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“Was my childhood really that bad?”

"Reflecting on childhood memories for healing and understanding."

“Was my childhood really that bad?”

In my 13 years as a therapist, this is, without a doubt, one of the most frequent questions/comments I’ve heard and still hear.

Sometimes I hear this question in the context of it being the very thing people asked themselves about for years before finally coming in to see me as a therapist.

And sometimes, even as we begin working together, it’s still a question that surfaces because it’s still on my clients’ minds even as they’ve engaged in weekly therapy with me as a relational trauma therapist.

"Reflecting on childhood memories for healing and understanding."

“Was my childhood really that bad?”

It’s a question that ping pongs as denial ebbs, numbness fades, and the dawning consciousness of reality, of what reality happened and the impact it left wars with conflicting ideas about what childhood trauma is and isn’t, love and loyalty to parents despite their deficits, and contradictory awarenesses of what was and what isn’t.

It’s a question that’s central to relational trauma recovery, to childhood trauma recovery. 

It’s a question that must be asked, must be confronted, in order to support the healing process.

But it’s a very difficult and almost inevitably painful question to grapple with.

As a trauma therapist, as a relational trauma recovery specialist, here are a few key points I want you to know if you’ve asked the question, “Was my childhood really that bad?” and if you’re still grappling with it.

The answer to whether or not you had a bad childhood is subjective and yours alone.

The answer to “Was my childhood really that bad?” is subjective, meaning, it’s an answer entirely depending on your own feelings, emotions, and opinions.

Not the feelings, emotions, and opinions of your parents or guardians.

Not the feelings, emotions, and opinions of your siblings, community members, church members, or the internet.  

No one gets to answer this question besides you and you alone. 

That’s the beautiful and also the very hard thing. 

Why is this? 

The way we each remember and feel about our childhood is deeply personal and unique, much like a tapestry of memories woven with our individual emotions and experiences.

Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a renowned trauma expert, beautifully captures this in his book “The Body Keeps the Score.

In his book, he illustrates how our personal emotional responses and the way we process events internally play a significant role in shaping our childhood memories. 

It’s like each of us has a different lens through which we view our past, and it’s these personal lenses that give color and meaning to our childhood experiences. 

This understanding is so important because it reminds us that it’s normal and natural if our view of our childhood doesn’t quite match up with someone else’s; it’s a subjective experience.

So when we talk about childhood, it’s not just about what happened; it’s about how we hold those experiences in our heart and mind, subjectively.

And yet, when it comes to what makes a childhood “bad,” the what behind the making has both objective data and subjective nuance.

Let me explain.

What makes a childhood “bad” has both objective data and subjective nuance.

Understanding what makes a childhood “bad” involves both objective and subjective elements. 

Research on society’s views of what constitutes a “bad” childhood experience often centers around the concept of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). 

The Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was a significant investigation into childhood abuse, neglect, and household challenges, and provides an objective framework for most clinicians and social researchers to identify negative experiences in childhood. 

This landmark study – spanning 1995-1997 – revealed that almost two-thirds of participants reported at least one ACE, with over twenty percent reporting three or more ACEs. 

The research underscored a graded dose-response relationship between ACEs and negative health and well-being outcomes. 

In other words, the more ACEs experienced, the greater the risk for negative outcomes​​.

(If you’re curious about the Kaiser ACE’s quiz and what your score may be, you can take it here.)

Without a doubt, the ACE framework has been pivotal in understanding how different forms of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction during childhood can lead to long-term negative outcomes but the scope of the quiz fails to account for all experiences (of course, how could one quiz do that?).

For example, what happens when a female is the abuser?

Or what happens when one isn’t sure if a parent or guardian had mental illness at play?

Or what happens in broader social settings and outside the family home like in the cases of chronic bullying in middle school, coercion by faith and spiritual communities, or aggression or belittling from teachers or coaches, etc.

The Kaiser ACE’s focus on adversities within the home sometimes overlooks broader socio-ecological factors that also impact childhood experiences. 

Indeed, the concept of “embodiment” proposed by epidemiologist Nancy Krieger emphasizes that human biology is shaped by both the material and social world, suggesting that adverse experiences extend beyond just family environments to include wider societal factors.

In my opinion as a trauma therapist, this could look like racial and ethnic discrimination, gender-based discrimination, and community violence. 

These kinds of experiences can’t be discounted when inventorying the functionality or dysfunctionality of a childhood, how “good” or “bad” it was.

But look, despite these limitations, the ACE framework remains a key and, frankly, objective tool in identifying children at risk and guiding interventions and public health measures. 

