When parents just don’t understand (and how to deal with it)
If you prefer to listen, here’s the podcast version of this post.
Your relationship with your parents can be attached to a lot of big feelings of hurt or anger because it’s such a major relationship in your life. They’re your parents – of course it’s going to hurt if you don’t get what you need from them! So if you are struggling with your relationship it can be emotionally overwhelming, to say the least. You might be in a place where you’re end up getting hurt by them so much, you cut them out of your life just to protect yourself. Or maybe you still have a semblance of a relationship but you hide things from them because you know they won’t be able to understand or accept you. Perhaps you try desperately to get their approval and they never give it to you, no matter what successes you have. If any of this sounds familiar, then you are not alone – and this is a blog for you. This is an important puzzle piece to figure out: it’s one of the most powerful foundational relationships in life and can affect your happiness, your life-trajectory and your very understanding of self.
I know this can be attached to a lot of big feelings of hurt or big feeling of anger – because it’s such a major relationship in your life. They’re your parents! The two people in the world who are supposed to love you unconditionally, take care of you, make you feel safe, stand up for you, listen to your problems and celebrate your triumphs – even more than your friends. So if you don’t get these things from them– or perhaps you get the opposite, it can have devastating affects on you as a child and an adult. Even if the relationship has been cut off, it can have a big affect on your adult life because you suffer in a very deep place from primal unmet needs and old painful emotions. And for that reason, I will try to go about this with a light and whimsical touch and attempt to give you some perspective on your particular brand of parent/s so that you can be empowered to build a safe relationship moving forward. And sorry in advance if my humor doesn’t land right for any reason! It’s not to discount your pain; it’s to make this more palatable so you can better take it in. xo
Part 1: What
Parents who for one reason or another cannot act as unconditionally loving and supportive caregivers. They might say things that confuse and hurt you, that often seem to be coming from an entirely different motivation – one that’s unloving and cruel. This can be from anyone important in your life – it doesn’t have to be your birth parents. Often when we don’t get what we need from our parents, we find surrogate relationships with adults who can give us the guidance and stability we need. Regardless of who they are, your parental figures’ opinions matter so much that when they don’t do what they’re supposed to, it can wreak a lot of havoc in the ways you view yourself. It can manifest feelings of guilt, shame, depression, self-loathing and also cause you to self-destruct. Because, as a kid, if you feel like your parents don’t love you, you feel it must be your fault.
If your parents were incapable and did nothing when you were in need, it might have caused you to feel alone, helpless and invisible. And as an adult you might feel hatred and rage toward them now. That feeling makes sense – because, how dare they, and why would you ever want to involve them in your life, now?
Sometimes the emotions you feel can confuse you and make you feel anxious and triggered: a mess of painful emotions in the pit of your stomach that get stirred up like a boiling pot of mud. You can’t tell what you want, because you want more than one thing – and you can’t tell where the pain is coming from, but you feel bad no matter what you do, and you’re in pain whenever you are around them. Like every honest, truth-speaking kid, in your family you’re likely, “the crazy one.”
Yes, there’s a lot of direct pain that’s manifested from specific parenting dynamics, so if you are relating to what I’m saying, I am hopefully going to give you some insight into your particular dynamic so that you might begin to heal from it and be free from the associated pain. Eventually, you can create the right relationship with them: whether that means you involve them in your life or you don’t – you will do it peacefully.
*As a disclaimer, if you are currently being raised by this parent and living in their household, my advice to you will be different. I know it’s really tough if you are still living with your parents and they are hurting you because you feel trapped. You are forced to rely on them for food and shelter so there’s not a whole lot you can do to distance yourself enough to heal. I will try to give you a specific set of tools at the end of the podcast if you’re in this situation currently.
Part 2: Why are they like that?
Firstly, this is not an excuse. This is to help you understand so that you can heal. Pervasively, they are incapable due to their built-in damage and limitations and/or trying their best with very limited tools.
