"I’m 21, and depressed because I realize how toxic my parents were. I’ll never look back and have good memories. I'll never have normal parents.
What can I do?"
Ouch, it sucks to feel like your childhood was lacking.
Parents have a big responsibility, and if you feel somehow cheated of a "normal" childhood, it's easy to feel like you're starting your adult life 2 miles short of the starting line.
I've met a lot of people who feel deep resentment towards their parents. Their parents didn't do the job they were supposed to, and the universe cheated them, somehow.
And this is why life sucks now.
But, now you're an adult, and that means something pretty incredible...
Once you're an adult, your life becomes 100% yours.
That means that, now, you get to parent yourself. Whatever you felt your childhood lacked, you are now in charge of creating that for yourself.
Your life is completely unlimited...
Create opportunities. Learn things. Set boundaries. Develop skills. Make friends. Whatever you want, you can create now.
Before you can move forward, you first need to let go of the past. It's an anchor that will hold you back in a surprisingly big way.
So let's start there first.
Let's Challenge Your Perspective
Fair warning, this won't be easy for many people.
Right now, your mind is convinced of your sucky childhood, and it's convinced that your parents should have done better... and these perceptions are very difficult to change.
But getting an accurate perspective here is an essential step in freeing yourself from that past- so I am challenging you to keep an open mind here.
That's all I ask.
Very likely, you'll need to reread this article more than once over the next few months to chip away at that iceberg bit by bit.
I've reflected a lot on the things in my own childhood that I felt I missed out on. The experiences I didn't have. The crucial skills and life lessons I didn't learn. And I work daily with people who are working through these types of situations.
Here are my top realizations about my childhood, and the role my parents played.
Your Childhood was a Massive Success
And I mean like a crazy, incredible success.
If you're alive right now, then the primary, number one duty of your parents has been achieved.
They kept you from getting eaten by the neighborhood dogs. From getting flattened by a car in the street. From drinking drain-o. From falling to your death and breaking your neck. From killing yourself in a fiery car explosion as you learned to drive.
If you're un-maimed, have all of your arms and legs, both eyes and both ears, then they delivered you into adulthood with stellar results. Just 100 years ago, fully healthy young adults were a bit of a rarity.
Frankly, there are so many ways that things can go wrong, your parents probably deserve a standing ovation.
Wait... did you get some education too?
Do you have skills with which you can get a job, potentially?
Damn!! You can read and write? That's crazy.
If you're reading this now, and you're ticking most of those boxes YES, then even by today's standards you're starting adulthood better than a lot of people around the world.
You might think that your friends got a better deal than you did, but you have everything you need to build an epic life. That job is yours now.
Life Was Never Meant to be Comfortable and Easy
The Universe did not cheat you. It doesn't even know that you exist.
Life is not a Disneyland where you are promised happy experiences and a fairy tale future.
Life is a gym. It presents you with challenges, which are opportunities to learn and grow.
It's up to you whether you take them.
In fact, look around you - you'll notice that it's the people who had a comfortable and easy childhood who are often the least prepared to be successful adults. They've never had to work for anything, and now, they simply don't know how to.
Parenting is Much Harder than you Think
Let's look at the experience of becoming a parent, from the parent's perspective.
BOOM. Congratulations, you're a new parent.
Suddenly, your life has gone from "pretty normal" to chaos. Everything in your life that was important to you yesterday now takes a distant back-seat to this tiny new human.
For such a little thing, a child makes a helluva big impact.
Literally, nothing else matters, and your world is turned upside-down.
Now, you don't get to choose when you sleep, or how much sleep you get. You have no time to yourself. Everything that was "normal" in your life is a distant memory- and you're worrying about this new little human for the next 20 years.
Here are your new life priorities...
Infancy - birth to 1 year old
- Keep your child breathing. Make sure they don't choke, or sleep in a weird position. Keep anything small they can get their hands on and put in their mouth well away.
- Keep them warm.
- Keep them fed.
- Keep them healthy.
- Keep them safe.
Young Childhood- 1 year to 5 years
That first year felt like a full time job to a new parent, but once a child can crawl and walk, the parents barely get to sit down.
- Keep anything that can poison them well out of reach. Medicines, cleaners, laundry detergent... your whole house gets a redesign now.
- Keep them from running into the street, or playing behind the car.
- Keep them from getting lost, or kidnapped.
- Keep them from becoming a snack for the neighbor's dog.
Childhood - 5 years to 13 years
Now, hopefully, they should be around 5 years old. Are they still alive? Woohoo! Nice work... only 15 more years to go.
Now, we want them to learn stuff.
We want to allow them enough risk and danger that they can learn self-confidence, and learn to make good decisions. But we don't want them to take too much risk... because the consequences could be severe.
- We want them to learn to climb, and play, and explore, but not risk falling off the roof or out of a tree.
- We want them to play with the neighbor kids, but to be careful playing baseball in the streets, and to avoid bullies.
