When we watch movies about gangsters and supervillains, they’re often portrayed as people who suffered terrible childhoods, which made them turn out bad.
And while there’s no doubt that this can happen, an unhappy childhood isn’t the only factor at play in a person becoming mean or even sociopathic.
At the same time, not all people who suffer unhappy childhoods turn out badly at all. In many cases, it’s just the opposite.
How do you know if you had an unhappy childhood?
If you have to ask, then you probably didn’t. People who remember childhood as happy, fun, or just fine likely don’t have anything hanging over them.
However, people who faced serious struggles in their childhoods don’t forget. Quite the contrary – they relive these struggles again and again throughout their lives and also feel how the burdens affect their lives into the present.
Not all unhappy childhoods are the same by any means.
Some children faced terrible situations growing up, like natural disasters, accidents, war, and famine.
Others were abused emotionally, physically, or sexually.
Other children were neglected either physically or emotionally, or both.
Some people had unhappy childhoods because of social reasons like not having friends or not fitting in with different groups. This could be because of personality differences, age differences, or discrimination.
Some of these sound dismal. However, the ways in which different people respond to their unhappy childhoods can vary widely.
While it might be surprising for some people, there are actually at least five ways an unhappy childhood can mold you into a compassionate adult.
1) Taking care of others
Children who are parentified often develop the ability, at a young age, to cope with and care for others quite adeptly. This is also sometimes true for older siblings forced by accidents or disasters to care for and protect their younger siblings.
In both cases, these children take on roles and responsibilities that are age-inappropriate. They may have to cook and clean, take care of their parents or siblings, and even work to support them.
Since they often learn to take care of others’ emotional needs from an early age, they become good at it and grow into highly compassionate adults.
At the same time, they may not have a great deal of self-compassion.
In most cases, parentification makes children focus on the value of what they can provide.
They take on a role as a carer or provider and build this into their identity. So, they tend to ignore their own needs and focus on those of others instead.
2) Seeing themselves mirrored in others
I have a close friend, Sam, who had a pretty tough time coming up.
Her parents both worked in a remote location where they couldn’t care for her, so they placed her with her aunt for several years. However, her aunt had two other children, and they were always prioritized over Sam.
She grew up with very little but managed to create a great life for herself. She was always entrepreneurial, working and selling things from a young age.
She was able to get herself an education and became an architect and a really lovely person.
She’s also extremely compassionate.
When she looks at others, she can immediately see who’s struggling, and she identifies with their struggles.
Whenever she can, she helps people either materially or with advice to change their lives in the same way she was able to change her own.
3) Shared experience
When people have experienced traumatic situations in childhood, they can really struggle to process them in a healthy way.
However, those who can are often able to find compassion for both others and for themselves.
I have a work associate who was born in Bangladesh back when it was East Pakistan. However, his family had to flee political violence when a civil war broke out, and he was a refugee for a time before the family landed on its feet again.
Now, he has retired from a very successful career in IT and devotes most of his time to running two charities, one in Bangladesh and one in Nepal.
His charities focus on supporting children who were affected by natural disasters like flooding and earthquakes.
Because he shares a past with a traumatic situation, he feels a connection to these children. He has often told me that he understands their needs much better than anyone else because he has lived through a similar event.
4) Filling in the gaps
How else can an unhappy childhood mold you into a compassionate adult?
I used to work for a charitable foundation that provided support to children’s homes in Southeast Asia.
I would periodically visit the homes to assess their needs and see how we could help them, and so I got to know many of the kids living in them.
Many years later, I had the opportunity to revisit one of the homes and was surprised to meet Um still there. She was one of the teen girls who had lived at the home and was now grown up and working there.
She had never known her father, and her mother had died of AIDS when she was nine years old. So she’d been taken to the home where he was raised with incredible love and compassion.
Now that she was an adult, she had developed the same capacities that had helped her, and she was dedicated to bestowing the same care and compassion on the new children in her charge.
Not all of the kids’ stories went this way by any means, but it was wonderful to see someone whose life was saved by and then focused on compassion.
5) Trying to do better
If you had the kind of childhood that was unhappy because of social situations, it might make sense that you’d become very anti-social. You might get into a life of crime and hurting other people because you never felt that anyone cared about you.
But things might also go the other way entirely.
Imagine (or maybe you don’t have to) that you had a learning disability that held you back in school.
When I was young, there were many behavioral issues that educators still hadn’t wrapped their heads around. Many just blamed students for being naughty or unfocused.
These students were often made to repeat grades which could lead to them being made fun of and ostracized by their peers.
Surprisingly, Henry Winkler, better known for his role as the Fonz on the classic show Happy Days, was one of these kids. Much of Winkler’s family was killed in the Holocaust and he grew up with severe dyslexia.
However, he was able to become a successful actor and writer. He’s now an advocate for dyslexic children and helps to fund research to help them.
His own experiences made him want to do better and keep today’s children from facing the same stigma and discrimination as he went through.
From unhappy child to compassionate adult
There’s no doubt that rough or unhappy childhoods can have varied and long-lasting effects on the people who experience them.
Many adults absorb the negativity of their childhood experiences and end up living lives of disorder and destruction.
But for others, this just isn’t the case.
Some people are able to take their unhappy experiences and build something positive about them.
Their path instead leads them to develop high levels of compassion.
This compassion and caring is usually directed and reflected back toward people who, like them, struggled in childhood.
They work as advocates, give advice and support, and do their best to help struggling children have better lives than they had themselves.