“The best predictor of a child’s security of attachment is not what happened to his parents as children, but rather how his parents made sense of those childhood experiences.”

— Daniel J. Siegel

If you had a difficult childhood, you can overcome your experiences.

“I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”

— Carl Jung

You can “make sense” of those experiences and become a deeper and more intentional parent in spite of, and even because of, difficulty in childhood. These hardships will not pass to our children through our DNA. If we refuse to continue bad traditions, they die.

“From the house of my childhood I have brought nothing but precious memories, for there are no memories more precious than those of early childhood in one’s first home. And that is almost always so if there is any love and harmony in the family at all. Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious.”

— Fyodor Dostoyevsky

We all had a difficult childhood. This is not to discount the pain of childhood trauma – some of us have much more to overcome than others.* But we are not alone if we harbor pain from our earliest memories. We can find precious memories even in a “bad home”. We can turn pain into triumph. We should avoid catastrophizing the imperfections of our parents or allowing a difficult childhood to define us. Human history is full of suffering, full of parents who made a mess of things.

We have memories for a purpose. Painful memories are a tool, they can help us consciously determine how to move forward into the present.

. . .

*Some may read this and believe the horrific conditions of their childhood are too much to overcome. The road may not be an easy one. Only God knows what you have been through. Every suffering of every child is known to Him. Every child is loved by Him. He promises to make recompense. The lyrics to this song are a powerful reminder to me, when it seems we no one understands- God knows.

. . .

“The purpose of memory is to extract out from the past the lessons to structure the future. If you have a traumatic memory, that is really obsessing you, if you analyze that memory to the point where you figured out how you may have put yourself at risk and you determine how you might avoid that in the future than the emotion associated with that goes away. So memory has a very pragmatic function.”

— Jordan Peterson

When bad things happen to a child, as they inevitably will, the parent must swiftly and intentionally act so their memory is not steeped in pain, but instead in a feeling of overcoming. Children must be left with a firm understanding of what happened and how it will be avoided or overcome should it arise again.  When this does not happen in childhood- because of inattentive, ignorant, imperfect, or malevolent parents – we have painful childhood memories.  

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

— Carl Jung

Traumatic events and abuse make for difficult memories, but even more subtle perceptions gained in childhood can become stumbling blocks to progress in adulthood. Parents’ actions and teachings may have turned some of our unconscious perceptions away from reality, away from an understanding of moral truth, and have inhibited us from knowing and feeling the true God. The way our parents related to us may skew our perception of our own worth. 

Perhaps you had a mother that only showed love when you accomplished something. Now you have become a perfectionist, never feeling valuable in your inadequacy. There is a lie you believe. Your worth is not derived from your accomplishments.

Perhaps your father heaped excess praise and attention on you for your physical attractiveness. Now you believe that if you are not beautiful you are not lovable. This is a lie you believe. Your worth and value is not derived from physical beauty, which inevitably fades, your worth is as eternal as you are.

“We cannot change anything unless we accept it.”

— Carl Jung

Let’s analyze the lies we believe, the stumbling blocks of perception upon which we repeatedly fall. As we examine our childhood we can move forward with hope, knowing our own children will have parents that have sought to make sense of their own childhood and will be better parents as a result.

“Contrary to what many people believe, your early experiences do not have to determine your fate. If you had a difficult childhood but have come to make sense of those experiences, you are not bound to re-create the same negative interactions with your own children. Without such self-understanding, however, science has shown that history will likely repeat itself as negative patterns of family interactions are passed down through the generations.”

— Daniel J. Siegel

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.”

Isaiah 49:15-16

This essay was originally published on The Philosophy of Motherhood. Thank you to Allyson for letting REALM republish this piece.

Cover image By Margarita Georgiadis