Adults are all stunted by the needs they didn’t get met as children. It’s like a part of them gets stuck there wanting and crying out for the thing they desperately need. So if your parent is playing out a specific form of blindness with you – it’s likely because they never got it from their parent, and therefore they cannot give it to you: they are stuck there emotionally. It’s their personal damage – something they failed to heal and confront with self-work, (like you are so bravely doing, now) and therefore it was passed down to you. They cannot even see it as separate because it has merged into their person. Don’t be too harsh on them – they likely didn’t grow up during a time of internet and didn’t have access to the support, education, and resources we do now. They were probably very isolated in their problem and never knew how to help themselves or even that they could untangle it. For a lot of older generations, admitting you needed help was taboo and being honest about social issues was frowned upon. The past had a lot of absurd conservative dynamics and that lead to a lot of unnecessary private suffering. So take those factors into account when you are examining the patterns in your parents. They are damaged and got emotionally stuck and it had nothing to do with you.
If you are looking for the particulars of your parental dynamic – here are few in particular, more spelled out – as the patterns often don’t make a lot of sense from the outside.
- Obliviousness aka Denial:
What: If your parent ignored your suffering and all the while you were crying out for help. Maybe it’s impossible in your mind – that they couldn’t have had some kind of knowledge of what was going on. Perhaps they observed things happening to you but did nothing, or the things you were doing were obvious to everyone – like you were acting out, but still your parent did nothing to confront it.
Why: When people are incapable of dealing with a severe kind of trauma or life-threatening situation, they will resort to an emergency shutoff system in their brains called “denial.” It’s something that happens to people who were born less resilient, and are therefore unable to tolerate extreme stressors. They emotionally cannot manage it, to the point that they might completely have a break down lest they block it out completely. It’s what your brain does to protect you from the severity of the pain – sort of like when people say they were in an accident and don’t remember any of it. When it comes to your parent, this denial was likely set up as a managing tool by an early childhood experience of trauma or shock. It’s now an auto-shutdown mode that occurs when they encounter an overwhelming stressor – like a turtle going into a shell.
If your parent has this incapability, you likely tried to act out with the subconscious goal of having them finally show up and protect you. Maybe you even tried to reach out to them and ask for help but they told you with their reaction that they were incapable of tolerating the truth. For example, if you told your parent something like, “I did drugs today,” and they freaked out and screamed at you, saying, “What? What’s wrong with you!? Why would you do something like that!? OMG I’m a terrible parent! (sobs)” When a parent does not offer guidance or a solution and instead expresses their devastation, you receive a clear message not to bring up a problem again. It says, “I cannot deal with this kind of information.” As a result, you might stop telling your parent about your struggles because you know their answer is not going to be help and support. Kids naturally push to find their boundaries so that they can feel safe. So in your case, there were no walls of safety and therefore you were alone and vulnerable. And that can feel really bad. And scary. You likely also felt unloved because you were invisible to them even in your suffering.
If you grew up with parents like this, you are likely tortured by this kind of information because “denial” just sounds like an excuse. “ANYONE would have noticed – it was SO OBVIOUS. They knew! Couldn’t they at least ACKNOWLEDGE my suffering or offer me some kind of help in the face of it?” Sometimes, no, not at all. It depends on how incapable and disassociated your parent happens to be. Because often, to look at any degree of truth would unravel the fabricated blindness that’s keeping them safe. Yes, they sometimes did know what was happening and yet could not break from their protective mode to face it. Think of it as a form of PTSD that causes paralysis. Somewhere they are conscious, but it’s far away from their body.
What I’d like you to focus on: Processing the reality and healing from it. If this type of parenting has happened to you, you might have created a long-running story behind their thoughts – a rationale for their actions. Because as a child you are so baffled by their unloving behavior, you fill in the blanks for them so they make sense as loving, strong caregivers. “When dad didn’t say happy birthday it was because he knows I am mad at him. He’s being passive aggressive.” A child will rationalize something human and loving when in reality the parent is totally unaware of any of their feelings being hurt. Because to not would be a threat to survival! If your parents are literally not taking care of your needs – you might as well wander onto the freeway! You MUST believe you are being protected therefore a kid’s story forms from a point of awareness.
If you are starting to confront the anger and pain caused by the denial of your parents, what will need to take place for you is a mourning process. First, you will go through a confrontation of the facts. That they didn’t know anything you thought they did. Next, you get really, really mad. “How could they! I was suffering!” Next, the toughest of all, is a stage of sadness: looking honestly at how this affected you, feeling sad for your childhood self, and mourning the loss of what you didn’t get in your life. It might cause a bit of a cry fest, so I recco doing this while handholding a professional. There is a lot of pain there: it’s intense and overwhelming because it’s the pain of a child who was very vulnerable and scared- who needed adult guidance, love and support.
