Healing from a difficult childhood is possible. Here’s a list of lessons you may want to unlearn and how to find support along the way.
If you had a tough childhood, trust that you’re not alone. A not-so-ideal upbringing is an extremely common reality shared by many people all over the world.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
These potentially traumatic experiences can instill harmful lessons in children that ultimately become the foundation of how they may navigate life through adulthood. Although these childhood lessons may be deep-rooted, it’s possible to unlearn, de-condition, and heal at any time.
According to Australia-based psychotherapist Shagoon Maurya, “toxic childhood refers to the period of childhood with unfavorable and everlasting experiences [where] the perceiving child subconsciously learns harmful traits which affect [their] life later on.”
A toxic childhood could include any of the following experiences:
- Your emotional needs weren’t met by caretakers.
- Your parents were controlling, neglectful, or overprotective.
- You experienced abuse (e.g. physical, verbal, emotional, sexual).
- You experienced or witnessed traumatic situations.
- You grew up in a “dysfunctional” family (whatever that means to you).
- You felt a lack of support, validation, or acceptance from authority figures.
- There were frequent high levels of stress or instability in your household.
It’s important to note that one person’s difficult childhood may look different than yours, and that’s OK. Your experience is valid no matter what your childhood looked like or what you learned during it.
If you experienced a toxic childhood, these are some of the lessons that may be ingrained in your brain and that you may wish to unlearn.
Love is conditional
According to therapist Heather Timm, MA, LPC, this belief can stem from receiving praise or affection only when things are done to a caregiver’s standard and/or being punished when things aren’t.
“In a kid’s mind, and rightfully so, 1+1 = 2,” she says. (“When I do good things that make them happy, then they love me. And when I do things that make them unhappy, then they don’t love me.”)
Hide your authentic self
If you grew up in a home where your caregivers shamed, insulted, or abused you for being yourself, it’s natural that you’d hide who you truly are throughout life to stay safe.
This is especially true for LGBTQIA+ folks who grew up in households where their toy choices or crushes were considered wrong or sinful. It could also simply relate to children who love to talk but were often silenced at home.
Hide your feelings
“For kids that grow up in a toxic, abusive, or neglectful home environment, they’re not taught how to experience or express feelings in a healthy way, or how to self-soothe, for that matter, because they’ve never been shown how,” says Timm.
As a result, she says they can grow up to become adults who internalize emotions and may even engage in acts of self-harm.
Emotional connection isn’t safe
This may have served as a defense mechanism or adaptive response, but Timm notes that we’re hardwired and hungry for connection as humans.
“We want to be able to be vulnerable and have others know that it’s safe to be vulnerable with us. But when we struggle with the discomfort of being vulnerable because we’ve labeled it as ‘not safe,’ then our natural (adaptive) instinct is to disconnect,” she explains.
Whether or not we consciously sabotage relationships as a result, she points out that we’re continuously reinforcing the lesson that “vulnerability isn’t safe.”
You must be a perfectionist or people-pleaser
“Children who were ignored and had unmet needs might become people pleasers and give their all to everyone as compensation for them not getting enough from their parents,” says Maurya, noting this could lead to:
“The root of perfectionism comes from a place of desperation to earn approval and avoid judgment, blame, or being shamed for being less than,” adds Timm. She says that this drive could also result from not wanting anyone to know what’s really going on at home.
Whatever you do isn’t good enough
According to Timm, this belief is common among folks who:
- grew up in invalidating environments
- were often deemed the scapegoat
- internalized what their caregivers did to them
- were told they’re not good enough
For example, if your parents prioritized using substances over taking care of you, or your caregiver was abusive and unappreciative, you may think that nothing you do is good enough (when, in reality, you’re always good enough).
You deserve your treatment
This belief is developmentally appropriate for kids who believe that they’re the center of the universe, says Timm. It would also make sense if their caregivers specifically told them that they deserved their treatment and punishment.
“Without the proper support, it can be challenging to logically conclude that the treatment they received was not because of them,” she says. “And if cognitive distortions provide an adaptability feature, then making this conclusion would have the kid changing behaviors in order to adapt to a dangerous or toxic environment.”
Whether your goal is healing from dysfunctional family dynamics or recovering from toxic parents, rest assured that you can unlearn the harmful lessons you learned as a child.
Reflect on your beliefs
Timm recommends really paying attention to what you tell yourself every day without labeling those thoughts as “good” or “bad.”
Next, she recommends exploring where these thoughts come from by asking yourself:
- When is the earliest time you can remember thinking this? And what was going on for the thought to form?
- Is this a story that you’re continuing to tell yourself?
- What are the benefits and limitations of this story?
- This may have served a purpose once upon a time, but does it serve a purpose now?
Try empowering reframes
“Humans evolved to think adaptively, not logically,” says Timm, who explains that these lessons can stem from an adaptive response to increase the likelihood of surviving a toxic childhood.
She notes that this “survival” perspective may increase kindness and compassion for yourself and lessen the feeling of being “flawed” or “wrong” for having these beliefs in adulthood.
Whenever an ingrained lesson pops up, she suggests considering the following reframe: “I created this belief to survive a toxic childhood, and it helped me get through that experience. I’m no longer in that experience, and I’m no longer that child, and I have the power to change this thought.”
Engage in mindfulness practices
Mindfulness benefits include but are not limited to:
- boosting immune system
- increasing relaxation
- reducing stress and anxiety
What happened during your childhood wasn’t your fault.
Try to practice forgiving yourself of any blame, guilt, or shame associated with any trauma or adverse experiences you endured. It may be easier said than done, but forgiveness may offer you a sense of freedom and relief you’re seeking.
Try inner child work
Inner child work involves the presence of an “inner child” who stays with us as adults who may have unmet needs or seek attention from us.
“In this form of treatment, the unmet wants and needs of the child are brought back into consciousness and then resolved by gaining more knowledge of oneself, being aware of triggers, and establishing a sense of security,” says Maurya.
Try somatic techniques
Everyone experiences trauma differently. For example, you might feel a stressful or traumatic event in your chest, whereas someone else feels it in their stomach. Somatic therapy exercises may help you locate and work through these feelings.
“Understanding where inside the body these messages are stored and ways to manage and lessen the intensities of these messages would be a valuable coping skill for anyone who’s working to unlearn destructive messages from their childhood,” says Timm.
You’re never alone in your healing journey. Support is available for you through every part of the unlearning process.
Consider pursuing any of the following helpful resources:
- follow educators who specialize in childhood trauma and recovery on social media
- read self-help books and articles from qualified writers
- watch videos from trusted experts and advocates from organizations
- build community by joining a support group with other survivors of childhood trauma
- see a therapist (within your comfort and safety level, especially if you have complex post-traumatic stress disorder, or C-PTSD)
- speak with a trusted confidante or loved one about your experiences
Although lessons learned from surviving a toxic childhood are deep-rooted, it’s possible for you to manage and overcome them. Everyone’s experience is different, but examples of lessons you may have learned as a child include:
- Love is conditional.
- Be a people-pleaser.
- It’s not safe to be yourself.
- Keep your feelings to yourself.
- You deserved your treatment.
Self-reflection, forgiveness, mindfulness, and somatic exercises can help you unlearn these lessons. Resources that may help along the way include support groups, therapists, loved ones, books, and educators. You’re never alone, and help is always available.
Remember that you don’t need to “fix” yourself because you’re not broken or damaged. We all continue to grow and heal throughout our lives. If and when you’re ready, you can unlearn the harmful lessons you picked up during your toxic childhood and learn healthier ways to navigate life as an adult.