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Unlearning the Lessons of a Toxic Childhood

I didn’t realize until relatively recently how much my view of things is shaped by childhood. I took the position, until I went into therapy, that at age 42, all of my problems had to do with the present. But they don’t.

Even my therapist said that my mother did the best she could, and I believed that and, frankly, thought I should just make do with what she did give me and muddle through. But that’s not the answer, I now realize. Reading this book has made me realize how much I am getting in my own way.

Everyone in my life keeps telling me to move on, that the past is the past, and I need to just get on with living in the moment. They just don’t get it. The little girl I was needs to be dealt with.

Our culture is characterized by impatience with slow recovery, has a penchant for quick fixes, and a focus on forward motion, and future possibility; these cultural biases make it hard for someone who’s trying to make sense of and deal with childhood experiences as these messages, received from readers of my book Daughter Detox: Healing from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, attest. Get Over It! Is considered by many to be positive cheerleading, even though it belies any understanding of what psychological damage looks like.

Why unlearning is hard

While recall of specific incidents that made your childhood so painful is relatively easy for some people—remembering how picking on you became a team sport with your sister joining in with Mom, how your mother ignored you for days after you displeased her in some way, how your father’s yelling made you feel alone and frightened—it’s much much harder to see how you were affected and how your behavior was shaped by interactions, large and small. That’s because, according to attachment theory, these interactions create unconscious working models—or broad assumptions—about people, the world generally, and how relationships work.

All children learn about the larger world by extrapolating from the little world they grew up in, that of their immediate household and extended family. If you grow up in a place where you are loved and protected, feel confident to explore and take risks, and believe that others think well of you, the chances are good that you’ll see the larger world as one filled with opportunities to connect and make your mark. Even if you experience something untoward or unexpected, you’re more likely to be resilient and to see what happened as anomalous and be able to learn from it. (That is how a person with a secure style of attachment sees the world.)

But the child who grows up in a household where bullying, verbal abuse, and scapegoating are part of the everyday forms a very different vision of the world. The child who’s ignored has a different take on the world of relationship than the one who’s been taunted for her sensitivity or neediness. Again, these mental modes are unconscious and function as sieves through which experience is poured and understood. An unloved child who’s been under siege—mocked, marginalized, or scapegoated—defends herself by armoring and detaching from her feelings. An unloved child starved for love and attention remains open but ever vigilant for signs of rejection.

Common lessons learned

These are broad-stroke generalizations drawn from many interviews for my book; not every one will apply to every person recovering from a toxic childhood, but they tend to be the lessons that need to be unlearned for the adult to move forward and live her best life.

  1. That love comes with strings attached

She may learn that love is earned and never freely given, or that it can be withheld or taken away in punishment. Or that it is a transaction of sorts. This view of love is warping, and painful.

  1. That you’re in or out, a winner or loser

In households where scapegoating or exclusion is part of how the family functions, an individual is reduced to a cardboard version of herself—a summary of her basic character. With a mother high in narcissistic traits or one who relishes control, you either have a place in the sun or are banished to the shadows. The unloved daughter absorbs this view of herself as a basic truth.

  1. That abuse is normal

Again, every child believes that what goes on at her house goes on everywhere until she learns that it doesn’t. Verbal abuse is normalized in this way too and, as a result, many adults often don’t even recognize that they’re being abused until it’s pointed out to them.  They’re more inclined to make excuses for the abuser (“He just has a bad temper and doesn’t mean most of what he says when he’s angry,” “I don’t think she understands she’s hurting me when she says that,” “They’re only words, after all”) than to act, alas.

  1. That feelings make you vulnerable and weak

This doesn’t need explanation, especially when a child has been taunted with being “too sensitive” and showing her pain.

  1. That you’re on your own

If your own family spurns you, then who can possibly love and care for you? Most unloved children suffer terribly from the sense of not belonging anywhere to anyone; in fact, I have come to feel that this wound runs a close second to not being loved by the very person who put you on the planet to begin with.

  1. That emotional connection hurts

This lesson damages in numerous ways. First, it increases tolerance of toxic behavior in adult relationships because, once again, emotional pain becomes normalized. Second, it justifies not seeking out close connection or intimacy, even if it is something, on a deeper level, you really want. This view doesn’t allow love and connection to be seen as sustaining or expansive, but only diminishing; it has a toxicity of its own.

Recognizing the lessons learned is the first step in recovering from them.


Photograph by Gerait. Copyright free.




Unlearning the Lessons of a Toxic Childhood

Peg Streep

Peg Streep’s new book, DAUGHTER DETOX: RECOVERING FROM AN UNLOVING MOTHER AND RECLAIMING YOUR LIFE, can be purchased at Amazon. com. The author or co-author of twelve books, she also wrote MEAN MOTHERS: OVERCOMING THE LEGACY OF HURT (William Morrow). She lives in New York City. You can visit her on Facebook or at All posts are copyrighted by Peg Streep. You are more than welcome to share the link but do not copy and paste the text and post elsewhere.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Unlearning the Lessons of a Toxic Childhood. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jan 2018
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