Toxic Childhood? 5 Things You Can Do to Heal (Even Now)

How you can take advantage of being out of the larger world.

Posted Apr 23, 2020

Photograph by Anthony Tran. Copyright Free. Unsplash
Source: Photograph by Anthony Tran. Copyright Free. Unsplash

“How do you stop yourself from backpedaling when your anxiety is so high? Everything seems to be triggering me!” is what one reader messaged.

It’s not exactly a surprise that most of us are having some trouble staying afloat in these super-choppy waters—whether that’s feeling isolated because you live alone, feeling as though you’re overwhelmed because your whole family is home and you’re supposed to be working, or any other variation on the theme.

I’m certainly not going to be a Pollyanna about where we find ourselves at the moment, and I’m inclined to agree with a friend who emailed, in all caps, “I WANT MY LIFE BACK!” So do we all.

But the process of healing doesn’t have to stop and, no, you don’t have to revert to your most-triggered version of yourself either.

You don’t have to try all of these suggestions but should pick and choose the ones that fit what you think you need. You decide how much time you need to devote to keeping your healing and personal growth on track; making sure that you’re staying consciously aware of your thoughts and emotions is, as always, key.

Think of these as exercises for the psychologically housebound. You’ll note that I haven’t suggested journaling because, first of all, many people have trouble journaling. Also, if you don’t journal in the right way, you can actually feel worse. Recalling the pain of circumstances in detail, for example, is called “hot processing” and can set you back and make you relive the moment. You have to "cool process"—recalling why you felt as you did and not how you felt—for journaling to be successful. The why of this is explained in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, from which all of the subsequent strategies are drawn.

1. Give your emotional intelligence a workout. Emotional intelligence, as described by John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey, has four prongs, ranging from simplest to most complex. Many people who have had difficult childhoods have deficits in emotional intelligence, so a workout is a good thing. Here are the four branches:

  1. Identifying your own emotions and those of others, and being able to express emotions accurately;
  2. Using emotions to prioritize thinking and learning to manage mood swings;
  3. Labeling emotions with precision, interpreting emotions, and recognizing blended emotions;
  4. Regulating emotions, including being able to manage both positive and negative feelings, being able to monitor feelings in yourself and others, and being able to engage or detach from an emotion depending on its usefulness.

Decide where you locate your abilities on each branch, and spend time working on your skillset. Figure out which emotions are the primary drivers of your behavior—is it fear or anxiety, or are positive emotions your main motivators?—and think about how well or badly you are doing at the work of management in the day-to-day. This is a skillset and learned behavior.

Getting in touch with what you are feeling—and helping your kids, spouse, or partner get in touch with their emotions—is a good thing.

2. Keep track of your triggers and deal with them. I have realized that what is triggering me is labeling and vulnerability; I have never thought of myself as old even though I am, and now the world has put me in a box. What about you? A number of readers have commented on the resurgence of old childhood dreams, for example. Pay attention to the moments at which you react and give yourself a mental time-out as you begin to figure out what triggered you precisely (something you heard on the news or a worry about finances, for example) and trace it back to its roots. Use self-calming techniques so you can push through the emotion and allow your thoughts to manage the emotions.

3. Ditch self-blame and work on self-compassion. Self-blame is an old default position for many unloved daughters, and working on self-compassion is always a good thing. One popular exercise, drawn from Daughter Detox, is to spend time with a photograph of yourself from when you were little. Look at her as if you’ve never seen her before, and ask yourself why anyone could possibly think she wasn’t adorable. Speak to that little girl, and reassure her.

Another strategy is to focus on three things you like about yourself; these can be physical attributes, talents, or skills, but they should be things that make you happy you’re you. This is one way of talking back to the critical voice lodged in your head. Cast a wide net as you think, and remember small things can make a difference in how you think about yourself. So what if you haven’t written a bestselling novel? You might make the world’s greatest salad dressing or be able to knit up a storm.

4. Work on staying on the high road. If your kids are home and you feel stretched way too thin, this is very important. In their terrific book, Parenting from the Inside Out, Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell distinguish between high-road and low-road mental processing. When you’re on the high road, you’re very aware of the emotional baggage you have in tow and what triggers your own worst responses. You work at being present and rational, and you commit to thinking things through rather than being reactive.

High-road processing tends to present different possible responses to a situation and keeps you in the driver’s seat. Imagine that your child suddenly starts crying when you’re in the middle of something you need to get done, and it’s irritating you. You register your feelings of annoyance, tamp them down, and then think, "I need to find out why she’s crying. I have to stop what I’m doing and spend a few minutes helping her calm down.” High-road processing effectively invites your best self in as your child’s parent, even now.

Then there’s low-road processing, which has you focus on your emotional baggage and become a quivering mass of emotional reactivity the second your kid starts crying because, dammit, you have stuff to get done. Low-road processing hijacks your conscious thought process and ability to be empathic.

Visualize that high road. Keep your old emotional baggage under lockdown.

5. Continue to set goals (and use abstract thinking). It’s more important than ever that we all keep looking past the confines we’re in and look forward. Studies suggest that it can be helpful to think about certain goals in the abstract: For example, if isolation has taught you that you do want to be a relationship, don’t think “I need a lover or boyfriend” but instead focus on what is missing in your life, which is a sense of connection. Thinking about ways to connect to others in the future, as well as activities that might foster connection, such as community service or mentoring, opens up possible avenues for action. The same is true of career goals.

While it is true that we have lost control over some things, we are still empowered to change ourselves, grow, and heal.

Copyright© 2020 by Peg Streep

Facebook image: leonov.o/Shutterstock


Siegel, Daniel and Mary Hartzell. Parenting from the Inside Out. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2003.

Streep, Peg. Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. New York; Île D'Éspoir Press, 2017.