Adverse Childhood Events: How a Rotten Childhood Can Linger On

Happiness, trust, love, self-worth, the ability to be open and vulnerable–all can be lost through the ordeal of a bad childhood.

Often in therapy sessions, many adult patients trace their current struggles back to their childhood. Some people really struggle with moving pass their formative years if they experienced pain and adversity. Freud famously posited that our lives are pretty much determined by events in our early childhood. We all know counseling gets a bad rap for its tendency to blame parents for all the problems a person has long into adulthood.  To state the obvious– the case can be made that blaming parents for adult problems in a cop-out. It is of course easier to blame your parents than take personal responsibility. At some point, it is fair to say, whoever we are and whatever we may have experienced, we do need to let it go. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done for those who experienced childhood as unstable and uncertain.  The wounds of a rotten childhood can be all but healed. The pain of the past haunts many who walk among us.

Anger taken too far is often at the center of many therapy sessions. As a clinician I have seen people express deep-seated anger at their parents (and I am talking well into middle age). From my experience as an in home counselor for a mental health agency, which is often mandated counseling, I also got to see firsthand the impact traumatic events had on the development of children. Many children who experienced trauma during their formative years developed debilitating anger. How this anger presented varied but the impact being detrimental to a client’s mental health would always hold true. I often wondered how these experiences would impact these youngsters in their adulthood, long after I would be gone from their lives.

Growing up with unstable parents is inevitably hard. Living in an unpredictable home environment can be severely traumatizing. It is all to easy to blame one’s upbringing for the problems that follow us through life.

Parents are an easy target to dump blame on. I struggle as a clinician to pinpoint down an exact age where parents need to stop being so central to treatment–is it by college? One’s 20s? 30s? Never? There is no clear-cut answer. And while it is not beneficial to blame your parents for all your problems, there’s no doubt that parents and other caregivers are pivotal figures in a child’s development. We also can see for some people, the impact is still very much present in their adult lives. The effects of a difficult childhood can linger long after it is over.

Our early childhood experiences do shape us to a large extent. For many of us our earliest memories are positive–times filled with great love and affection from our parents or caregivers. Many of my earliest memories in life are of much affection from my parents and of me constantly asking my father, “UP” (up as in to carry me around because I loved being carried by “daddy”–probably a bit passed the age I should have been asking!) These are fond memories I hold dear and the feelings of love from that time I can still feel within me.

Children need to feel loved and valued. If they don’t, it will almost certainly impact their mental health and well-being.

Yet the sad reality is many people experience disruptive and harmful events that hinder their psychological and emotional development. Example of such events include parental divorce, death of a parent, frequently moving and switching schools, abuse (physical, mental or emotional), parental mental illness, and poverty.  Many times childhood adversities are interrelated. For instance, a parental divorce can lead to a change in socioeconomic status for many families. Research has found that people who experienced “ACEs” are at a much greater risk to develop mental health issues in adulthood include being a greater risk for suicide.

ACEs are “adverse childhood experiences” that can bring on struggles for a person in their adulthood. ACE is well-studied part of developmental psychology. Sadly people with a history of ACEs often pass on the dysfunction to the next generation. These are events beyond a young person’s control. Many times in transgenerational family therapy the counselor examines the interactions of clients across generations as a method to understand and explain current problems within the family system, as well as predicting future difficulties. A genogram can map out family relationships across the generations.

I copied and pasted below a Adverse Childhood Experience questionnaire for you to take to see how many you may have experienced.

While you were growing up, during your first 18 years of life:

1. Did a parent or other adult in the household often …
Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you?
Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
2. Did a parent or other adult in the household often …
Push, grab, slap, or throw something at you?
Ever hit you so hard that you had marks or were injured?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
3. Did an adult or person at least 5 years older than you ever…
Touch or fondle you or have you touch their body in a sexual way?
Try to or actually have oral, anal, or vaginal sex with you? Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

4.Did you often feel that …
No one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?
Your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
5. Did you often feel that …
You didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you?
Your parents were too drunk or high to take care of you or take you to the doctor if you needed it?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
6. Were your parents ever separated or divorced?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
7. Was your mother or stepmother:
Often pushed, grabbed, slapped, or had something thrown at her?
Sometimes or often kicked, bitten, hit with a fist, or hit with something hard?
Ever repeatedly hit over at least a few minutes or threatened with a gun or knife?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
8. Did you live with anyone who was a problem drinker or alcoholic or who used street drugs?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________

9. Was a household member depressed or mentally ill or did a household member attempt suicide?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
10. Did a household member go to prison?
Yes No If yes enter 1 ________
Now add up your “Yes” answers: _______ This is your ACE Score

Many people may take this questionnaire and answer one or none. Other people, regardless of race, socioeconomic background, or gender, may find themselves checking off yes to quite a few adverse childhood events.