The last stage is healing and getting a fresh foundation. It is from here that you can begin to think about what it is you want with your parents, if anything. And whatever you do, you can do it without hurting or feeling the old bruises. You are emotionally light as a feather. It’s from this point that you can really grow to love and feel close to your parents – sometimes for the first time in your life.
- The Blinded “Parent” Identity
What: Your parent is judgmental, unimpressed, does not seem interested in your feelings or your passions or who you are. They set standards for you and then still cannot celebrate you when you meet them. Maybe they withhold their love and praise and insist on talking down about what you haven’t done with your life. They criticize all of your decisions and punish you with tactics like shaming. Maybe they get mad at you for where you lack and fail to acknowledge all that you do for them to make them happy. Or they ignore what you want and try to force you to be different, or compare you to others – and even your own siblings.
Why: All parents, to some degree, define their identity based on being a parent. Unless they are totally absent from their own body – on drugs for example, they have likely taken on a concept of themselves as a parent as a definition of who they are as a human. “I am a lawyer. I am a mom.” So this role defines their very being to them and therefore informs their behavior. How they act toward you is based on how they believe parents should guide and protect. It’s like a permanent badge that goes on their lapel whenever they are with you. “Chief of the Department of Parental Security.”
The crappy part is that this role can blind them to seeing you and make them incapable of being close to you. All they can see is you as an extension of their duty on this earth. “To serve and protect and enforce the laws.” So depending on their view of good parenting, this sometimes involves ridiculous tactics and intolerable cruelty. It’s an identity that blocks them from listening or seeing any other view, like hardwiring. It’s not because they wouldn’t love to get to know you and be close to you; it’s that they cannot change their stance. It all comes down to a need to control you and guide you, at any cost. “I am a mom! That is my role related to this person! Must force my will to protect!”
So when it comes to evil tactics like shaming, it’s still – strangely, coming from a place of parental love. Shaming is a tactic meant to control with a strong fist, out of absolute desperation. Usually parents take on this tool from their parents: they mirror the model they learned. It comes into play in YOUR life, when there is something – symbolically, in their own upbringing that they believe to be so damaging to a person that it must be avoided so to not destroy your life and the lives of the entire family. Melodramatic? Yes. Irrational? Yes. But when it comes to parents, they are old and often incapable of seeing who you are and basically any other way of living that might be better for you than what they want. They are trapped in the same system and using the hardcore tactics to get you to do what they believe you must, in order to grow up decent. They are desperately trying to autocorrect your life. “If I am effective at instilling this fear in them, or making them hurt bad enough, they will eventually change and become happy and successful adults – following the correct path for MY family.” Like letting you touch a hot stove to learn first hand that it’s hot. I know, it’s messed up.
The other half of the parent identity: You are also a definition of THEM. You become an extension of their identity, so if your life doesn’t align with what they feel they built in life with their own two hands, (and vagina) they will feel like A) they are a failure and a bad parent, and B) that they need to parent harder to shape you more, so you fit in the family portrait they show to their friends.
What I want you to focus on: First, you’ve got to accept that that is who they are and stop trying expecting them to be different. Because that’s what hurts – the expectation that it will one day be different and they’ll finally see you and love everything about who you are. Sometimes it can happen, but it takes a very dramatic reset button like a birth or a death or a wedding – for them to really have a jarring milestone that breaks them out of their old broken record. So you cannot rely on that. Treat this like any other painful relationship and Prep that Bruise. You’ve got to stay completely aware of the fact that they are stuck in this old operating system and they cannot break out of it. If you’re not ready to be around them because it hurts so much, that’s okay. You will when you’re ready. But the most important part of this prep is you must accept that they are incapable of giving you the praise and love you deserve – for being who you are, as you are, and it’s not because they don’t love you. It’s because they love you in their own f’d up version of reality. They’re trying to save you when you’re waiting to be hugged.
