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.


Dysfunctional Families: Who They Are and How to Overcome Yours

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Ever wonder if you were raised in a dysfunctional family? There is no real guide to determining if a family is categorically dysfunctional, but here are some questions to ask yourself:

~If people tell you that you are like your mom or dad do you get upset and hope it is not true?

~Do you have a history of struggling with depression?

~Do people in your family always “react” to the choices of other family members? Dramatic reactions in fact?

~Have you said something hurtful (or many hurtful) things to someone in your family and wish you could take it back?

~Is your family quick to blame?

~Do you feel guilty standing up for yourself?

~Have people in your family said things to you that were just plain cruel?

~Do you feel angry often?

~Do you constantly people please?

~Are you a perfectionist?

~Do you struggle with your self-esteem?

~Do you self-medicate? Alcohol, drugs, food, sex?

~Is your family judgmental and critical of others?

~Do you relate to others with dysfunctional families? Alcoholic parents? Divorced parents?

~Is your family competitive with each other?

~Do you believe you will be (or are) a better parent than your parents?

~Is there on-going conflict in your family? With different members? Across the different generations?

~Do you struggle with anxiety?

~Is it hard to communicate in your family?

~Does it feel like there is a hierarchy within your family? Where some members are more important than other members?

~Do family members gossip about other members? Lots of third-party conversations?

~Growing up was your home life unpredictable? Did you move a lot? Switch schools frequently?

~Do you feel afraid to disagree with your family outright because risk of rejection?

~As a kid, did your parent feel more like a friend than a parent?

~Does your family hate change? Are new members welcomed in? Are adult children encouraged to be independent?

~As a kid, were your parents overly strict? Overly permissive?

~Is there a lack of diversity in your family? Are differences of opinion tolerated?

~Do you fear being abandoned?

~Did one (or both) of your parents leave you as a child? Physically or emotionally

~Is it hard for you to trust others?

These are just some possible signs of dysfunction in the family system. You may relate to some, none, or many of the aforementioned questions. Dysfunction exists on a continuum. If you relate, don’t feel too bad–most families have some level of dysfunction inherent in them– which is usually passed down from generation to generation.

Nobody comes from a perfect family.

Yet in dysfunctional families, every member has a role. The rescuer, the victim, the persecutor. For every rescuer there is a victim. For every victim there is a persecutor. So starts the triangulation of these “roles.” Dysfunctional families frequently engage in triangles.

Triangulation is when instead of members talking directly with each other about problems, they bring an outside person in to intervene in a conflicted or stressful relationship, in an attempt to ease tension and facilitate communication.

Let’s say brother A tells brother B he would like brother C to help out more with their sick father who needs a lot of day-to-day assistance at home. Dad is getting older, with more severe health issues, and can use all the support he can get from ALL his sons. When brother B goes back to brother C and gives the message, then brother C will wonder why brother A didn’t just come and ask for himself.

There is always a manipulation tactic within triangulation. Brother A might not like to ask brother C or he might know brother C will say no so he hopes brother B can be more convincing than he was when he asked the last week. Or maybe brother A realizes the only way to get brother C to do what he wants is to put familial pressure on him. When both brother A and brother B ask brother C, then brother C might feel even more pressure to comply.

Dysfunctional families triangulate to coerce other members to do things they rather not do. They also use it as a way to manage conflict. People who triangulate will call this “venting” but the healthy way to deal with conflict is to talk about it directly with the person you are having conflict with. The problem with triangles it is usually prevents, rather than invite, the resolution of conflict.

Venting and complaining about family disintegrates all three relationships within the triangle. Trust fades for someone who talks about others behind their backs. Respect also lessens for someone who listens complacently to endless fault-finding.

dyfncutin 5

Triangulation is also extremely unhealthy when children are involved. The wife who confides in her young son about the troubles in her marriage. The father who shares his worries about finances with his tween daughter instead of speaking directly to his wife.  In dysfunctional families we often see parentified children-where the child is expected to act as the parent and the parent acts like the child. The oldest child may help his siblings off to school, makes lunches, helps with homework because the parent, for whatever reason, is unavailable–whether physically or emotionally. Often a parentified child acts like parents to his OWN parents. The parentified child usually takes on the role in an attempt to keep chaos at bay and keep the family unit functioning and together. Later when the parentified child grows up they usually pick a spouse who is dependent–so they can continue to play this role of parent to their spouse.  This is a clear example of boundary problems and unhealthy roles within the family system.

