How to Outgrow a Difficult Childhood

Posted on: May 21st, 2019 by Pat Mesiti No Comments

I’ve told you once or twice about my childhood – growing up with parents who drank too, and my family was always cash-strapped, but despite that I grew up to write a best-selling book, toured the world as a motivational speaker and made a good living. I managed to get past my childhood – out grow it.

Over the past year two prominent Australians have released books about their difficult childhoods. Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes wrote the biography, Working Class Boy

Working Class Boy

This is how publisher, Harper Collins describes the book: 

“Working Class Boy is a powerful reflection on a traumatic and violent childhood, which fuelled the excess and recklessness that would define, but almost destroy, the rock'n'roll legend. This is the story of how James Swan became Jimmy Barnes. It is a memoir burning with the frustration and frenetic energy of teenage sex, drugs, violence and ambition for more than what you have. Raw, gritty, compassionate, surprising and darkly funny, Jimmy Barnes's childhood memoir is at once the story of migrant dreams fulfilled and dashed. After arriving in Australia in the summer of 1962, things went from bad to worse for the Swan family – Dot, Jim and their six kids. The scramble to manage in the tough northern suburbs of Adelaide in the 60s would take its toll on the Swans as dwindling money, too much alcohol and fraying tempers gave way to violence and despair. This is the story of a family's collapse, but also of a young boy's dream to escape the misery of the suburbs with a once-in-a-lifetime chance to join a rock'n'roll band and get out of town for good.”

There is so much about Jimmy’s book I can relate to. A family arrive in Australia from Europe hoping for a better life but instead find themselves struggling. They have left everything they know behind them and don’t feel at home, before they know it they have turned to drink and are always fighting. It’s no wonder that kids from migrant families find it hard going.


Another biography that came out recently is Magna Szubanksi’s book Reckoning. The publisher describes Reckoning as heartbreaking, joyous, traumatic, intimate and revelatory. The Australian comedian describes her childhood, haunted by the demons of her father’s espionage activities in wartime Poland.

The Guardian’s Sian Cain says this biography is as much about her father as it is about her. 

Zbigniew Szubanski is ever present in the book, as a figure of both love and mystery. A Polish Catholic, Zbigniew joined the Polish execution squad, Unit 993/W Revenge Company, aged just 19, killing Gestapo officers and Polish collaborators in Warsaw. His story is a series of incredible close calls: hiding Jews in the family home, escaping the Warsaw Uprising through a sewer, fleeing from the infamous Lamsdorf Death March and finally being liberated by Russian soldiers from a POW camp. He then met Szubanski’s mother in Scotland and moved to Liverpool, where Magda was born in 1961. How does a Polish assassin end up as a father in Australia, especially one who, according to Szubanski, relished the mundanities of suburbia? Much of Reckoning sees daughter sorting through the puzzle of her father, picking apart moments where they clashed and considering events from before Magda was even born, to come to an understanding about how trauma can be passed from one generation to another. 

Both these remarkable biographies look at how trauma is passed from one generation to another, and both Magda and Jimmy have described how writing books and revisiting their childhoods helped them finally come to terms with their past. Jimmy and Magda were in their fifties when they penned their biographies. It took them almost 40 years to deal with the hangover of their childhoods.

What sort of childhood did you have? 

Were you raised by someone who was barely capable of looking after them self, let alone a child? People who suffer stress or hardship in childhood have what psychologists call ‘adverse childhood experiences’. Adverse childhood experiences refer to some of the most intense and reoccurring stresses that children suffer early in life. Such experiences include physical, emotional or sexual abuse; neglect; violence between parents and other kinds of household dysfunction like alcohol and drug abuse. An adverse childhood has life-long consequences for a person’s health and well-being. It can disrupt early brain development and compromise functioning of the nervous and immune systems. People who grow up with adverse childhood experiences are six to ten times more likely than others to suffer from depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies.

I believe that you can come to terms – if not recover – from a bad childhood but this is usually a long-term process! Again look at Jimmy and Magna who needed to write a book in their fifties to make sense of a brutal childhood. I suggest you think about getting some counselling or psychological support when trying to make sense of your childhood. Remember a GP can refer you to a psychologist and your consultations should be partially covered by Medicare.

You need to grieve

The key to recovering from a traumatic childhood is to grieve what you missed out on – a happy childhood. If you believe you have the strength to do this alone, you could start ‘processing’ some of the most difficult experiences of your childhood. Again I say get some professional help if you can because this is a tough journey.

If you are going to go it alone, this is how you begin to make sense of your childhood. 

Find something that provoked a strong emotional reaction as a child. Review what happened in as much detail as possible, and imagine yourself back in that time and place. Experience it all again with your senses. When emotions begin to arise, sense them – let the feelings in. Spend a moment with the feelings. Name your feelings – anxiety, shame, embarrassment. Accept this was how you felt. Love yourself for feeling this way. 

Sit with your emotions

Sit with your emotions, let the feelings flow. Acknowledge and welcome how you feel. This a really hard thing to do, but being in those emotions means they are less likely to haunt you at other times – they won’t sneak up on you when you least expect it. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to punch a cushion punch it. Sitting in your feelings is much like getting into a cold swimming pool. It is really hard to get in, but once you’re in you’re in – and you won’t regret getting in. 

Finally after sitting with your emotions for around 15 minutes, let them go. Imagine them leaving. Imagine the space this hurt took up inside your body – let the hurt out. Cast off the traumas and the emotions and sensations that go with trauma. Let them leave you.


Again, the statistics are that people who grow up with adverse childhood experiences are six to ten times more likely than others to suffer from depression, anxiety and suicidal tendencies. You need to take concrete actions to stay on top of depression or anxiety. I try to exercise often. I know I have to keep the endorphins flowing so I don’t end up depressed! As well as spending time meditating or praying about past traumas you need to keep exercising. It is also helpful to talk to close friends about what you are experiencing. 

It is a long journey, but persevere – just as Jimmy and Magda have!


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Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.


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