Big Unhappy/Happy Childhood–Is It Black & White?


These studies and more show that a having a happy childhood confers benefits including better physical and mental health, more lifetime achievement, and better relationships on adult children.

Conversely, unhappiness in childhood seems to lead to many more problems (both in anecdote and research.) Unhappy childhood equals: more addiction, more mental health issues, more physical health problems, and so on.


happy childhood confers

But for many people, childhood was a mixed bag–happy home much of the time, unhappy school situation or vice versa. Good relationship with one parent, not-so-great (maybe even rotten) relationship with another parent. Problems with siblings, but wonderful friends. Social difficulties in school, but loving family times. Poor academic performance and feelings of shame surrounding this, but increased self-esteem at strong sports performance. And so on.

Plus, we all (or at least most of us) know a person or two who feels they had the worst parents, or the worst upbringing, yet their main complaints aren’t all that serious. And we might even know people who had seriously poor parenting, even abusive parenting, yet somehow, they don’t see the majority of their childhood as unhappy.

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Sometimes it can be helpful for people to list all the happy moments in their childhood, the happy times and happy relationships, even if they were far and few between. I’m not minimizing the very real damage an abusive parent can do, but a slight shift of focus can often help a person gain much-needed perspective.

For example, K. told me about his parents, their lack of warmth, their inability to express emotion, and hard it was for him to overcome this. Yet, when we discussed happy times in his childhood, he actually remembered more than a dozen of these happy times in the company of one or both of his parents.

happy times in his childhood

B. was very focused on being a latchkey child of a single mother, back in the days when single parenthood was an extreme stigma. But she was also able to find joy every single day when her mother did arrive home from work, and she focused her attention solely on B.

N. was struggling with addiction and blamed his abusive mother and dead-beat dad. Yet, when he reflected on his childhood he was able to recall an enduring relationship with a set of grandparents who called or visited him every single day, no matter what. Part of his treatment plan instead of involving family members who he felt unable to have a relationship with, involved his grandparents–and they became integral to his success in recovery.

Unlearning is as important as learning

Years ago I read a story about a woman who visited an orphanage in India where girls who had  been abandoned by their parents and had been living on the street (literally) were brought in and cared for. What struck the author most about the girls was their unrelenting joy! After many years, sometimes even a decade of starvation, abuse, and abandonment, they were able to live joyfully each day, appreciating little things, like owning a pair of shoes or having enough to eat each day.

What about unrelentingly bad parenting? Does it have to define a person? No, change and even joy are possible, but they don’t come easy or quick. Unlearning is as important as learning when healing from an unhappy childhood. Sometimes a good first step after validation is finding the gold buried under the dross, and making a list about what joys there were, are now, and might be in future.