Another common problem in dysfunctional families is the lack of self-differentiation. Murray Bowen, who is the father of this concept, made it one of the cornerstones of family systems therapy.  Self-differentiation has two tenets: that you are able to separate your feelings from your thoughts AND you are able to distinguish between your experience and the experience of those you are connected to.

Being self-differentiated is being able think for yourself and act according to your own values. When you are self-differentiated you able to disagree with the choices of a family member without trying to get them to change.  The less differentiated you are the more impacted by others’ thoughts and opinions you will be. A highly differentiated person can maintain a solid sense of self even under considerable stress and anxiety (Bowen). People who are self-differentiated are not reactive and are able to make decisions independent of the input of others. At a lesser level of differentiation, a person is dependent on the input of others to make decisions and function. A person with a low-level of self-differentiation will exhibit many symptoms of stress and often act destructively under pressure. Even intelligent people can be poorly differentiated (Bowen).

When you are self-differentiated, you still care about your family and want to be connected to them. Yet you are able to limit the chaos and are not be enmeshed with your family. Enmeshment is when you are defined by the family system and look to it for your happiness rather than to the outside, larger world. When you are enmeshed, your sense of identity is wrapped up in your family. You are not able to recognize where you end and they begin. This psychological boundary does not exist in dysfunctional families.

In unhealthy family systems, it is hard to differentiate because differences are not tolerated. If you are conservative and your family is liberal you are mocked. If your family is athletic and you rather read than play a sport, you are teased.  If Christmas is always at sister Susie’s and you want to have it at your house, you are met with resistance. Change is not welcome in dysfunctional families-of the individual or the system as a whole. In this type of family differences are not celebrated. Lots of shame permeates the family system.

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In dysfunctional families, members are made to feel guilty if they don’t visit enough, call enough, come home enough.  In such families, alliances are often being formed. These alliances are ever shifting. Alliances form because members are expected to choose “sides” on every issue. In healthy families, members don’t gang up on others, pick sides, or insert themselves into conflict between other members. These are all symptoms of an unhealthy family system at play. Remaining neutral in the face of conflict is a sign of maturity and self-differentiation.

For example in enmeshed families, there tends to be a lot of drama because everyone feels entitled to opine and react on the decisions of other members. For example, son A decides he is going to move across the country for a job. In an enmeshed family, the parents may take this as a betrayal and personal affront. They may feel he is abandoning the family. Mom and Dad share their hurt and disappointment with son B instead of sharing how they feel DIRECTLY with son A.

Therefore, son B may pick a fight with son A to express his disapproval and as a way to align with the parents. Son B and the parents are forming a coalition to try to impede son A’s decision to move away. When Son A responds in a level-headed, non-reactive way to his parents and brother, calmly stating why he is choosing to move, he is met with anger and rage. His parents and brother take his calmness and composed demeanor as a sign he does not care or love them.

In unhealthy families, chronic anxiety exists. When you self-differentiate and are non-enmeshed you are much more relaxed and calm. This is viewed as a threat to other family members who are still in a state of enmeshment. In toxic, immature families becoming more mature, less reactive, and less anxious is viewed as you don’t care, you don’t love me, you are cold.

dysfunction 2

The blurring of self is normal in a dysfunctional family. If you come from a family riddled with dysfunction, the idea of personal boundaries may seem foreign to you. You are used to living in a bondary-LESS environment.  A person’s willingness to accept your boundaries and limits show where their level of respect is for you AND how emotionally developed they are. In a dysfunctional family it is hard to negotiate with other members the amount of separateness and closeness you feel comfortable with because compromise is not something rigid family systems can do.

Dysfunctional families can be cult like. Oftentimes family members are not even aware of the dysfunction or in denial about it. Things are never discussed. Third party conversations run rampant. Direct communication does not exist. Expectations are never questioned. It is just the way it is.

All dysfunctional families want to maintain the status quo. This is what we always done, this is what we will always do is the family motto.

How to Begin to Differentiate from Your Family

1)Uncover your family’s rules and paradigm.

2)Ask if you believe the rules you have been following blindly since childhood. Children follow their parents unquestioningly, adults do not. It is appropriate when you are the child to look to your parents to affirm your identity. As an adult, this is unhealthy.

3)Stop needing your family for things they can’t provide. The mother you never had. The father you always wanted. It isn’t going to happen. Stop waiting on this. The sister you always wanted to love you a certain way–who doesn’t, can’t, won’t.  This is a time to begin the acceptance process.

