How to Raise Happy Children Despite a Troubled Past

In light of living through severe instances where parental disputes escalated to physical harm, including episodes where my father inflicted harm on my mother, it can be challenging to envision how to raise happy children despite a troubled past. Memories linger of moments when our attempts to intervene were met with threats of expulsion or the prospect of foster care. This past shapes our present, but it doesn’t have to define our future.

It was a bad situation when they were drunk, which was most of the time. The worst part, though, was when they abandoned us for days at a time to get wasted at house parties.

We couldn’t find them because this was before cell phones. No food was left. I remember finding my parents one day in early January after calling a dozen of their friends and pleading with the woman who answered the phone after 20 rings to bring my mom to the phone. “She’s dancing,” my friend told me. “Could you call back later?”

Even when I was 10 or 11, I knew that telling on them would be even more dangerous. Would they take us away and lock them up? We looked normal and good from the outside—we had attractive parents and smart kids. This made it even scarier that we never felt safe.

And yet, my own children have always felt safe. Even though I know I’ve let them down and upset them in a lot of ways while growing them, I also know I’ve been an almost too stable parent—reliable, careful, and a homebody whose idea of letting loose is a second glass of champagne on Christmas Eve.

Most people think that trauma that passes from one family to the next is like a gift that keeps giving. But I’m a very good parent without trying to sound too important. I became one by studying like I did to become a good student. The writings of Dr. Spock and Dr. Sears and how the parents of friends turned out to be good models. Most importantly, I learned how to be a good parent to myself by accepting the fact that I would not always make the best decisions and that, when I did, there were usually ways to make amends.

Read on to find out how bad parents can affect children even when they are adults and how they could affect how you raise your kids. Plus, find tools to help you start over as a parent with love and purpose.

Bad Traits of Parents

Abusive parents have a lot of tools they can use to hurt their children. Toxic parents have the following traits:

  • Lying and trickery.
  • Saying things about you that you would never do.
  • Getting angry about things you did a long time ago.
  • Judging.
  • Keeping warmth from you.
  • Putting you in dangerous situations that they can only “save” you from.
  • Criticizing.
  • Yelling.
  • Hitting.
  • Comparing.
  • Humiliating.
  • Fighting.
  • Gaslighting.

Nothing is good enough for bad parents, no matter how hard you try. Why aren’t you a star athlete if you get straight A’s? They claim to know all there is to know about you, but they never pay attention when you try to tell them how you really feel.

Also, they compare you to themselves, your sister, and your friends, and they seem to be jealous of every good thing that happens to you. When confronted by witnesses, they mock you publicly before claiming they were “just kidding.” They fight with each other, and they fight with you. They try to make you think that you are the crazy one and not them. They tell you subtly or not-so-subtlely that you are the problem in their life and that they were happy before you came along.

What Kids Get Out of Bad Parenting

Kids whose parents have the above traits are more likely to have medical, mental, behavioral, and social problems in the future. The Child Welfare Information Gateway, a tool of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says that child abuse and neglect can have long-term effects like:

  • Diabetes
  • Lung disease
  • Malnutrition
  • Vision problems
  • Functional limitations
  • Heart attack
  • Arthritis
  • Back problems
  • Blood pressure that’s too
  • Brain damage
  • Headaches from migraines
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Bowel disease
  • Syndrome of constant tiredness
  • Less ability to make decisions and think.
  • Bad health of the mind and heart.
  • Social problems
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD,
  • Dangerous sexual acts.
  • Juvenile crime.
  • People drink and use drugs.
  • Abuse that continues as an adult.

Nerissa Bauer, M.D., a behavioral pediatrician who writes the blog Let’s Talk Kid’s Health, says, “If these kinds of things happened to you as a child, it could feel very lonely even though you’re not the only one.” “It can be painful, embarrassing, and hard to talk about what you went through.” Since most of your friends are probably close to their parents, they may not understand how hard it was for you and tell you to just talk it out and makeup.

Our brains have a strange way of remembering the words we heard as kids. A child who doesn’t know when a moody parent will hit them and who has been told they are unlovable and don’t matter has been hearing these things for years.

A child development instructor and author of the psychology blog Hey Sigmund, Karen Young, says that kids with abusive parents can grow up not trusting, quick to get angry, and wary of attachment. Even smart, capable adults don’t always notice that they still treat the world like a small child in a dangerous place. This is because it’s in their nature to do so.

This makes it easy for people with cruel or controlling parents to repeat the pattern, and many worry that they will. On the other hand, some people worry that they will go so far in the other direction to avoid making the same mistakes as their parents that they will hurt themselves in a different way.

For example, a parent constantly criticized as a kid might belittle her child or, even worse, never correct their behavior. For some people, having a hard childhood can leave them with a crippling lack of confidence or the fear that they will hurt their own kids the way they were hurt.

