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How to be a Good Parent After a Bad Childhood

Remember swearing you’d never yell at your child like your parents did, only to find yourself doing exactly that? Many of us struggle with this. Parenting is hard, but there’s a way to break the cycle. It starts with understanding our own childhood and healing our emotional wounds.

A dysfunctional family is characterized by consistent conflict, neglect, or abuse, detrimentally affecting children’s psychological and physical health. A dysfunctional home environment often leads children to accept such dynamics as normal, potentially perpetuating the cycle with their own offspring.

Overcoming a dysfunctional upbringing to become a good parent involves mindfulness and conscious effort. You can create a better future for your family and yourself with self-awareness, courage, and small steps. Commit to positive practices and recognize that childhood influences but does not define us.

parents kiss daughter good parens despite dysfunction upbrining

What is a dysfunctional family?

A dysfunctional family is where conflict, neglect, or abuse are regular occurrences, creating persistent environments that harm the emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical well-being of its members. Children in dysfunctional families often grow up believing this kind of environment is normal. When they grow up and become parents, they may repeat the same patterns with their own children.

Dysfunctional parenting styles include abusive parenting, toxic parenting, strict parenting, critical parenting, helicopter parenting, gaslighting parenting, manipulative parenting, and neglectful parenting.

How to overcome growing up in a dysfunctional family to be a good parent?

A 2010 study published in Mindfulness has found that being a mindful parent is the key to breaking the cycle of child maltreatment. Here are 11 steps to overcome growing up in a dysfunctional family to become a good parent.​1​

  1. Acknowledge: Acknowledging how your upbringing has influenced your parenting style is the first step in healing. Naming the problem goes beyond blaming and assigning fault. It’s about recognizing the dysfunction and identifying areas for growth to enhance your parenting skills.
  2. Understand it’s not your fault: Children internalize negative experiences. Remind yourself that you were not responsible for your family’s problems.
  3. Take responsibility: Realize that now you are responsible for crafting your child’s childhood.
  4. Educate yourself: Learn about the effects of dysfunctional family dynamics, how they affect your parenting, and what can help you be the parent you want to be.
  5. Be mindful: Reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to understand how your upbringing affects your interactions with your child. Practicing mindfulness by meditating or doing yoga can help you develop self-awareness. Mindfulness also benefits your body and mind.
  6. Define your values and beliefs: Reflect on the values and beliefs you inherited from your family and decide which ones you want to keep and which you want to change. Form your own identity and separate yourself from dysfunctional patterns.
  7. Heal your wounds through changes: Developing a parenting style different from your parents’ is a valuable part of healing. While you cannot change your past, you are empowered to shape a different future for your child. You are making a difference for the child you love.
  8. Practice self-care: Self-compassion can reduce parental stress and replenish inner resources. Be kind to yourself and stop being self-critical.
  9. Improve marital quality: Don’t put the spousal relationship on the back burner. A quality marital relationship, cooperating co-parenting, and low marital conflicts are associated with lower parental stress and better parenting outcomes.
  10. Commit to change and be patient: Changes require commitment and time. Changing deeply ingrained habits won’t happen overnight. Be patient with yourself. There will be ups and downs, but each step forward, no matter how small, counts. Persevere, learn from experiences, and maintain a positive outlook as you work towards creating a better version of yourself.
  11. Seek help: Professional guidance, such as therapy, can provide a safe space to process experiences, understand patterns, and develop healthier coping mechanisms.

Why does your childhood matter?

Your childhood matters because early childhood experiences form the foundation of child development in the following 6 areas.

  • Physical development: Many health-related behaviors are established in childhood. Eating habits, physical activity levels, and attitudes toward health and wellness can be influenced by your upbringing and environment during your early years.
  • Cognitive development: Early education and play are vital for cognitive development. These experiences influence your ability to think, reason, and problem-solve as an adult.
  • Emotional development: Early positive experiences can lead to healthy emotional development, while negative experiences, such as trauma or neglect, can contribute to emotional struggles later in life. 
  • Blueprint for the world: How you were treated as a child and interacted with family and peers shape your sense of self-worth, belonging, view of others, and view of relationships. Your family was also your first model for communication, conflict resolution, and expressing love. You unconsciously absorb these patterns and tend to repeat them as an adult.
  • Coping mechanism: You developed ways to cope with difficult situations. These might have been healthy, like talking to a friend, or unhealthy, like bottling emotions. We carry these coping mechanisms into adulthood, even when they no longer serve us.
  • Triggers and unresolved business: Unexamined hurt, unresolved conflict, or unconscious triggers from childhood can seep into our adult lives as anxiety, anger, or unhealthy relationship patterns.

How does adverse childhood affect parenting?

There are 7 ways your childhood can affect your parenting.