4)Reflect on what YOU believe. YOU. Stop handing your emotional power over to your family. Be who you want to be not the role your family expects you to be.

5)Understand guilt, shame, and transference of anxiety is NOT caring. It is the norm in dysfunctional, undifferentiated families. Stop holding onto these feelings-it only revictimizes you.

6)Resist the urge to rescue others.

7)Do for yourself what your family could never do for you.

8)Be mindful. This is not about blaming your family. This is about acceptance. This is you being you while being connected to your family. This is not about disconnection. This is about healthy connection.

Accept while you may have changed that we can’t change others unless they want to change. This is a time of opportunity for you. Instead of perpetuating the cycle of dysfunction, you can change the future—when it comes to breaking the cycle with your children and the next generation.


Who Are You? The fallout of being raised in a Dysfunctional Family

We all think we know who we are…right? But do we really? I can guarantee whoever you may consider yourself to be, you are MORE than that.  As people, we have a way of defining ourselves by our stations in life, the way others view us, our circumstances, and so on and so forth. Think about it. Do you allow yourself to be defined by others? By your spouse? Your family? Your friends? Your profession? Do you define yourself by the different “roles” you play: wife, mother, husband, father, son, daughter, friend, teacher, nurse? By your religious beliefs? Political party? If someone asks you who you are, what would you say?

Many people come to therapy in the midst of an identity crisis. Newly single. In a state of crisis because they forgot what it is like to “be on their own.” No longer able to identify as someone’s husband. Or wife. Recent college grad. No idea what direction to move in without the safety net of school and the identity of being a “student.” Empty nester. Kids have flown the coop and without the identity of “full-time mom” left to wonder, “Who am I now?” And the list goes on and on. As people, we tend to become so identified with our roles that we feel at a lost if we are to lose them. It is often during these times of change that we begin to question, “Who am I really?”

Many people have a shaky sense of self.  Even in the BEST of times or in the best of circumstances. Some people live their whole life without truly defining who their authentic self is. It is easy to get caught up in letting ourselves be defined by others or by the stage of life we are in. It is the path of least resistance to let our roles or circumstances in life define us. Yet we all have heard a common regret of the dying is that they didn’t live a life true to who they really are.  Be that as it may many of us do not even know who THAT is. Being asked to define who we ARE is a tremendous question…seems simple, but hard to grasp.

Developing a true sense of self is a pivotal part of becoming a mature, healthy functioning adult. It can take time and be challenging. Without a healthy sense of self, a person can develop anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems in addition to  physical health problems.

Defining oneself can be a challenge growing up in a functional family. Yet many of us grow up in DYSfunctional families which can make it especially hard to separate who we are from who our family is. Many people who come from dysfunctional families or have been abused struggle with this question. There is fallout from being raised in a dysfunctional environment because we often face emotional and psychological trauma during our upbringing. When you grow up in a dysfunctional household, parents can be substance abusers, emotional abusers, physical abusers, sexual abusers, or just plain TOXIC, with the scars remaining long after childhood is over.  While a person may have long moved away from their family of origin or developed some strong boundaries to deal with their interactions with toxic family members, the legacy of their upbringing follows them.  Especially since people who are raised in a dysfunctional environment may currently be dealing with some real mental health or emotional challenges due to their upbringing.

Don’t get me wrong. Not ALL adult children of dysfunctional families have emotional or mental health problems. We are all the best judge of our own experiences and many people overcome a difficult childhood with no bumps in their proverbial road. Yet oftentimes when people come into therapy, regardless of their presenting problem, the challenges they are facing can be traced back to the psychological fallout from their childhood.

When you grow up in a dysfunctional family, your family’s words, actions, and attitudes HURT you.  Because of this trauma, you grow up different from other children, often being asked to hide who you are to meet and service your parents’ needs. Dysfunctional means it doesn’t work, even if it appears like it does. The question may be for you not if your family of origin was dysfunctional but to what degree was the dysfunction apparent.

A dysfunctional family LACKS boundaries. Boundaries are what separate you from me and me from you. Boundaries are an important part of existing as a separate entity. Thus if you grow up in a family who lacks clear boundaries, this is going to impact your ability to develop a healthy identity separate from your family of origin.

