esteem. As adults, they may face difficulties at work and in their personal relationships.
Bad parenting sometimes leaves an insidious effect that can be tough to change. But with intention and effort, it doesn’t have to define you. Here’s what you need to know.
Acknowledge Your Pain
Many children (and adults) don’t believe they’re allowed to feel negative emotions about their childhood. You might also justify bad situations with statements like, They did the best they could, or, They always made sure we had a roof over our heads and food on the table.
And while gratitude and optimism have their place, it isn’t fair to disregard your emotions. Doing so invalidates that you had needs as a child.
Instead, consider identifying your experiences for what they were. Acknowledge sadness, loss, anger, shame, and fear. Remind yourself that you were just a child, and you were not responsible for what happened to you.
Journaling can help with this task. Some helpful journal prompts are:
- When I think about my past, I feel ____
- I wish my parents would have ____
- Looking back, being in my childhood home felt ____
- When I think about my parents now, I feel ___
- I believe my past is holding me back by ___
- As a child, I really needed someone to tell me ____
- I wish my parents had understood that ___
Focus On What You Can Control Now
You can’t change your past or your parents. And while you may feel upset or defeated, it’s important to reclaim ownership over your present life. Doing so moves you away from feeling like a victim and into feeling like you can thrive.
Take some time to evaluate what’s in your control right now. Think about your goals and values and reflect on how you can improve your life.
It’s okay to start small. If you’ve spent most of your life trying to please other people or deny your own needs, taking ownership will likely feel strange. But the more you prioritize this need, the easier it becomes.
Consider Your Limits
Bad parenting doesn’t automatically end when you grow up or leave the family home. Complicated relationships can persist well into adulthood, particularly if you remain close to your parents.
With that in mind, it’s imperative that you assess the limits you want to have with your family. These boundaries can help you minimize resentment and promote healthier interactions.
Some examples of poor boundaries with a parent might look like this(https://clinmedjournals.org/articles/jfmdp/journal-of-family-medicine-and-disease-prevention-jfmdp-3-059.php):
- Critical comments about your appearance
- Interfering into your personal life (calling your boss, messaging your friends)
- Unannounced frequent visits to your home
- Unsolicited advice about topics like parenting, dating, work, etc.
- Feeling like you have no real sense of privacy
- Controlling or attempting to control how you spend money
At its core, boundaries come from recognizing how you want to be treated. This means understanding your values and aiming to act consistently with them. Once you have this framework, it’s easier to know your limits.
Be straightforward and concise: When setting a limit, don’t sugarcoat or make it overly complicated. Instead, state exactly what you need. Instead of saying, It’s rude when you comment on my body. It makes me feel uncomfortable and annoyed, consider saying, Please do not comment on my body again, or I will leave the house. Moving forward, I don’t want to hear these comments.
Continue reinforcing the boundary: Boundaries often come with pushback. If your parents dismiss or disregard your limits, continue repeating them. Don’t make it emotional. Instead, stick to a simple phrase and reinforce it often.
Mind your guilt: Many people feel guilty when they set boundaries. This guilt is especially common in homes where parents shame their children for having needs. Consider practicing an easy mantra like, I deserve to take care of myself, or, I am allowed to express my needs.
Consider limiting time spent together or cutting ties: If your parents continue to disregard or break your boundaries, you may need to reevaluate the relationship altogether. Some people decide to significantly limit contact when this happens. For example, they might only see their parents in very specific and short intervals. Others choose to end the relationship altogether. There isn’t a right-or-wrong answer, but you should outweigh the pros and cons of every option.
Go to Therapy
Therapy provides a safe and supportive environment to heal from old wounds. In addition, therapy can help you recognize your triggers and change how you react to them.
Many people benefit from long-term therapy to heal from their pasts. It can take time to explore and process what happened to you. Here are some specific modalities that can be beneficial for recovering from bad parenting.
Psychodynamic therapy: Psychodynamic therapy examines the psychological foundation of emotional suffering. It explores how early childhood dynamics can impact current self-esteem and relationships. You will gain a deeper sense of internal insight, understand your own blind spots, and recognize problematic relationship patterns.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a well-known model that treats depression, anxiety, and trauma. CBT examines the intersection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. By learning some of your automatic assumptions about yourself (and the world), you can change how you feel and react.
Eye movement desensitization reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR is a trauma-informed model that helps people heal their painful associations from the past. It is a structured treatment that encourages you to process what happened while experiencing bilateral stimulation.
Internal family systems (IFS): IFS has become more popular in recent years for helping people understand the collective sum of their parts. Each ‘part’ of you has specific viewpoints and desires. By understanding them, you can work within the greater ‘self’ more effectively.