How Your Childhood Shapes How You Raise Your Kids

Parents who didn’t have good role models at home or who had more than a few “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) find it harder to be good parents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists the following as ACEs:

  • Being hurt by violence, abuse, or being ignored.
  • Seeing violence at home or in the neighborhood.
  • Having a family member try to kill themselves or die from it.
  • Growing up in a home where there were problems with drugs.
  • Growing up in a family where there were mental health issues.
  • Having trouble as a child, like when your parents split up, or a family member is in jail.

Nearly everyone has a few ACEs, but having a lot of them can hurt your physical and mental health for the rest of your life. In a study done by the CDC, about 61% of the people who answered said they had at least one ACE as a child, and about 16% said they had four or more. Women, Black, and Latinx people are more likely to have been through ACEs. Those who are multiracial are disproportionately affected by adverse childhood experiences.

Worry about letting your kids down.

Whitney, a mother of two who asked us not to use her last name, worries that she will “mess up” her own kids because she feels “flawed and messed up.” However, her life doesn’t fit this description: she is a high school teacher, writer, wife, and mother. Her parents taught her to try everything with all her strength, always and all the time, and never to show weakness.

Years later, when she was struggling with an eating problem, her therapist told her that she was fighting “faulty core beliefs,” including the idea that she had to be perfect. Her older child is only four years old, but she already sees her first task as convincing him that he can never earn her love and that he should try again if, at first, he doesn’t succeed.

“People don’t do bad things because they are bad people,” she says of her parents, whom she loves very much. Whitney was born prematurely when her parents were still teenagers. She would develop and learn slowly, the doctors said. My folks were determined to show them up. They tried too hard.

Michael Degrottole says of his father, “He didn’t like being around his family. He wasn’t kind, and he was very bigoted. He had a reputation for brutality but rarely used it with me because I was a timid, sensitive boy who avoided confrontation. But he beat my brother up when he stood up to him.”

Before he had his own kids, Degrottole loved working with the families of kids with special needs, but he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a dad. “I didn’t want to fail,” says he. He didn’t have his first child until he was almost 50 years old. Now that he has three children, he is a loving, involved father. Still, when he opens his mouth, his father’s voice sometimes comes out. “Whenever I start to go too far, I have to remind myself to stop.”

Determined to do better.

Mother-of-three Kristin (she asked that we not use her last name) made the conscious decision when she was young that she would be more like her mother, who was calm and patient, than her alcoholic father, who was erratic and aggressive. Growing up and becoming a mom made her goals clearer and helped her see them differently.

She understood that her mother didn’t approve of her father’s behavior, but she didn’t see her mother do anything about it at the time. Still, she knows now how hard it can be to be a parent. “I do get angry,” she admits. “It’s okay to show that you’re angry. That’s human. When I get angry, I try to explain to my children that it is not because of them personally and that my feelings won’t continue forever. That’s the tricky part.”

How to Break the Cycle of Bad Parenting

It takes work to break the cycle of bad parenting. It means looking at your habits, getting help, and taking small steps that add to big, long-lasting changes.

Make a list of the risks you face as a parent.

Taking an honest look at your skills and weaknesses is often the first step in getting better. You know you care about your kids. You know you don’t want them to ever wonder like you did if they’re special or even good enough. You like to laugh, so don’t leave anything out. You make a delicious lunch.

But where do you tend to do the same things over and over again? Here are some things you can ask yourself that might help you find ways to improve:

  • Do I blow up easily?
  • Does discipline quickly turn to yell or sarcasm?
  • Do I tend to keep insisting that I’m always right?
  • How far away can I be when I’m hurt?
  • Do I have a child who shows their worry by being depressed or getting into trouble?

If you have or have had any of these traits, you are not alone, and there is hope in the fact that you are aware of them. Lisa Damour, Ph.D., a psychologist and Parents advisor who cohosts the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting, asks, “How will you make sense of that very difficult childhood? Being a parent brings up emotions that are very uncomfortable for everyone. Your burden will be greater if your parents cannot deal effectively with negative emotions. But the more we learn about ourselves on the inside, the more possibilities open up for us.”

Get help.

Many parents need help to do these things. We live in a fortunate time when seeking assistance, be it from a support group or a therapist, is less stigmatized.

Emotional problems are just as real as any other illness, and you wouldn’t try to heal your strep throat. Dr. Damour says, “Anyone who can get themselves to my office has already shown a lot of strength. No one comes with all the answers.”

Leslie Moreland, LMHC, a counselor from Sandwich, Massachusetts, has worked with troubled families and teen parents for many years and has seen the power of just one good role model. “It can be a coach, a pediatrician, an aunt, a teacher, or someone else who sees the good in you,” she says. “That one person can begin to change everything.”

Start small and build on what you’ve done.

Young says to take small steps. If you haven’t always been a warm and accepting parent, switching to loving care may feel awkward at first. Healing can feel like starting an exercise routine: it can be painful and even dangerous, and you may want to go back to how things were before.

Instead, when your child comes into the room, let your eyes light up, even if you don’t feel like it. Sit down together to say good night, and really mean that you hope the night will be good.

“You’re making a new connection in your brain,” says Young. “Keep in mind that if you alter one facet of a response, the others will inevitably adapt to fit. Have some self-control. You can’t expect to win Wimbledon just because you’ve learned how to play tennis.”