- We want them to take risks, but not stupid ones.
Teenage years - 13 years to 19 years
These are the independence years, and even for the best parents, they are often the hardest. Here, your children are dealing with new hormones, new drives, and new peer pressures. They are learning to make their own decisions, and to do that without you even knowing.
- We want them to have friends, and have fun with them, but to not do crazy things like drinking, drugs or taking physical risks like jumping off a bridge.
- We want them to learn relationships, but no STI's or pregnancies.
- We want them to learn to drive, but not to die, or kill anyone.
If you're incredibly lucky, you've raised a kid all the way to adulthood. They might have some social skills. They might have some job skills. They might have some life skills.
Along the way, as a parent, you've played doctor with no medical training. You've played therapist with no psychology training. You've played protector with no military training.
And your job isn't done... it's never really done.
In those last 20 years, God forbid you should have had an unsupportive partner, or become a single parent, or have had your own life crises to deal with - because you would have had zero time and zero energy to deal with those things.
And now, 20 years older, you're meant to re-connect to your life. your partner, your friends, and your career.
But, I'm a Parent too! And I am doing way better...
Some of you reading this are already parents yourselves, and you may feel that you're doing a far better job than your parents did.
If so, that's fantastic.
If you feel resentment towards how your parents did with you, stop and reflect on what was different for them.
- How were mom and dad different as people, from you?
- How were their priorities different, and why?
- What was going on in their personal lives- at least the things that you know about?
- Did they want to be parents? Did they feel prepared to be parents?
- How well were they supported by their partner, and their family?
- What were their own parents like, as role models?
The very fact that you were dissatisfied with your own childhood is a big part of what makes you a better parent.
That experience motivates you to prioritize your kids, your family, and your parenting.
Hopefully, your own kids will appreciate your parenting efforts and sacrifices the way that you do. Someday they will compare their own lives to other people in their world around them. Will they feel that you gave them an advantage? Or will they feel their childhood somehow didn't prepare them properly?
Your child's perspective about their own childhood will likely be quite different from your perspective as their parent.
And that's OK. Your job is to protect them, and to do the very best job as a parent that you can.
Who Are Your Parents, Anyway?
Most people who become parents have no idea what they're getting themselves into.
For many of them, it wasn't even planned. Often, one parent is more interested in becoming a parent, than the other.
In most cases, parents are in their 20s or early 30s, trying to sort out their career, their new relationship, a mortgage, and being a first-time parent, all at once.
There's no manual- not even a brochure- on how to be a good parent.
We're not taught anything in school.
If they were very lucky, one or both of your parents had decent parents as role models.
Your parents were probably untrained and unprepared for the job that was expected of them, and they were probably poorly supported by the community around them too.
Different People Express Love Differently
What were your parents' love languages, and what are yours?
Love languages describe how different people express love, and feel loved by others. In romantic relationships, having different love languages creates a huge disconnect between partners.
Between parents and children, I believe the same disconnect can occur.
I find that when people describe their childhoods to me, and why they felt unhappy and unloved, I can often see their parents making significant efforts to show love.
Perhaps it was by doing things for their children ( "acts of service" ) or perhaps it was gifts and financial provision. Perhaps it was quality time, or kind words ( "words of affirmation" ). Perhaps it was hugs, or a pat on the back ( "affection" ).
If your love languages were different, you would feel unloved, despite your parents' best intentions.
My intention isn't to trivialize the traumas you've experienced in your childhood, it's to help you clearly understand some of the incredible challenges that your parents faced.
I've no doubt that - if your parents had been given the right training, priorities and resources - they could have been much better parents to you,
A lot of parents look back and regret that they didn't know more about parenting, when their children were little. They didn't know what their children needed from them, and they didn't know how to help their children grow.
They didn't even how to deal with their own emotions and stresses as parents.
For them, every day was just a battle for survival, and everything I've written above may help you to understand why that is.
Understanding this is critical because as long as you feel resentment towards your parents, your attention & energy will be focused on your past rather than on your future - where it can benefit you.
Alright. We're talked a ton about your folks, now let's talk about YOU - because you are a far bigger part of your future than they will ever be.
Your Life is Yours Now
There is a critical coming-of-age transition between childhood and adulthood, that a lot of people seem to miss out on.
When you become an adult, your perspective should shift in 3 big ways;
- Your childhood has clearly ended, and is in the past, and it was what it was. It was the cocoon needed to build your butterfly, and now it's time to fly away.
- You now have full autonomy. No one else is your parent now. No one else can tell you what to do with your life. You decide everything about your future.
- You now have full self-responsibility. Also, no one else is responsible for your decisions. Your victories are your own. Your failures are your own. There's no one else to credit, or to blame, for what you do now with your life.
It's Time to Take the Steering Wheel
As a child, your parents & society largely decide what you need to know, and what to teach you. As an adult, you get to take control of your direction, and choose those things.