Be Mindful of Repeating Bad Patterns
You don’t want to be anything like your mom and dad. And yet, you find yourself talking like them. You notice that, when you feel stressed, you behave like they did.
It may seem like a strange curse, but it’s common for people to act like their parents, even if they despite them. Breaking the cycle requires intention and practice. Here are some tips.
Define exactly what you want to change: It’s too broad to say you don’t want to be anything like your parents. Instead, you need to define the specific behaviors that you absolutely don’t want to do. Identify exactly why you want to stop acting that way and why it’s so important for you to change. Then, review how you want to act differently.
Recognize overcompensating behaviors: Let’s say your parents were frugal and didn’t buy you many toys or clothes as a child. You remember wanting a new pair of shoes, and they dismissed you for being selfish. Subsequently, you might be overly spendy regarding your own kids. You don’t want them to feel deprived like you did. But if you’re always buying them things, you risk them becoming entitled or spoiled- which can counteract your good intentions.
Be kind to yourself: If you slip into patterns you don’t like, don’t react by criticizing yourself mercilessly. When you do that, you only perpetuate more helplessness and shame. Instead, identify the trigger, review the situation, and think about how you would like to proceed next time. Remember that progress doesn’t necessarily happen in a linear direction.
Ask for feedback: No matter how self-aware you are, we all have blind spots. It may be helpful to enlist in a trusted loved one to help you stay accountable. This person can gently remind you when you’re acting inappropriately. Or, consider coming up with a code word and having them use it when they notice problematic behavior.
Seek Healthy, Loving Relationships
Supportive relationships can promote a sense of healing from your past. While self-compassion is important, we also need comfort and safety from others to feel loved.
Unfortunately, if you suffered abuse as a child, you may unknowingly repeat unhealthy relationship patterns. This doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you- you’re simply recreating what feels familiar.
To combat this, try to be as intentional as possible when it comes to your support system. If you routinely feel bad after spending time with someone, reassess your relationship. Aim to spend the most time with people who make you feel inspired, loved, and healthy.
Recognize Self-Sabotage When It Happens
Self-sabotage often comes from a place of low self-esteem. Even if you want success, happiness, or love, you don’t believe you deserve them. And so, when a hint of goodness comes your way, you react by harming yourself. This keeps you in a perpetual cycle of fear and self-loathing.
Let go of perfectionism: Children with traumatic pasts often struggle with perfectionism as adults. You might believe that if you do things ‘perfectly,’ you’ll have a greater sense of control or happiness. But impossible standards can trigger obsession and procrastination. If you find yourself in this loop, try to pause. Avoid comparing yourself to others and ask yourself what a realistic middle ground could be in this situation.
Examine how you decompress: How do you typically cope with stress? Do you turn to drugs or alcohol? Do you zone out in front of the TV or spend money you don’t have online shopping? When used in moderation, these vices aren’t particularly bad. But if it’s become a compulsive pattern, you’re only perpetuating a cycle of self-harm.
Don’t talk to yourself like your parents talked to you: Thoughts can define your reality and cement your self-esteem. So, as much as possible, try to avoid internalizing negative self-talk. Instead, be aware of when you do it, and take steps to correct your course of action.
Nurture Your Inner Child
Your inner child refers to your younger self. Even though you’re all grown up, there is still a young child within you. Your childhood experiences make up your unconscious and dictate much of how you feel and act today.
Acknowledging and taking care of your inner child can help you heal. This is a part of reparenting, and it allows you to honor your past and present needs.
Practice guided visualization: Visit and spend time with your inner child by closing your eyes and imagining them. While meditating, consider asking them what they need. Whether it’s a hug or some words of affirmation, try to meet those needs readily and lovingly.
Honor the need to play and express: Children connect to the world through play. We often lose that sense of magic as adults, but you can take steps to reclaim it. Think about what you loved doing as a child (jumping rope, drawing pictures, swinging) and consider trying those activities now. It may seem silly, but it can be transformative in reminding yourself that life doesn’t inherently need to be serious.
Write a letter to your younger self: Let your inner child know that you are there for them. Let them know you see their sadness or frustration or fear. Remind them that you are always close and will try to protect them as much as possible moving forward.
Keep a picture with you: Hold onto a picture of your younger self and put it on your desk or refrigerator. Keep another one in your wallet as a reminder that you’re always with your little you.
Bad parenting can undoubtedly leave a lasting imprint on your well-being. But it is possible to heal from your past. Remember that you are in charge now. You can choose the relationships in your life and take ownership over what happens to you next.