Are you carrying your dysfunctional childhood into adult AND parent hood?

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Are you carrying your dysfunctional childhood into adult AND parent hood?

At lot of my clients are women and a significant proportion come to see me because they are afraid that their dysfunctional childhood may be negatively impacting on their relationship with a partner and the way they parent.

Conversations often begin with “I swore I would never be like my mother” or they explain that they want things to be different for their kids.

Before I continue I want to say this article isn’t about blaming parents – I think that all parents do the best job that they are able to do, however some do a less than good job. This can often be because they themselves had difficult childhoods and so the cycle continues.

If during early childhood your primary caregiver was not able to provide you with comfort, attention and meet your basic needs, or in your family home there were issues like emotional, physical or sexual abuse then you may have learned to get your needs met with dysfunctional patterns of behaviour that can become a kind of blueprint for connection and comfort that is unconscious and can last a lifetime.

Children are amazing and adaptable and they learn strategies that help them to cope. This may mean being ‘very good’ or super helpful or even denying that they have any needs at all, whilst other children may become rebellious or particularly self-reliant at a very early age.

Those strategies learned through childhood are helpful in enabling children with difficult family situations to move through to adulthood – they were tools that served them well.  However as they age and begin the journey into adulthood they continue to use these unconscious choices which may begin to cause problems.  The dysfunctional strategies that served them well during childhood no longer help and can actively create difficult issues in all relationships in their lives.

When women come and see me it is usually because they can now see some patterns of behaviour either in an intimate relationship or with their parenting that is creating lots of discomfort and distress for them and they are looking to make changes.

Unhealthy Patterns

Some specific issues that women present with when they have experienced a dysfunctional childhood include:

  • Difficulty saying no because they are afraid of rejection or abandonment
  • Being a chameleon changing to suit the environment they are in
  • Overly responsible and controlling or passive and dependent – power issues
  • Unable to set healthy boundaries in relationships
  • Taking on other people’s problems and feeling as if they were their own
  • Not trusting their intuition
  • Allow others expectations to define them
  • Feeling responsible for other people’s happiness
  • Compromising their own values and beliefs in order to please others or avoid conflict
  • Lacking self worth
  • Avoiding intimacy (pick fights, stay too busy)
  • Fear of either abandonment or engulfment, avoiding closeness
  • Difficulty identifying wants, needs, feelings
  • Rarely asking for help

As you can see some of these issues can seriously impact relationships with partners, friends and of course the way that you parent.

What needs to happen to change relationships and parenting in the future?

  • Work with a professional to heal your own emotional wounds
  • Learn how to take care of yourself (self-care, self-compassion and self-acceptance)
  • Find new ways of dealing with feelings and thoughts
  • Learn new ways of being in intimate relationships
  • Find healthier parenting patterns

Working with a professional

When I begin to work with women on changing some of these patterns of behavior I will say – “look back but don’t stare”. We cannot change our history, the past has had an impact but there is nothing back there that we can change. It is in the present that change occurs and we can definitely learn new ways of being in relationships and doing our parenting role today.

So even though you may have had a difficult childhood it is possible to work through your issues and find new ways of interacting with those you love.  Working with a professional who you feel safe and comfortable with can be extremely helpful.

Taking Care of yourself

A difficult childhood can leave you unable to see the wonderful strengths, vulnerabilities and talents that you have.  During childhood you may have had to give up or hide some of the very important parts of yourself like sensitivity, openness, joy, or talents because they may not have been understood or welcomed by your parents.

Being courageous now and working toward rediscovering or finding for the first time the things that bring you joy, peace and laughter is so worth the effort.  Learning to take care of your needs, finding self compassion and love for yourself and discovering your own worthiness are priceless gifts you can have today.

Working on intimate relationships

Some relationships cannot be repaired but many can.  Working with a professional as a couple can help you both learn to communicate more effectively, have healthier boundaries and feel more intimate connection.  Read more about Fixing Unhealthy Relationships.


We all bring aspects of our childhoods into our parenting, even when we really would prefer not to have this happen.  We are taught how to connect to others in those early childhood relationships and later in childhood we observe behaviour that is role-modelled for us by our parents.  Unfortunately unlike what we see on the television or in magazines parenting isn’t instinctive but is learned.

Because of this we may behave in ways we would rather not, or ways we have stated we never would – being emotionally distant, overprotective, dismissive, or strict and not knowing how to set appropriate boundaries.  Or feeling anxious about protecting your children and keeping them safe.  Many moms who had dysfunctional childhoods are completely unaware of this as they have no model of consistent, warm and connected parenting to refer to.

The good news is this can be learned and it is never too late.  Some things to consider as a healthy parent.

1. A child centered family is not a good idea

A child centered family is not a good idea – many families now are child centered, meaning that parents lives revolve around their children.  Of course we need to have a child focus, to care of our child and meet their needs but it is unhealthy to only focus on their happiness since that can lead to entitled and difficult children.  It’s important to find a balance between your own needs, your relationship’s needs and your child’s needs.

2. Living our lives through our children

Becoming overly involved or over invested in your child’s life can lead to enmeshment (not knowing where they end and you begin).  They are separate to you and they need to live their lives (within reason) in the ways that fulfil them.

3. Wanting to be our child’s best friend

In my blog I am your parent not your friend I talk about this issue at length. Your job is a tough one, parenting well is hard work, we need to set boundaries, ask kids to do things they may not want to do like eat their greens, go to bed at a reasonable time and do their homework.

4. Wanting things to be ‘perfect’

Childhood can be a seriously messy endeavor, I have three sons and a daughter and there is a fair amount of mess in my home.  Remember that childhood lasts a short time and trying to keep a home immaculate and kids gleaming is a very challenging and sometimes thankless task.  Imperfect is okay – even great!

Also try not to give them everything, the overscheduled child (and parent) can become very frazzled.  They don’t have to try every sport, instrument, language and recreational activity available to be happy.

5. Relax

Easier said than done I know, but we all make mistakes in our parenting, even those with amazing childhood experiences.  Remember you are doing your very best every day and that it is good enough.  Kids are incredible and you can help them to become resilient, learn new skills and connect in ways you were never able to.  Just relax take some deep breaths and be kind to yourself.

If you’d like a copy of my free e-booklet “Is Your Approach to Relationships Healthy? – 7 Questions Every Woman Should Ask Herself” click the button below.

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My work is family focused, attachment based and systemic and aims to help individuals, couples, children and families function well.  If you are looking for a therapist to help you with relationship or parenting issues please feel free to contact me.

You can make an appointment with me online right now using the scheduler at the bottom right of this page or call or email me.

I am also now offering short online courses (duration 30 to 60 minutes). Now you can work with me from the comfort of your own home at a time that suits you. Learn more …

Until next time …


About the Author:

Debbi Carberry Clinical Social Worker (AMHSW MAASW Acc)


  1. Sharon Martin, LCSW May 20, 2015 at 5:48 am

    Excellent article, Debbie. It’s really helpful in understanding the pattern between our childhood and our parenting.

  2. Julia June 1, 2015 at 4:30 am

    Debbie – a wonderful read.. so well written and explains so clearly these processes in terms anyone can understand. I am a practicing psychotherapist working in Sydney’s northern beaches and like to share inspiring and interesting articles with fellow therapists and / or clients..I hope you don’t mind that I have shared this one on my professional Facebook page (Julia Souter Counselling & Psychotherapy). Kind regards, Julia Souter

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