And, very importantly, beyond these objective measures in the home and outside of it, once again the subjective interpretation of one’s childhood plays a crucial role in determining if one’s childhood was “bad.” 

The perception of whether a childhood was “bad” is deeply personal and is influenced by individual experiences and emotional responses. 

For instance, you may have one or more ACE’s – what society would deem objective markers of hard and bad experiences – such as housing insecurity at times in your childhood, but perhaps you also had deeply loving, secure and attuned parents throughout your childhood. 

That kind of protective factor is what’s known as a Positive Childhood Experience (PCEs). 

PCEs highlight the significance of supportive relationships and resilience-building in mitigating the effects of adverse experiences or even how and if someone perceives their objective “bad” childhood experiences as such.

This growing body of research on PCE’s which I’ll write more about in coming essays underscores the complexity of childhood experiences, demonstrating that childhoods can have objective “bad” experiences in them but because of how you interpret those experiences, whether it’s because of PCE’s or otherwise, determines whether or not if felt subjectively “bad” to you.

So all of this to say, your childhood can be both/and and doesn’t have to be either/or. 

Your childhood can be both/and and doesn’t have to be either/or.

Understanding the complexities of childhood experiences and their impact on adult life is a nuanced process. 

When reflecting on whether one’s childhood was “really that bad,” it’s important to recognize that the answer can encompass both positive and negative aspects, rather than being a simple ‘either/or’ situation.

It’s entirely possible to hold compassion for your parents and recognize the challenges they faced, including the damaging social forces that influenced their actions and decisions at that time (forces like sexism, racism, classism, etc.).

The reality is that the majority of parents work hard to provide for and protect their children, doing the best they can within their own limitations and the constraints of their circumstances in the country and age of history they are raising them in.

At the same time, it’s also vital and valid to acknowledge the impact of their limitations on your development and well-being. 

For example, your mom worked 80-90 hours a week and was emotionally exhausted when you saw her and not really able to support you emotionally but still provided for the rent and groceries.

It was a both/and experience. She did the best she could to provide for you and protect you, and yet couldn’t be there for you in other ways.

Or, being around your dad felt like walking on eggshells when it came to his anxiety and anger but you know he had C-PTSD from his own egregiously physically abusive childhood.

It was a both/and experience. He didn’t hit you like his father did to him, but still his unprocessed trauma impacted you and your sense of comfort and safety in the home.

You get the idea…

This dual recognition of both the positive intent and the negative impact of our parents and guardians is a form of accepting contradictory thinking, where one can appreciate the good while also acknowledging the harm or limitations.

So often the challenge in accepting the duality of experiences prevents us from asking and consciously asking the question “Was my childhood really that bad?”

So if we can learn to hold both/and versus considering it an either/or situation, we may support ourselves in critically examining our personal histories more thoughtfully.

But that of course leads to the question, why even bother asking the question “Was my childhood really that bad?”?

Why is it even important to ask the question, “Was my childhood really that bad?”

“Why bother asking “Was my childhood really that bad?” What’s the point?”

“What’s the point of blaming my parents – I know they did the best they could.”

“All therapists just want to talk about childhood and blame parents, don’t they?”

“I don’t want to get stuck navel gazing; it’s so self-indulgent to ask this question.”

“I don’t want to get stuck in the past. I want to move forward.”

These are all iterations of comments I’ve heard from therapy clients, my online course students, and readers of my work over the years.

And to each of these points I would answer the following:

It’s important to ask the question, “Was my childhood really that bad?” to support your overall biological, psychological, and social healing.

Not to blame your parents.

Not to stay stuck in the past.

Not to be self-indulgent.

But because when we can honestly confront the truth of our lives and see things more plainly – how we formed in relationship to our past – we can get ourselves the right kind of help to recover and heal from it.

And why is recovering and healing so important if we’ve had a “bad” childhood? 

Understanding and confronting one’s history of childhood trauma, particularly for those with high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scores, is a crucial step towards holistic health and well-being in your adulthood.

The connection between high ACE scores and physical health is profound. 

Research indicates a marked increase in the risk of serious health conditions like cancer and heart diseases among individuals with high ACE scores. 

This link is often attributed to the long-term effects of stress hormones, which, when persistently activated, can cause various chronic health issues.

The Cleveland Clinic provides valuable insights into how stress impacts the body, emphasizing the importance of addressing these early life experiences.

Mental health, too, is, as you probably know, deeply influenced by childhood trauma. 

The original ACE Study, along with subsequent research, has established a clear link between the number of ACEs and the severity of mental health disorders, including depression. 