You have to be who you are and be true to that person. You have to put yourself above what they expect you to be. I know that when it comes to the repercussions of losing out on a relationship with your family, it can be excruciating to disappoint them. It evokes the punishing, the resent, the constant pain of living out “their” failure to be an effectively forceful parent. What is being expressed via you by this is very much an insecurity they have about themselves and you, by extension, define to them how they feel about their own life and achievements. Which is unfortunate. Sad for them but sadder for you: it’s not fair, it’s not what you deserve, but it’s their problem to solve – not yours to accommodate. It’s where they are stuck and blind and losing out on the awesome reality that is you.
TOOL: Play Tea Party
This is for the times when you visit this parent and it hurts to not be seen. First, Prep the Bruise: prepare the area that has been injured to be punched again with a big emotional bandage– in other words, accept the likely outcome that they will do what they always do as a 50/50 chance and buffer accordingly. If you are deciding to move forward with plans from a rational place – meaning fully aware of who the are and their limits, you can use this tool to play a game of dress up: bending if and when it suits you to accommodate them. It’s different when you decide to use this for your own happiness vs. living a lie. You know who they are, and you can decide to love them from a safe vantage point. This tool is simply, consciously play along with their world when it makes your life easier AND because it makes you happy to make them happy. Make that bend come from a positive choice on your part, not the painful unmet need for their love. Almost like you’re playing a game of “tea-party” with a little kid.
Yes, this is painful and it’s their loss to not see you as you are, and your loss to not be supported and seen. But this is why it’s a waste of your time to try and convince them of that: this is who they are, and it’s where they are stuck. Focus on what it is you want from this relationship based on that fact: getting something from them is better than nothing, especially since life is short and you don’t get to redo this window of time. Think it over. Allow yourself the liberty of deciding what you might enjoy with them.
- Cultural Blindness
What: Your parents seem to let “their way” or “what is right” or “their standards” outweigh their love for you. Perhaps they choose to honor their religion or their cultural rules over your happiness. Maybe you fall in love with someone of a different race and they take it as a travesty and refuse to accept it. That’s an easily identified example, but it can be something more subtle than that: let’s say you were caught doing illicit drugs and instead of having concern and wanting to talk with you, they ignored it and maybe even sent you away to a doctor or far away rehab.
Why: The blindness caused by a cultural value system that is embedded in their beliefs and understanding of life and the world in its entirety. Like it frames their very existence – and in many cases cannot be dismantled, without their desire to understand their way out of it. And sometimes to do so would threaten their understanding of self in a way that’s much too overwhelming. For example, when it comes to religion, many beliefs require they remain unconditional and unquestioned, as their basis. It varies per individual culture and can have a million different factors: age, generation, what they went through during their upbringing, their parents’ parenting styles, religion, and the value system of the surrounding culture that they were most influenced by.
For example, when it comes to many Asian parents, there’s a cultural dynamic of shame that takes over around any issue that’s socially frowned upon. Brits have a known habit of not acknowledging what’s wrong. It’s something that has been inherited by the class system and it manifests in parents regardless of how little they actually participated in the class system. Think of it like an echo of a cultural dynamic. They are known to look the other way and not confront what’s happening, which is why if you have British family you know there’s a lot of passive aggression. These are two random examples but every culture has their own set in habits. Sometimes, parents cannot accept things that betray their value system, no matter how unloving it feels to you.
Strong social structures within a culture often shape a foundational understanding of right and wrong, so no matter how hurtful, their behavior is likely manifested from a place of perceived necessity and alignment with what they believe they must do to be loving and good humans. Beliefs can be dis-empowering in that sometimes they make good people hand over the keys to their own future despite what they wish and want based on love. Your parent might not be empowered enough to do anything other than follow the rules, and it will hurt them, too. Often the pain will be so great they will be tortured by the ambivalence, causing them to battle their beliefs and blame you for causing that rift. Because to undo a belief system means denying what they perceive as truth, which for many, is impossible – no matter how much it hurts and what it costs.
What I would like you to focus on: If this is happening to you, you will have to first accept this fact for what it is and separate it from you, their love for you, and your worth. True, love should never be conditional, but if you learned a set of natural laws that told you that it was – you’d be totally upside down too. Understand that it’s not because you are not amazing and perfect as you are. It’s got nothing to do with you not being worth loving times a million. It’s that there’s a vast void of comprehension between you and your parents: you live in different dimensions. Which is sad. So it will take some time to confront this pain, and you will have to mourn it.
