Chaotic Childhood? Strategies to Help You Heal the Pain and Betrayal

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By Ellen Rohr, M.Ed.

Children need consistency and stability to thrive, so growing up in a chaotic environment can have some negative effects. Growing up in an environment where abuse, neglect, substance abuse disorders and addiction, or untreated mental illnesses are present, are just a few things that can cause a chaotic childhood. With developing minds, kids’ brains are like sponges and will absorb everything they hear and see. If children witness more “bad” than “good,” these negative effects will accompany them into adulthood.

The pain of having a chaotic childhood is not something you can just forget about or snap your fingers and “get over.” There will be many lingering effects, especially if you were never given an appropriate emotional outlet or taught healthy coping mechanisms. These five tools can lead you on the right path toward healing your pain and betrayal.

1.  Seek Professional Help

Because children don’t have anything else as a frame of reference, difficult and traumatic situations become their normal. It’s often not until they reach adulthood that they begin to realize they experienced a chaotic childhood. Once this realization occurs, it can be confusing to navigate. Seeing a counseling professional can help undo years of negative thinking, coping, etc. You may have many suppressed memories, which are best discussed in a safe and monitored environment. The memories need to be explored and processed, but you may not feel comfortable sharing with family or friends. A therapist can provide a safe and non-judgmental environment to work through your emotions. While seeing a therapist might seem daunting, it’s the most successful way to heal the betrayal of a chaotic childhood.

2.  Develop Positive Skills

When we go into a situation where we feel unsafe, we develop a means to cope. If we lived in an unsafe situation (chaotic childhood), those coping mechanisms may, understandably, be negative. Isolation, shutting down, substance abuse problems, disordered eating, and self-harm are common, unhealthy coping mechanisms. It’s important to maintain a list of healthy and enjoyable activities to engage in when you’re feeling betrayed, unloved, or any other feeling from your childhood that might resurface. Examples of positive coping skills include reading, journaling, hiking, taking a walk, exercising, pampering yourself, watching your favorite movie, listening to your favorite musician, or engaging in creative expression.

3.  Talk It Out

Let your friends, trusted family members, partner, or spouse know what you’re going through. It may be tempting to isolate because that’s what feels familiar to you, but remember that isolation is a negative response to chaos. Opening up to your loved ones can feel scary at first, but it may surprise you at how receptive they can be. This is not something you should have to tackle alone, and having a supportive team of people by your side will make your healing process a lot more bearable.

4.  Silence Your Inner Critic

You know that voice who tells you that you’re not good enough, not worthy enough, not pretty enough, not successful enough? We call that voice our “inner critic.” We all have one, but some of us can shut it down easier than others. When you hear that voice start to speak up, instead of listening to it, try to counter it. For example, if you miss the deadline on a project and turn it in late, what is your inner critic saying to you? Does it drone on about how you’re lazy and stupid and never get anything right? If so, where do you think that voice is coming from? You weren’t born believing harsh things about yourself, so that is something you picked up sometime in your life – perhaps during your chaotic childhood. Learning to silence your inner critic is empowering once you realize the things you have been believing about yourself - the old, negative tapes playing over and over in your mind - are simply not true. You can learn to replace the inner critical thoughts with valid and positive affirmations when you begin to be aware of a pattern of self-criticism.

5.  Get In Touch With Your Inner Child

Your younger self did not get their needs met as a child. Unfortunately, there’s no way to go back in time and change this. You can, however, show your childhood self the love that you deserved. Find a picture of yourself as a child and show that child some empathy and compassion. Tell that young child that he or she did not deserve to be treated the way they were. Imagine yourself saying to that child the things you, as an adult, tell yourself now. Giving your inner child love is very healing part of this journey.

It takes time and a lot of work to overcome the pain from a painful and chaotic childhood, but don’t be intimidated. Seeking help from a qualified counselor to help you in your journey toward healing is one of the positive steps you can take to move forward. The reward you will receive is well worth the effort as you begin to experience a tremendous amount of emotional growth, self-respect, self-compassion, and empowerment.
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Ellen Rohr is a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern at the Relationship Counseling Center of Austin (RCC Austin). She works with adults of all ages to help them better understand their life experiences and move forward in living a healthy and happy life. Contact her at 512-270-4883, ext. 103, or complete the form on the RCC Austin Scheduling Page and request her as the therapist you would like to see.