Whatever you do, don't stop learning & growing.
You get to choose you own life now... which means that I'm not going to tell you where you should be investing your time, money and energy.
But, here are a few things that have worked brilliantly for me...
Learn to parent yourself
Great parenting has a very clear goal- to create the best adult possible, and to unleash them on the world.
Once you are parenting yourself, that goal remains unchanged.
As a parent, you ideally want to teach your child some key skills.
Among my personal favorites are;
- Self-Awareness. The ability to stop, notice, and examine at your thoughts, emotions, behaviors and reactions as clearly as if you are watching someone else.
- Courage. The ability to move forward, in the face of fear.
- Discernment. The ability to identify good choices, from poor ones.
- Self-motivation. The ability to channel desire in useful directions, for long-term growth, rather than immediate gratification.
- Self-control. The ability to resist the temptation for immediate gratification.
- Emotional maturity. The ability to be friends with your emotions. Do not suppress them, as they will poison you until they explode. Do not let them run your life as they will burn it to the ground. Be friends with your emotions in the same way an expert jockey is friends with their horse. Together, they can do amazing things.
- Self-discipline. The ability to move towards your goals even when your emotions are not yet in line with those goals.
- Forming habits, and breaking habits. A lot of our behavior, choices, and life, is subconscious. It's embodied in our habits, and reactions. Learn to observe, and develop these into the most useful tools you have.
- Deep reflection skills. The ability to dig in to your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and ask "why" until you develop a unique understanding of your core values.
Become a Better Parent, than Your Parents Were
What is good parenting anyway?
It's up to you to reflect on your own childhood experiences, and figure that out for yourself, for your children, and the people you will influence in your life.
Did you need your parents to be more involved in your life more, or less? Did you need more freedom, or were you given too much freedom? What skills did you miss out on? What skills did you find totally useless?
Make your own childhood a study.
If you're not a parent yet, or never plan to be - join programs like "big brother," to help other kids who suffer from unfortunate parenting challenges. You'll learn tons of parenting skills, and you'll make the world a better place, all at the same time.
Recovering from Abuse
An article about difficult childhoods would not be complete without a discussion of abuse. There is no doubt it happens, and hopefully you did not suffer from serious abuse or neglect.
But - I've worked with people who have suffered serious, direct abuse at the hands of their parents.
I know people who have been locked in the basement, tied to a pipe, in the dark. People who are severely neglected, or verbally, emotionally, physically, and even sexually abused.
If this is you, get a therapist or coach who can help you through these traumas.
Being a victim of abuse is no different from being a victim of a car accident. The car accident may not have been your fault - you didn't deserve it, and you have no responsibility there... however...
Your recovery is 100% your own responsibility.
And if you deal with it thoroughly, you'll be stronger than you ever were.
You will know you're there, when your perspective is "I survived this, because I am incredibly tough & resilient."
If you're not there yet, keep going, and you'll find that place.
And if this isn't you, count yourself incredibly lucky. Some kids had a far more difficult childhood than you did.
The Choice is Yours...
You're your own parent now, and that means you get to choose your own future.
If you like, you are fully allowed to do nothing at all, and feel like a victim in life. Some people might prefer that...
But I hope you're different from them.
Whichever you choose, understand that you are making a choice, and own it fully.
The perspective I've developed in life is that no one owes me anything, including my parents, friends, lovers, my bosses, peers or government.
My life and my happiness are my responsibility.
Create the life you want. Wait for no one.
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Regarding the relationship between societies and families, I suspect we're living very unnaturally and in an unhealthy way. In fact I can think of very few mammals in their natural habitat who self-isolate their families from the tribe.
Maslow's Guide to Parenting
If you're familiar with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, it describes quite well what humans need in life. I find this diagram relates directly in the context of parenting.
Here are some things to notice...
- Parents start at the bottom of the diagram and work their way upwards.
- Ideal parenting means, as much as possible, covering all of the levels in some way.
- As early as possible, the best parents teach their children how to provide for themselves, rather than providing everything for them.
This is because the ultimate goal of parenting is to create good, self-sufficient adults.
The Isolated Family
In modern first-world cultures, families tend to self-isolate.
Your family probably lived in a house, by yourselves. Your parents were expected to protect you, provide for you, and raise you, all by themselves.
Your grandparents probably lived somewhere else, or were put in a retirement village - and all of this seemed "normal" to you, because everyone else you knew lived the same way.
But this goes well against the natural model of human tribal societies where the entire tribe shared the responsibilities of protection, provision, and raising children together.
Parents got to sleep better, and had the emotional and physical support they needed to run the home and raise the family. Grandparents got to be a valued part of the family, raising the next generation and staying active, imparting their life wisdom, knowledge and skills.
Chances are, your parents did the best they could, given who they were at that point in their lives, what they were dealing with in their own lives, and what resources they had.
Recognize this, and the added difficulty that parents face today.