So why does this matter?  For one, such adverse events impact the development of one’s identity which takes place across the lifespan. If you experienced the aforementioned events in childhood, most likely basic survival took over for you, which impedes the normal development of self.  Worse as a child we have no frame of reference. Thus one experiences this dysfunction as normal because the behavior of their caregivers is all they know. Often people get stunted at the age of said trauma. That is why as a therapist we may diagnose someone at being at the emotional development of a 12-year-old yet their chronological age is 45.

The task of identity development is challenging enough in and of itself when one comes from a safe, secure, upbringing. If one is struggling with the after effects of development trauma, the process will be especially difficult to master. The adult consequences of trauma are vast–often resulting in substance abuse issues, depression, anxiety, behavioral issues, difficulty in personal relationships, and difficulties with maintaining employment. Often our childhood trauma impacts the way we are effectively able to parent out own children.

Furthermore, we see broken adults come from homes where abuse-physical, emotional, mental was present and are more likely to develop complex post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD).

Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (cPTSD) is characterized by difficulties with emotional regulation, consciousness and memory, self-perception, difficulties in relationships with other people, distorted perceptions, and negative effects on one’s  life.

Even if you find you have not experienced the adverse childhood events of the questionnaire, none of us grow up unscathed from pain and hardship, in whatever form it presents in your life. Learning how to deal with negative emotions and experiences are a part of growing up. You grow up every day, no matter what your age.

No matter what your past, it is NEVER too late to better your life with positive experiences and overcome the long shadow of childhood adversity. Don’t get stuck in the past which hinders your ability to live the life you want in the present. It is important to remember even in adulthood such events can be remedied. Counseling can help you to process and overcome the trauma of one’s childhood. Often we need to work through the pain in order to release it. Repressing it, denying it, or suppressing our feelings will not remedy the situation. If you are willing to put in the work, you can tap into your inner resiliency and lead a happier, healthier life.


Am I a Good Parent?

Have you ever asked yourself….am I a good parent?

I think we would be hard pressed to find a parent who doesn’t from time to time question their parenting abilities.

It is a question most if not all parents WANT an answer to.

Parenting is not something you get a lot of feedback on. In our culture, many parents, appear annoyed or peeved by other people correcting their children, let alone commenting on their parenting.

Even if the feedback is coming from the MOST innocuous source it tends not to be well received. I have had grandparents share with me they want to give some feedback to their child about their grandchild and parenting, but fear being lashed out at or their child getting mad at them for voicing their concerns. It seems, as parents, there is no one we really feel comfortable with giving us constructive feedback on our role as mom or dad. Which is understandable. It is easy to be hypersensitive about our parenting. There is nothing more personal and meaningful.

Yet the lack of feedback we get as parents make it hard to know if we are on the right track with raising our children.

Maybe just maybe we will never know if we are doing a good job as parent until our children are grown. Maybe the best indicator of how well we did as parents is how our adult children FEEL about us. And at that point we are done in the functional sense of being a parent.

The culture of parenting has certainly changed with the passing of generations who assume the role.

The sad truth is in our society parenting has become very competitive in nature. Something about having kids seems to bring out this competitive streak. Wisdom long-held that having children made you a better person. Yet it seems in recent times in many ways parenting has made us worse people due to the competitive nature in which our society now raises children. Instead of a communal endeavour where we focus on what is best for ALL the children in our community, the culture has shifted to where many parents focus on how to give their kid the edge over other children in the community. We don’t want a level playing field but we aim for our child to have a leg up on other children.

No longer does it take a village to raise a child.

We even see such competition play out in families. Siblings who are competitive with each other’s children–competing over whose child walks first, reads first, gets better grades, is better at sports, reading two grade levels ahead, etc. It is disheartening when such competition exists in the family unit.