You may be asking yourself, well how do I know if I grew up in a dysfunctional family? Below are some signs you are still being adversely impacted by your childhood:

  1. You take yourself very seriously and have difficulty having fun. People from dysfunctional families are hypervigilant to possible “threats” and are often scanning their environment. Oftentimes a dysfunctional home environment is unpredictable and unstable. Adult children of dysfunctional families struggle to relax and let loose.
  2. You constantly seek approval. I am talking to you people pleasers. Our early relationships impact our adult relationships. Often in dysfunctional families, children get parentified. Parentification is a role reversal where the child acts as the parent due to the emotional immaturity or psychological limitations of the parent.  Parentified children are inappropriately given the role of filling their PARENTS’ needs, instead of the other way around. And thus in many cases a people pleaser is born.
  3. You are either super responsible or super irresponsible. Dysfunctional environments are usually chaotic. Thus a child may overcompensate by becoming super responsible which carries into adulthood. Or the reverse may take place where the child “gives up”  because they feel nothing they do will make a difference (this can often lead to substance abuse in later years).
  4. You don’t know what normal is.  You may know your family is NOT normal but you don’t know what a healthy, functioning family really looks like.  You may even wonder if there are families out there who resemble the families you see of tv (such as my personal favorite family—Full House–90s tv family reference right there for you).
  5. You feel like a victim. Perhaps this is how you got your needs met as a child.  It is a powerful and manipulative way to get what you want. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, it may feel threatening  to you to directly ask others for what you want and need because as a child you may have been shamed for expressing yourself.
  6. You are extremely judgemental. Of yourself–and others.  You were not shown unconditional love growing up, and instead became judgemental.  Your parents may have put their judgements on you and others. In many ways you grew up feeling like you never quite measured up. Perhaps you were subject to criticism or verbal abuse and have internalized those messages.
  7. You lack self-control–binge eating, substance abuse, job hopping, bed hopping. You may have lacked structure in your family of origin–making it hard to develop discipline and self-regulate your emotions. You are impulsive and find it hard to manage long-term goals. You may be someone who sacrifices what you want most for what you want in the moment.
  8. You worry a lot about the future. Growing up in a dysfunctional family, you never know when the other shoe was going to drop. You may struggle with a chronic, low-grade anxiety. It is almost impossible for you to be at peace.
  9. You feel lonely. You never developed as an individual, always having to cater to the needs of the family system at large. Even when in the presence of others, you cannot shake a sense of loneliness within you. You may be hyperaware of the feelings of others but struggle to really identify and express what you feel.  It is common for adult children of dysfunctional families to be codependent.
  10. You fear being abandoned.  You couldn’t rely on your mom or dad–maybe mom or dad left when you were young or maybe they didn’t physically leave you–but left you emotionally. You may constantly be scanning your adult relationships for any sign someone, whether a friend or romantic partner, is going to jump ship on the relationship. You may even have a self-destructive side to your personality– creating situations that ensure people leave by being overbearing, controlling, overly critical. You struggle with self sabotage in life and in your relationships.
  11. You are reactive. This comes back to boundaries. You can’t tell where you end and someone else begins. Someone says something that triggers you and you react. (note I say you react, not respond. Reacting is impulsive whereas responding is thought out). You struggle with being tolerant of those who do not think what you think or feel what you feel. You grew up so enmeshed in your family of origin that you struggle with being differentiated as an adult in your relationships.

These are just some of a multitude of ways you can begin to see the effects of being raised in a dysfunctional family. To overcome our dysfunctional upbringing we need to first be able to recognize how it is still effecting us. All of these behaviors act as distractions to developing one’s true sense of self.

Once we understand how our upbringing is still present in our adult lives, we need to stop identifying with the roles we played in childhood. We coped using maladaptive behaviors when we were children because we needed to cope in a situation where we were largely powerless. Children NEED their parents to survive. If your parents are unhealthy or abusive, you most likely will develop maladaptive coping mechanisms to deal with the pain and toxicity in your environment. Adaptive coping mechanisms improve functioning whereas maladaptive measures do not. Unfortunately as children, these maladaptive coping strategies can be quite effective in mitigating our pain and anxiety, at lease in the short-term. The problem is we often continue these maladaptive behaviors into adulthood. Once we recognize how the roles we played as children are still present in our adult lives, we then need to stop clinging to them. There is comfort in holding on to a familiar identity even a negative one.  Yet just like we outgrow pants and shoes, we can outgrow our families of origins. For many of us who get therapy or embark on a journey of self-discovery, you may realize you already have.  But to open yourself up to finding and becoming your true self–you need to recognize the grip your childhood still has on you. By loosening the grip on the past, it will open you up to many possibilities–including discovering who you REALLY are!

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in seeking counseling with me: Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC


590 Franklin Ave. Suite 2 Nutley, NJ 07110 973-963-7485