When it comes to extreme belief systems, you might have to separate from the family unit for a while so that you can protect yourself from further injury and get enough perspective to heal. If you find yourself battling the effects, know that whoever you are is not wrong. It’s not bad. And you shouldn’t have to change to be loved as you are. Period. I know that the pain caused by wanting your parents love is overwhelming and if you are struggling with a conflict inside: wanting so badly to be what they want, for them, but knowing you are not – then that’s normal. You are good and loving, and as a child, you want your parents love desperately. It can be the most painful unmet need you will ever have in your life. And that’s the hardest part of this process, for you. Really focusing on it as just that: wanting unconditional love, not getting it. Knowing it’s not fair, but separating it from you. Knowing you deserve it. Moving on from the healed place based on the reality of the situation to choose what to do moving forward.
The real reason to heal and let go of trying to obtain their approval is so that you can really begin to listen to who you are, minus the values and rules they have overlaid onto you. Your belief system will evolve throughout your entire lifetime, but it must come from acceptance of your truths and self-love. It cannot come from force. That is not your job – to make them love you. If they cannot, that is their loss. Once you are strong in who you are, you might be able to return to this relationship from an entirely different angle. But make sure you heal enough from the inner conflict before doing that so you are walking on solid earth.
- Not Knowing or Caring Who You Are
What: Your parents, though kind, smart people, react to you with apparent indifference or perhaps completely ignore you and what you want to share about yourself. They don’t know you and they don’t take an interest in you as an adult. They also have nothing kind or complimentary to say to you about your successes and perhaps belittle your own parenting skills.
Why: They literally don’t know how to merge their parental identity with the reality of you, as an adult. They don’t feel useful or relevant, and therefore they don’t know how to relate to you. Like they can’t figure out any angle because their only identity was “parent/protector/superior.” It’s such a powerful identity, “I am needed.” “I’m a provider.” So when you don’t need them anymore, they feel stupid and useless – and just being around you bring out nothing but insecurity. They might react with defensive harshness and close off to you because their identity prevents them from saying something like, “I don’t get it.” Instead they resort to broken-record parenting statements that discount who you are and what you’ve accomplished. “Mom! I just got a house!” “You should be saving your money.” It’s likely they don’t even believe what they’re saying but they have nothing to offer and your confidence and knowledge likely threatens them.
What I would like you to focus on: Understanding it’s not coming from a bad place – it’s coming from ungraceful aging: they didn’t keep up enough confidence outside of raising you, and therefore they are self-protecting. So don’t take it personally – if you want love from them, try being sensitive to their inabilities and accommodating them from your more enlightened, confident footing. Because truly, it’s not about you. They just don’t know how to relate to you – so if you want to involve them more easily, try relating to them on their terms: set them up for success based on knowing they need it to feel useful. Bring up topics you know they are comfortable around and ask for the stories you know they love to tell. No this is not ideal but it’s better than nothing, especially if you have been steadily cutting off communication. This is about accepting their limits and choosing what it is you want – for you – based on that. This decision can affect the rest of your lifetime. Allow yourself the room to reflect on that concept.
- Self-Centered Parenting with Melodramatic Acts to Get Their Way
What: If you have parents that act like children who have forced you into the role of parenting them: soothing them, listening to them, supporting them – rendering you invisible. They might also get more upset whenever you get upset at them – your needs and feelings can never take priority over theirs. You are constantly being controlled by guilt and made to feel like you have hurt them terribly. They might fall apart, force apologies from you and throw fits – in short, everything is about them, and never about you.
Why: When parents have a particular kind of damage from their upbringing, they will be stunted in their built-in tools. You can only give what you know how to give so if a parent has unmet needs and unaddressed issues from childhood, their built-in support and selflessness is not developed. Unless you address your unmet needs as an adult in something like therapy, (or you get those needs met by another role model in your life) those unmet needs block an adults ability to give them to you – like a bunk operating system. If your parent didn’t get unconditional love and had to grow up really young, they will be stunted at that age emotionally – still replaying the same broken record of the unmet need, to you. You ask for love, they ask for MORE love! You talk about your problems, they ignore them and talk about their BIGGER problems. When needs are unmet and go unaddressed, they merge with who you are. So your parent is stunted emotionally at the age at which this damage was done to them.
