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Posted on Sat, Feb 11, 2012 : 5 a.m.

Bad parenting or emotional abuse

By Carolyn Hax

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Hi, Carolyn!

What is the distinction between being not very talented at parenting and being actually emotionally abusive? I'm in the process of making sense of my childhood, but I don't want to be unfair to anyone with my labels.

-- Bad Parenting or Emotional Abuse?

Does the "process of making sense" involve a family therapist? Not that it's necessary, but if therapy is a realistic possibility, then you can answer this question based on the specifics of your life, versus my general opinion.

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Re: Bad parenting:

Unless one is determining whether current behavior is reportable, I don't see how the label matters. Dealing with the specific incidents and their ramifications for your current life is what is important.

-- Anonymous

I disagree. Validation matters. The reasons matter. The degree of deviation from the norm matters. The amount that was in the parents' control matters. The parents' history matters, including what their parents taught them.

That is, they all count toward understanding your own history. Some of these answers won't be available, and some will be unwelcome or incomplete, but even an incomplete picture can help create a productive way to think about the consequences of childhood, to recognize their echoes in current relationships and to keep them from getting in the way of a rewarding adult life.

Some readers' experiences:

-- My father was abusive. Being able to say that made me stop making excuses for the behavior and let me understand what boundaries I needed to draw with him to continue on with my life in a healthy way. Leaving it as just "bad parenting" makes the need for boundaries fuzzy and possibly guilt-inducing.

-- It definitely works both ways. Once I recognized that my parents weren't abusive, but simply the product of lousy tools they'd been given by their own parents, it became MUCH easier for me to understand my childhood and move on to a happy adulthood. One of my brothers, by contrast, is still resentful about stuff that happened when he was 12 (and he's 60 now!) so I have a bird's-eye view on how not to live.

-- I've spent the last year in therapy figuring out the exact same question and it's been the most positive experience of my life. The process of validating what happened to you, the coping mechanisms that Little Kid You developed to deal with it, and the effect of those coping mechanisms on your adult life are incredibly powerful, as well as figuring out how to feel about your parents now that you're all adults. I know the process of finding a therapist seems daunting (it led me to put off therapy much longer than I should have), but it is so, so worth it.

Thanks, everybody. Not everyone has access to (or faith in) therapy, but the idea of "what happened to you (and) the coping mechanisms that Little Kid You developed to deal with it" is a sound place to launch a do-it-yourself effort to get better -- that is, for those ready to be honest with themselves, even if it hurts.

Email Carolyn at tellme(at), follow her on Facebook at or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at

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