10 Things Parents Who Grew Up In Dysfunctional Families Don’t Understand

It can be hard trying to raise a child when you never grew up in a healthy environment of your own.

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My post 12 Things That People Who Grew Up In Dysfunctional Families Don’t Understand spoke to many feelings that adult children of dysfunctional families (I’ll abbreviate ACDF) have about themselves, others, and the world as a whole.

In this post, I specifically examples of issues that ACDF have when parenting their own kids.

For most ACDF who choose to have kids, a defining goal of their lives is to give their kids the healthy, functional, normal upbringing they never had.


Unfortunately, it is extraordinarily challenging to create something out of whole cloth that you didn’t get to experience firsthand.

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Here are 10 things parents who grew up in dysfunctional families don’t understand:

10. How do you separate your feelings and your child’s feelings? 

For ACDF who grew up in enmeshed parent-child relationships, where a parent did not have healthy emotional, physical, or sexual boundaries with you, it can be very hard to maintain appropriate boundaries with your own child, as much as you may prioritize doing so. 


When your child becomes upset, it may be devastating to you, moving beyond empathy into alarm and anxiety. Sadly, despite their best intentions, when a parent too quickly resolves a child’s feelings of anxiety, fear, sadness, or anger, out of their own inability to tolerate seeing these emotions, they teach the child that feelings are dangerous and scary.

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9. How do you balance parenting and healthy life outside of parenting? 

For ACDF whose parents did not maintain appropriate boundaries and centered their emotional (or entire) lives around the children, it is extremely challenging to figure out how to parent as well as work, exercise, see friends, or have an intimate relationship with a partner (more on that next).

If your parent acted as a martyr and as though their entire universe was bound up in the parent role (even if their behavior didn’t align with this act; e.g., an alcoholic mother who falls asleep on the couch every night at 7 but says that she has no social life because of the children), it can be very hard not to fall into the same patterns yourself.


8. How do you make time for your partner AND your kids?

If you saw a conflictual or disconnected marriage growing up, it can be very difficult to assess how much time to give to your partner versus your kids. It can also feel very uncomfortable to be affectionate with your partner in front of your kids if you never saw this at home.

You may feel like it’s impossible to be a sexual entity as well as a parent, which if you’re a woman is compounded by the fact that most women’s sex drive massively tanks immediately after kids and during breastfeeding.

While women who grew up with affectionate parents may have a temporary lull in their sex drive when the kids are very young, this can easily into a permanent end of their sex drive in women who never saw a loving marriage as kids.

7. How do you plan for your children’s future financially? 

For people who grew up in families where money wasn’t handled well, and/or whose parents refused to talk about money (common in emotionally avoidant people), it can be incredibly overwhelming to figure out a plan for how to save money for your child’s education, extracurriculars, and so forth.


It can make you very sad and envious to hear of other people whose parents are helping out with their grandchildren’s college savings or who give them monetary gifts.

If your partner struggles with the same issues, or you don’t have much of a financial cushion, you can feel anxious and stressed about money and feel like a terrible and irresponsible parent.

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6. How do you create a social network for your child?

For people whose parents were isolated, whether due to substance abuse, depression, anxiety, hoarding, or anything else, it can feel very difficult to figure out how to make “mom/dad friends.”


You may struggle with how to initiate and maintain these relationships or have a tremendous fear of entertaining in your home (particularly relevant if your parents did not keep a clean home due to mental issues of one kind or another).

You may have limited or severed contact with some or all of your own family members, which makes creating a social life for your child feel much more pressing. Then, of course, you feel like even more of a failure when you can’t make it happen, or can’t make it happen quickly enough.

5. How do you nurture your child’s interests? 

If your parents never took much of an interest in your inner world, interests, or talents, it can be difficult for you to do so with your own children.

Often, people whose parents ignored them go to the other extreme of hovering anxiously over their children, assessing them for nascent interests and signing them up for first every Mommy and Me class and then every music/sports/STEM/whatever enrichment activity they can find. (In the absence of the funds for such activities, they feel awful about themselves and their parenting.)


Depending on the personality type of your child, this activity scheduling can have better or worse outcomes.

Also, parents who never got the opportunity for dance class or soccer or whatever else can become angry and subconsciously resentful when their children decide, after weeks, months, or years, that they do not like or do not want to continue with certain activities that the parent has spent a lot of time, money, and effort facilitating.

4. How do you teach your children about sex/relationships? 

For parents who suffered sexual abuse, sex is a very fraught topic.

Often they avoid it entirely, or else they spin it more negatively than is healthy for the child. Many of my female clients who were taught that men are predators and “only want one thing,” thereby making it difficult for them to trust men or enjoy sex, found out at some point that their mother had experienced sexual abuse in her past.


Also, if you grew up seeing a terrible marriage, whether or not you’re in one yourself, you may feel very paranoid about your child getting into the “wrong” relationship. When your child enters adolescence and wants to experiment with dating different types of people, this may lead to conflict.

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3. How should I react to conflict between siblings/rude behavior/acting out? 

As I discuss here, ACDF often feels like other parents are much kinder and more patient than they are.

This may well be true if every time you talked back as a child you got beaten for it. For ACDF who grew up in houses where one parent ruled by bullying/terror (or guilt!), you never talked back at all, so you have literally no idea how to manage developmentally normal disobedience in your own kids without physical violence or debilitating guilt trips.


If you had no role models for normal discipline, then often you vacillate between a complete absence of boundaries/rules and dramatic yelling explosions when your children’s misbehavior becomes too much to tolerate.

2. How do you balance safety with fun? 

For ACDF who grew up in very anxious homes, it can be very hard to watch your child climb high on the monkey bars, go swimming, or do any number of “unsafe” activities.

Yet, you know that anxiety constricted your own childhood and you’re committed to giving your own child the carefree childhood that you never had.

Despite your greatest efforts, you may feel your brow furrowing when your children try new things, leading to your child worriedly asking, “What’s wrong, Mommy?” You may be trying to get outside your comfort zone and provide new experiences, but legitimately not know whether you’re allowing your child to do something unsafe that “normal” parents would be scared of.


1. Do your children know you love them? 

If you never knew if your parents loved you, then it can be very difficult to know if you’re transmitting your own love to your children in a way that is meaningful to them.

You may say I love you (or you may struggle with saying this enough/comfortably if it’s something you never heard), but you may also yell at your kids, or secretly find it easier to parent certain ones than others. Then you wonder if you’re doing “enough,” and if your kids will one day pull away from you as you may have done with your own parents.

If any of these resonate with you, I empathize. On the positive side, though, you are in luck.

Therapy is extremely useful in helping parents figure out more effective ways to parent. This type of therapy is called parenting coaching and can be combined with more insight-oriented therapy that helps you process your own sadness, anger, and grief over your childhood, or used on its own.


Changes in parenting style often yield extremely quick changes in children’s responses, which leads to a positive motivation loop to keep improving as a parent. And if you are actually parenting just fine, which a therapist could assess, and need to work on your own self-image and unresolved childhood issues (and who doesn’t?), then individual therapy is your best bet.

Never let shame stop you from reaching out for help to address issues like the ones in this article. Most ACDF, myself included, have struggled mightily with these issues as a parent. 

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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.