If your parent bursts into fake-tears when you get mad at them about something legitimate, it’s because they are emotionally childlike and therefore operating from a place that’s very desperate and fearful. This stunting includes their emotional tools: just like a child, they are using below-the-belt types of tactics to get you to do what they want. It’s like saying, “I’m the boss! You have to be nice to me!” It comes from not knowing how to confront or deal. It’s totally unconscious but it’s the result of their damage. They needed someone, likely around the ages and milestones you have unmet needs from them, and they are blinded by that – still wanting it and asking for it. So you are almost competing for it in their mind. “Mom, I need love.” “BUT, I still need love!” A part of their emotional self is trapped there, wanting validation and love so badly, needing it so badly that they are unable to be here with you now: they have nothing to give. They don’t know better because no one taught them how to parent with love and stability. It comes from a lack of tools and the grounding within themselves to be capable of offering a confident, loving ear in this conversation. They’re still trying to be heard.
If you’re around them as a kid, they’re likely going to use you to soothe their emotional voids. It sucks if you are a child who needs love and their asking you to parent them – the upside is it likely created a unique set of talents in you. When you have a parent like this, being a helper and solver becomes your identity and in turn, that manifests a very real and powerful skill set as an adult. The downside is that you likely had times in your life that you were scared and alone and you really needed a strong caregiver to address a problem you couldn’t confront on your own. This dynamic can lead to feeling you are un-help-able, that any issues you have can not be fixed – that your problems are worse than those of others, because in your life experience, no one was there to help you. Additionally, this dynamic manifests codependency in your adult life: when you are ignored by a parent stuck obsessing about themselves, you rationalize their lack of awareness by weaving an elaborate story for them that makes you feel safer. “They must see me but they are trying to make me think they care…” etc.
What I’d like you to focus on: If you had a parent like this, you likely have many unmet needs, a whole lot of anger and resentment and pain, and you are likely codependent in your relationships. Meaning, you are very used to reading the thoughts of others and focusing on their needs – unable to tolerate focus on your needs and uncomfortable with receiving love and attention. Why I call this out is it’s something you should at the very least, examine because it can have some serious repercussions – especially in your love life. When you are not comfortable having others do things for you or meet your needs, it can set up a lifetime of negating your self for others – via this role of caregiver. If you’re interested in learning more, here is a starting point.
BUT back to the parent in question. If you have a parent like this, you also likely have a lot of anger to process. Anger over what you didn’t get that you needed. That can take time and once you get it all out via talking about it, and ACCEPT who they are you can come back to this relationship from a totally new vantage point. However – when you’re still in the pain of what you didn’t get, that you want, it’s impossible to realize this is EVER going to be possible. So I will say that to you now if you’re like, “No, it’s never going to stop hurting.” It can and will – but you have to decide that you want to work toward having that for yourself, one day.
- Pure Meanness and Cruelty
What: Your parents lash out at you with meanness and harsh judgment. Maybe they are cold, indifferent, and show no signs of guilt. They were abusive either verbally or physically and show no signs of caring one bit. Very strict parenting style.
Why: When it comes to parents who were abused or grew up in really harsh and loveless families or conditions that separated them from any loving adult, they grow up with a different framework for understanding love and giving it. It’s almost like their genetic code changes – you become more animal-like and your capacities for tenderness are broken. Their definitions of parenting go right along with it. So if you have been a casualty of this framework and you have parents who were intentionally cruel to you, it’s a lot of pain to process because it creates a definition of self that is unworthy of love. In order to heal you will have to distance yourself from them and confront the anger you feel. That can take a while as there’s likely quite a bit of it.
What I want to offer you: A point to focus on in the future: putting down the hateful feelings around this subject. Literally, deciding to heal completely from all feelings of pain. Because you don’t have to hate them or feel the pain associated with them – you can work toward processing it and making peace with it, for yourself – so you can let it go. I think when you have something so big and real that hurt you so much, you almost assume it’s your identity to hold onto this anger story for the rest of your life. But you don’t have to do that at all. It’s all up to you. But I will remind you that you are the one carrying this. It’s your sore. Not theirs. If you want to move on from the pain and hurt and put it down, you can decide that now and work toward it. It might take a while – but you can let go of the feelings entirely. It starts with the desire to do so, for yourself – and your future.