Research has also shown a strong relationship between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and difficulties in adult relationship formation. 

So you can see, addressing and healing from childhood trauma is vital not just for your individual physical and mental well-being as an adult, but also for your social and relational well-being.

What options are available if you conclude your childhood was “bad”?

If you’ve asked yourself this question and come to the conclusion that, in fact, your childhood was “bad”, that you in fact come from a childhood trauma history, you may be asking yourself, “Okay, so what next? Now that I know, what do I do? How do I get better and heal from these experiences?”

The answer in two words: Trauma therapy.

Specifically, and with more context, it’s important for you to know that evidence-based therapies like EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) can be a truly wonderful resource. 

EMDR has been shown to be particularly effective in easing the distress associated with traumatic childhood memories, with studies indicating its efficacy in reducing PTSD symptoms and improving overall mental health.

If you live in California or Florida, either myself or my talented team of EMDR trauma clinicians at my boutique, trauma-informed therapy center – Evergreen Counseling – can be of support to you. 

Again, if you live in California or Florida, please just book a complimentary 20-minute consult call with our center’s clinical intake director and she can match you to an EMDR therapist on our team who is the best fit for you clinically, relationally, and logistically (and it very well may be me who is the best fit for you as a therapist!).

And if you live outside of California or Florida, please consider exploring my online course specifically designed for relational trauma recovery (aka: childhood trauma recovery). 

Finally, if you’re still not sure if this content applies to you, if you’re still not sure if your childhood was really “that bad” I would invite you to take my signature quiz – “Do I come from a relational trauma background?” It’s a 5-minute, 25-question quiz I created that can be incredibly illuminating and will point you in the direction of a wide variety of resources that can be of further help to you.

Plus, when you take the quiz, you’ll be added to my mailing list where you’ll receive twice-a-month letters from me sharing original, high-quality essays (with accompanying YouTube videos and audios you can stream) devoted to the topic of relational trauma recovery and where I share more about me as a person, my life, and how I’m journeying through my own relational trauma recovery journey and general adulthood. 

My newsletters are the only place where I share intimate glimpses into my life (including photos), the resources that are supporting me, the things I’ve discovered that delight me, words that are uplifting me, the practices that nourish me, etc. 

So please be sure to sign up for my mailing list whether or not you want to take the quiz as it’s the best way to be in touch with me and hear all the things I only share with my newsletter subscribers.

And now I’d love to hear from you in the comments below:

Have you ever asked yourself “Was my childhood really that bad?” What finally helped you achieve clarity on that answer for yourself? What’s one tool or resource that has been so supportive to you as you’ve confronted this question and any healing work you’ve needed to do? 

If you feel so included, please leave a message in the comments below so our community of 30,000 blog readers can benefit from your wisdom. You never know when you leave a comment below what stranger on the other side of the globe you might be helping.

So thank you. And until next time, please take such good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.

Warmly, Annie

 

References Section

  • Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Viking.
  • The Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Felitti, V.J., Anda, R.F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D.F., Spitz, A.M., Edwards, V., … & Marks, J.S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258.
  • Krieger, N. (2005). Embodiment: A conceptual glossary for epidemiology. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 59(5), 350-355.
  • The Kaiser ACE’s Quiz.
  • Bethell, C., Jones, J., Gombojav, N., Linkenbach, J., & Sege, R. (2019). Positive childhood experiences and adult mental and relational health in a statewide sample: Associations across adverse childhood experiences levels. JAMA Pediatrics, 173(11), e193007.
  • Shapiro, F. (2001). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): Basic principles, protocols, and procedures (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
  • Hughes, K., Bellis, M. A., Hardcastle, K. A., Sethi, D., Butchart, A., Mikton, C., … & Dunne, M. P. (2017). The effect of multiple adverse childhood experiences on health: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet Public Health, 2(8), e356-e366. ScienceDirect
  • Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). Cleveland Clinic
  • Asmundson, G. J. G., Paluszek, M. M., Landry, C. A., Rachor, G. S., McKay, D., & Taylor, S. (2021). Do Adverse Childhood Experiences Predict Adult Psychological Distress? Evidence From a Representative Sample. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 34(3), 631-640. PMC
  • Thomson, P., & Jaque, S. V. (2017). Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) and adult attachment interview (AAI) in a non-clinical population. Child Abuse & Neglect, 70, 255-263. PubMed
  • Brannock, D. (2020). Effectiveness of EMDR and CBT in Children and Adolescents with Trauma. Milligan College Digital Repository
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