Every good event makes the pathways stronger. Researchers at Brigham Young University did a study in 2019 that shows “counter-ACEs,” or positive childhood experiences, are good for health and well-being no matter how many ACEs a child has. In fact, not having these good things happen to you can hurt you more than the bad things themselves.

According to the CDC, good things that happen to children are:

  • Having plans and routines.
  • Receiving praise.
  • Parents who pay attention.
  • When their parents talk and play with them.

So, every time your kids know they can count on you to respond predictably and positively, their emotional resilience grows. This is the quality that will help them get over hard times.

Set clear limits with your folks.

What if you still live with your own parents? You can find ways to communicate with your parents if you really want to. Maybe they’ve changed their ways and want to spend time with your kids.

Even in healthy families, holidays and special events, which are often filled with nostalgia, excitement, and alcohol, can cause fights. If you’re asked to a party, it might remind you of all the times you wished Christmas or Thanksgiving would be different. If you have a hard parent, they might hold on to their anger until they see you. If this happens, you should be happy if you can leave in a calm way. Your kids might be sad, but they will see that you didn’t lose your cool.

Even if your parents are well-mannered and nice to their grandchildren, it can be a mixed gift. It’s only natural to wish for things you didn’t get. Whitney considers her parents calm and wise grandparents to her young kids. “But when I hear how they talk to my younger sister, telling her that her sadness is “just looking for attention” and that she shouldn’t be a “head case,” I know that if I didn’t have kids, I might not spend as much time with them.

And it’s fine if you don’t want to see your parents at all. Even though forgiving someone is a famous modern ritual, you don’t have to let the past be the past in order to move on and be a good parent. Alyson Corner, a professional psychologist, and co-founder of, says that is a very personal choice. And you can make it the way you want and when you want.

Try to make your home a safe place for your children.

Tracy Lamperti, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor in Brewster, Massachusetts, says that our families are the first place we feel accepted. There, we learn the social skills we use in the rest of the world. Parents may have a hard time putting behind them a painful past, but their kids need to know that they can talk to them about hard things.

A kid asks, “Who will hold me if I’m upset because someone made fun of me at school?” Do I put up walls and pretend it doesn’t bother me, or is it okay to just talk about it?’ They need to feel at home among these individuals and confident in their ability to support and care for one another.

My older brother once said to me, “If Mom and Dad left us out in the water, their kids would be safe on the sand, and ours would be up on the hill.” I often reflect on this, as we were both young parents when it was spoken. Just as trauma can be passed down through generations, so can healing.

The Things That Make a Good Parent

Both good and bad parents have traits that are easy to spot. One way to break the cycle of bad parenting is to get better at these things.

An apology with no conditions.

One sign of bad parenting is not being able to take responsibility. When you’re wrong, it’s a gift to your child to say “I’m sorry” without making excuses. They aren’t to blame for you being tired or worried about work. Don’t try to hide the error. Tell what happened and how it could have been better.


It may be hard to keep from telling your kids about your parents (or your worries or complaints). But it’s important not to give kids too much information they might not be able to handle or make them your friend.


Dr. Bauer says that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is more determined than ever to see that a child’s physical health is tied to the mental health of their family. The AAP says that if you are afraid about your child’s emotional health, you should first talk to your doctor.

So, don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s doctor about big problems like safety or drug use in the family. They can help you find help. It’s reasonable that you feel bad about these problems, but it’s not worth putting your children in danger if something is wrong at home.


You’re in a hurry. Your kid is in a hurry. But if you can say “good night” or just sit with your child or look them in the eyes for even one more minute, it will make a huge difference in how close you are.

A break… for you

Moreland says you should leave the room if you start acting like your parents. Keep going. Drink some tea. Sleep on it. Nothing needs to be fixed right now.


Your kids want you to do well with them, and they will give you a lot of chances to try again. Dr. Bauer says that it takes more than a few failures for people to stop believing in you, so don’t give up. When it means giving more than you got, trying again and again is a good thing. A common saying among parents is, “You get a million chances.”

In conclusion

Having a child or two is definitely the best way to learn how to be a good parent. But I’m willing to say that my knowledge, which I’ve earned through hard work, might be deeper in some ways than that of my peers. As the experts I talked to for this story and my own life taught me, I may be a better parent now that I’ve seen the damage that can come from bad parenting.

Because of how I was raised, I want to do the right thing even more than some of my friends who had better parents. I’m committed to showing empathy where none was shown to me because I know I’m not just raising the kids of today but also the parents of tomorrow.

I have guts most of all. I wouldn’t wish my own youth on Anyone, but it made me strong. If you grew up in a way you wouldn’t want for your own kids, you probably have the same strength. Even if you had the best parents ever, this book is full of tips that will help you be a better parent when you’re tired, going through a hard time, or just feeling down.

Meaningful articles you might like: 4 Children’s TV Programs That Provide Important Life Lessons, Making Fitness Exciting for Children, Depression’s Impact on Children and Families