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Child Development

Embracing Complexity: Was My Childhood Really That Bad?

Examining childhood experiences is crucial to overall well-being.

Key points

  • Recognizing a childhood as both/and rather than either/or can help in examining personal histories.
  • Addressing childhood trauma is crucial for health, affecting physical, mental, and relational well-being.
  • Therapies like EMDR can help in recovering from traumatic childhood experiences and improving mental health.

"Was my childhood that bad?"

In a previous post, we explored factors that shape a person's understanding of childhood trauma, such as the role of both adverse and positive experiences and why the answer to that question is yours and yours alone.

However, the complexity of early experiences demonstrates that while childhoods can have objectively “bad” experiences, how you interpret the experiences determines whether they feel subjectively “bad” to you.

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

Why childhood can be both/and not either/or.

Understanding childhood experience complexities and their impact on an adult is a nuanced process.

When reflecting on whether a childhood was “really that bad,” it’s important to recognize 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, and classism).

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

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

For example, your mom worked 80 to 90 hours a week, leaving her emotionally exhausted at the end of the day and not able to support you emotionally but still providing for the rent and groceries.

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

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

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

Recognizing both the positive intent and the negative impact of our parents and guardians is a form of accepting contradictory thinking and appreciating the good while acknowledging the harm or limitations.

The challenge of accepting the duality of experiences prevents us from consciously asking: “Was my childhood really that bad?”

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

But that leads us to wonder: Why even bother asking the question?

Why is it important to ask: “Was my childhood really that bad?”

“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 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.

To each of these points, I would answer the following:

It’s important to ask the question: “Was my childhood really that bad?” It supports 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 when we can 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?

Confronting one’s history of childhood trauma, particularly for those with high adverse childhood experiences (ACE) scores, is a crucial step toward holistic health and well-being in 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 disease 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 is also 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 shown a strong relationship between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and difficulties in adult relationship formation.

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 your childhood was “bad” and you 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 is 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. It is 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.

Learn more by reaching out for professional support to understand the impacts childhood experiences may have on you today in adulthood, and how you might heal from the trauma. I encourage you to find a therapist near you. The Psychology Today directory is a great place to start.


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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