The way we as a society view the role of a parent has changed. The expectation has changed dramatically from a couple of generations ago. Maybe the shift started with the famous Dr. Spock and his book on child rearing practices–treating the child as an “individual.”

In the day and age, we parent not just competitively but in a very child centric way. The family oftentimes is centered around the children and their schedule.

Even social media has changed the way we as a culture parent–we see the highlight reel of everyone else’s parenting–well, at least we see the good—- most people do not seem to share the bad and the ugly (although I would definitely “love” a status of, “My kid won’t listen for shit today and is acting like a total spoiled brat.” It would be so refreshing. Who doesn’t love people who keep it REAL?!)

But rarely do people post about their child’s setbacks or struggles (“My son was sent to the principal’s office today for the 5th time this month”–yet to see that one up on Facebook).

Instead it would appear, social media is a way as parents we get to compete with our “friends” to see who is doing the BEST job as a parent–posting picture after picture of our child–gauging our parenting success in likes, loves, shares, retweets, reposts.

Our kids even ask, “Mom, are you going to post this on Facebook?” It is like we have them programed to strike a pose and get those likes.

Personally, I love seeing pictures of all my friends’ children. I am a compulsive “liker.”

Yet while social media has its benefits, it is also it is a great way to get hurt and offended. Such as when you post a picture of your kid eating leftover Halloween candy for breakfast and your “friend” comments they would never feed their kid candy for breakfast. Good for you SUSAN.

We open ourselves (and our children) up to comments when we post about them on social media.

As parents we post pictures of our children winning awards, getting trophies, getting on the honor roll.

No longer are such accolades just shared with close family and friends like they were a mere generation ago.

It is a different time now that we are raising children in. The values we hold have changed. Parents want their children to ACHIEVE and get recognition from a very young age.

Many want their child to be a star. A top student. A great athlete. Special. Superb musician. Voracious reader. Anything but ordinary.

Largely this is a reflection of our increasingly cut-throat society. We live in a fast paced, ultra competitive world. We want our children to be successful and from a young age we are training them to compete in an intensely competitive, globalized world.

As a counselor, I see a common measure of how good parents feel about how they are doing being measured by what their kids are accomplishing.


High honor roll=I am doing a great job as a parent

National Merit Scholar=I am doing a great job as a parent

Making the Varsity team freshmen year=I am doing a great job as a parent

Getting into first choice college=I am doing a great job as a parent

We look at our kids’ accomplishments as a reflection of AND on us. It validates us that we are doing a great job and raising our children right. Yet this is not universal seal of approval on good, effective parenting. (Also, if we look at our kids’ accomplishment as reflection of AND on us, do we not also have to do the same with their struggles and failures? This pendulum has to swing both ways, right?)

Our kids are NOT extensions of us. They are individuals with minds of their own, interests of their own, and personalities of their own. We should not try to control our children or mold them into what WE want them to be. If we do this, we are essentially putting on our children our own baggage, our own hopes, our own fears, our own dreams. That is when we begin to blur boundaries. This is when we become enmeshed.

More importantly our ultimate goal as parents is to raise people who can function independently and think for themselves. A large part of becoming an adult is DIFFERENTIATING from your parents. We all remember when broke free from our OWN parents.

The competitive, all-consuming, child centric nature of parenting comes with so many detriments to our children’s mental health. It leads children to struggle with self-worth, anxiety, depression, self-efficacy, and a myriad of mental health issues. I see it every day as someone who works in mental health.

As a counselor, I have had teens share with me how frustrating it is how everything they do is repeated by their parents to their friends or family. Often on social media. From their perspective this is strictly for the purpose of bragging rights. “My mom has to brag about my GPA. Or if we won the game. Or post what colleges I am applying to. It is so annoying!” End quote. I don’t blame the kid for feeling this way as it turns the pressure on high.

I think if we are honest with ourselves we can see this current parenting culture puts a lot of undue pressure on children.

As a parent, you try your best. There is no perfect parent. Children do not need perfect parents they need happy, stable parents.

We also do not need perfect children. If we want our children to be happy, we need them to empower them to feel free to be happy on their own terms.

I share below with you a wonderful TED talk on how to raise SUCCESSFUL kids without over-parenting. Our children deserve the freedom to explore who they are not, make mistakes, and realize they can fall AND get up ON their OWN.


To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):

Anew Counseling Services LLC

617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649

(551) 795-3822