  • Mimicking: Without even realizing it, we often parent in the way we were parented. We may also do so unconsciously. For example, if you experienced harsh criticism growing up, you may struggle not to be overly critical of your own children.
  • Emotional triggers: Old wounds from childhood can create sensitivities. For example, if you were often dismissed and told not to cry, you might overreact to your child’s crying or whining.
  • Projection: We often project our feelings from childhood onto our children, seeing them as we were seen or expecting them to fulfill our dreams, which prevents us from recognizing them as their own individuals. 
  • Inner critic: Self-criticism is common in struggling parents. That critical inner voice likely persists if you heard a lot of negativity as a child. It can sabotage your confidence as a parent, making you overly self-critical or fearful of making mistakes.
  • Unrealistic standards: Your childhood shapes your views on what’s “normal” for kids. You may demand your child to behave a certain way even though they are not developmentally capable.
  • Old beliefs: Past generations often leaned on punishment to shape children’s behavior, leading to the misconception that without experiencing “the pain,” children do not learn with mere guidance.
  • Insufficient exposure: Without witnessing or knowing about positive parenting techniques, you may not know what they are or how to implement them.

Why does adverse childhood affect parenting?

In a 2019 peer-reviewed research published in Development and Psychopathology, 13 studies were analyzed to explore why adverse childhood might affect people’s chances of mistreating their own kids in the future. Researchers found 5 plausible reasons one’s adverse childhood experiences can affect their parenting.​2​

  • Attachment issues: The quality of the attachment relationships children form with their parents impacts their future social interactions and relationships, according to the Attachment Theory by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Maltreated children often develop attachment issues, which can lead to parenting difficulties and maltreatment behaviors in adulthood.
  • Social learning: According to the social learning theory by Bandura (1973), parents imitate the parenting behavior they observed from their own parents, motivated by the inaccurately perceived positive effects of such practices.
  • Incorrectly processed information: The social information processing model suggests that being maltreated in childhood causes these individuals to have an impaired ability to interpret and respond to child behavior appropriately. These parents overreact when they misinterpret ambiguous behavior as negative or an attack.
  • Altered stress regulation: The neurophysiological models suggest that maltreatment can lead to altered stress responses through genetic changes, which may influence parenting behaviors.
  • Mental illness development: Developmental psychopathology models suggest that accumulated cognitive, social, emotional, and neurophysiological deficits from maltreatment can lead to mental disorders, which may influence the risk of maltreating children.

Can I be a good parent if I had a bad childhood?

Yes, you can be a good parent even if you had a bad childhood, given you commit to parenting differently in your child’s best interest. When you are determined to turn things around for your family, you can break the cycle of bad parenting.

You don’t have to be perfect to be a good parent. Being a good enough parent and making decisions in your child’s best interest is good enough.

Does your childhood define who you are?

No, your childhood shapes who you are, but it doesn’t have to define you. Understanding your past allows you to shape your future. 

No one had a perfect childhood, but some had more challenges than others. We cannot change our childhood. Yet even those who have faced extremely challenging childhood adversities can work through these issues and live meaningful, fulfilling lives.

How do I discipline children without repeating my parents’ mistakes?

To discipline children without repeating your parents’ mistakes, remember that discipline means teaching, not punishing. Punishment is not the only or most effective way to teach. Learning through fear is unhealthy and can result in trauma.

Effective discipline requires clear boundaries setting, explaining reasons behind rules, consistently enforcing rules, and patiently repeating the teaching.

If teaching alone seems ineffective, that’s because it hasn’t worked yet. Like any skill, mastering good behavior requires time and practice. Just as toddlers need numerous attempts to walk, young children to grasp counting, and older kids to learn cycling, understanding appropriate behavior doesn’t happen instantly for children. Through repetition and understanding – not fear – children internalize right from wrong. 

Meet your child’s missteps with guidance, not anger. Like holding the back of a wobbling bike, provide steady support until values click into gear. Focus on education and explaining the significance of positive actions. In addition to guiding their behavior, you nurture critical thinking and empathy in your child.

How do I know I’m parenting right?

There is no one right way to parent. You know you’re parenting right when your child does the following.

  • Your child feels safe with you.
  • Your child knows you love them.
  • Your child trusts your words.
  • Your child comes to you when they need help.
  • Your child shows you their different emotions.
  • Your child treats people, including you, right, which includes being kind, showing respect, empathizing, and being helpful.

What is the golden rule of parenting?

The golden rule of parenting is to treat your child as you wished to be treated in your own childhood and to embody the qualities of the parent you yearned for as a child. 


  1. 1.
    Bögels SM, Lehtonen A, Restifo K. Mindful Parenting in Mental Health Care. Mindfulness. Published online May 25, 2010:107-120. doi:10.1007/s12671-010-0014-5
  2. 2.
    Alink LRA, Cyr C, Madigan S. The effect of maltreatment experiences on maltreating and dysfunctional parenting: A search for mechanisms. Dev Psychopathol. Published online February 2019:1-7. doi:10.1017/s0954579418001517


    * All information on is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *