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Can anyone really heal from a bad childhood?

In “Bad Childhood — Good Life,” Dr. Laura Schlessinger offers advice to readers trying to overcome traumas from upbringing. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Popular radio talk show host and author Dr. Laura Schlessinger seeks to guide readers in getting past any emotional damage they suffered at the hands of their parents, so they may lead productive, happy lives in her latest work, “Bad Childhood — Good Life: How to Blossom and Thrive in Spite of an Unhappy Childhood.” Schlessinger visited “Today” to discuss her book. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter one
To be or not to be ... a victim
Even flowers have to grow through dirt.— Nancy, a listener

Unfortunately, a lot of people are made to suffer as children: beatings, rapes, torture, abandonment, neglect, parental divorce and subsequent remarriage with new or stepchildren to compete with, alcoholic or drug-addicted parent(s), erratic and even dangerous consequences of parental mental illness, browbeatings, parental insensitivity, psychological and emotional assaults, parental affairs, constant family turmoil, molestations, familial violence, single parent by choice or irresponsibility, and so forth. They are definitely victims of self-centered, evil, ignorant, and/or weak adults; and, for me, weakness or ignorance do not excuse the resultant harm.

In the beginning ...
More and more, the calls to my radio program are coming from children, children being victimized by their parents. I try, in the short time available to me in a live radio phone conversation, to do something to align that hurting child with something positive to hold onto. Samantha, for example, is a nine-year-old child who called wanting to know how to deal with a mother who won't take care of her and a father who is in and out of jail.

Samantha: I'm living with my grandma.

Dr. Laura: Your grandma? Is your grandpa there, too?

Samantha: Uh-huh.

Dr. Laura: Are you a religious girl?

Samantha: Yes.

Dr. Laura: This is what I suggest you do to deal with it. I suggest that every now and then you pray to God, and say, “God, thank you, thank you, thank you for giving me a grandma and grandpa to take care of me.”

Samantha: Okay.

Dr. Laura: Do you understand why I said that?

Samantha: Sort of.

Dr. Laura: In our lives, we are going to have many disappointments. That goes for everybody, Samantha. Everybody. Some disappointments are bigger than others. Having two parents you can't count on is a huge disappointment. Huge. Huge. I understand you being hurt and disappointed and upset and angry and all kinds of stuff. Now, there are two kinds of people in this world. There are the people who have those big disappointments and they spend their lives being sad. And then there are the other people, who go, “It is sad that I have these disappointments, but I am sooo lucky because I have ...” Samantha, which do you think are the happier people?

Samantha: The people who are sad — but still happy.

Dr. Laura: Yup. That's going to be you, Samantha. That's how you are going to deal with it. You are going to be sad that you can't count on your mommy and daddy, but you are going to be happy because there are people you can count on. And you are going to make a happy life.

Samantha: Okay. Bye. Thank you.

Getting calls like Samantha's, and there are too many, is the worst and best of all worlds. I ache that these children are hurting. I rejoice that they call me and that I can give them a perspective that will hopefully detour them from a life of a victimhood mentality.

Connor, an eleven-year-old boy, is “having a little dad problem.” It seems that his mom and dad have been divorced for as long as he could remember (since he was four), and every time he sees his dad and then has to leave, it causes him so much pain.

Connor: I just can't bear to see him leave anymore. Even if that means I can't even see him again.

Dr. Laura: Connor, do you like spaghetti?

Connor: What does that have to do with the topic? [Good question, actually.]

Dr. Laura: Well, do you like spaghetti?

Connor: Yeah, why?

Dr. Laura: Do you like spaghetti and meatballs?

Connor: [getting impatient] Yeah.

Dr. Laura. I love spaghetti and meatballs. It's probably one of my favorite meals. What you are telling me, Connor, is that since I can only have two meatballs, and I can't have the three that I want, that I might just as well not eat any spaghetti and meatballs at all!

Connor: But I just can't take seeing him leave anymore.

Dr. Laura: It's the price you pay. And everything has a price attached to it, Connor. You want to see your dad? The price you have to pay is that it hurts when he goes. But the good part is that you get to see him. I pump iron. I can't say I love to do it, but I do it because it is the price to pay to be healthy and look good. I like having muscles! Everything has a price. For everything you really want, there's something you have to put up with.

Connor: Thank you, Dr. Laura

In speaking to Samantha and Connor, I had the opportunity to reframe a bad situation into a life lesson. Samantha learned about not ignoring the blessings (loving, caretaking grandparents) because of the curses (parental abandonment). Connor learned that life generally exacts a price (like painful goodbyes) for those things that are desired and meaningful (visitation with Dad).

Children need to learn at an early age that these lessons are universal experiences, not just their personal, unique, horrible cross to bear. It is easier for children to cope with difficult, even horrendous situations when they understand and accept that the advice they are getting is truths about life for all time and all people — not just an attempt to manipulate them out of justified hurt or angry feelings. While these are truths about a good life for all people, they are essential lessons for these victimized children.

As children get older, their ability to act out their hurt and anger with drugs, sex, truancy, and violence toward themselves or others becomes a serious concern. That is why it is so desperately important that these youngsters have someone they can turn to and count on. A mentor, family friend ...

Excerpted from “Bad Childhood — Good Life: How to Blossom and Thrive in Spite of an Unhappy Childhood” by Dr. Laura Schlessinger. Copyright © 2006, Dr. Laura Schlessinger All rights reserved. Published by HarperCollins Publishers. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.