- Addiction or Depression or a Mental Disorder that Caused Extreme and Unpredictable Parenting.
What: A parent that is addicted to a substance or suffering from a mental or emotional disorder, causing them to be inconsistent, unavailable, and/or untrustworthy as a caregiver. Maybe they still suffer so they are promising to change but they never do. Perhaps they have moments of lucidity about the truth of what they’ve done but then they lapse backwards into their old absent disappointing behaviors. They can be selfish, erratic, deceptive, or completely vacant in their body and in your life.
Why: This one’s different that the rest of the list in that it is affected heavily by an external factor. When a person is trapped by an addiction or an emotional disorder that they do not find treatment for, they are almost “occupied” by that factor entirely. This is not to say they should be forgiven or that it’s okay – not at all. It’s to explain that they are very much a living dead person: trapped until this one major factor can be addressed. If they’re an active addict, they are serving one master: their addiction. It comes first over everything in their life, including caring for themselves and everything of value – like you. Yes, they are still conscious somewhere in there, buried deep under the affects of the altered chemicals – but they are not capable of being 100% here – where you need them to be, until they decide to get help. It is unfair, and very tragic, but it stems from their own issues with self-love and pain – and it is something they will have to choose to work on so that they can heal enough to confront what they have done and need to do to live.
If you are interacting with a parent like this, you are interacting with a devil of sorts – it’s blocked by their vice, which can cause you a lot of damage if you are not completely aware of that fact at all times. So if you are being caused a lot of pain, you will have to separate from them and maintain a boundary in order to heal. Before you allow them back into your life, you will have to learn how to take care of yourself and protect yourself from their problem. Because when it comes to addicts, you will be made a casualty again and again and unless you enter the relationship with very strict practices of self-care, it will destroy you with them. You must work on building the strength you need and attend to your well-being first, in order to be able to be of any help to them. It’s not selfish, it’s loving.
Addiction and to a certain extent, emotional and mental disorders will make parents into wrecking balls of safety in a kid’s life. So if you had a parent that was suffering, you likely had to manage a lot of pain, fear, anxiety and stress on a daily basis. Growing up without safety can create a series of mistruths in your understanding of yourself and of others, and can shatter your ability to trust. More importantly, it can create a massive waves in your adult life – in how you relate to your own kids or when you are trying to find a significant other.
What I would like you to focus on: If you aren’t already, I strongly recommend you go to Alanon meetings and pick up a copy of “Courage to Change” – the best book ever! This is my advice to everyone in this group, not just the kids of addicts/alcoholics. Why? Because the manifestations in kids are very similar and it will show you in the very first meeting whether or not you’re in the right place. You will hear others saying exactly how you feel now and realize immediately the affects you are unknowingly still suffering. This is a whole blog/podcast topic unto itself, but the short of it is, you were the casualty of illness and you need to reset your understanding of the world so that you don’t live out the false understanding you gained from that experience.
This dynamic has the power to manifest in more unexpected ways than you could imagine – because of the tactics you had to use to survive and take care of yourself. When you were a kid it was essential, now – it has to be healed so that you can find worthy others who will take care of you as much as you do, them. I say this because if you grew up with an unpredictable parent, you are likely a codependent. Codependents usually negate their needs for the needs of others in their relationships. Depending on the severity, you could be also unconsciously choosing damaged relationships as a result. If this sounds like you, I encourage you to look into reading about the topic. Reading recommendations? Yes indeed! Check them out here.
In all of these cases, this is not to explain it away as okay– it’s not to discount how big a deal it is or how much it affects you. It’s to help you make some sense of it – so that you can confront and accept them as they are, and then process the pain and hurt so that you have the opportunity to come back to this relationship in your life – anew. Because this too, is up to you. No matter your grudges, you get to decide if you want to have some semblance of a relationship with your parents and if so, how you need to prep yourself so that you can do that without having to be injured by them.
When it comes to their limits, they are who they are – and often, that’s not enough or what we needed. But in their own way, they likely tried their best to be good at raising you. And once you get past the processing part – what happens is you suddenly see them as that: these very flawed older people who didn’t know what they were doing, who had issues, but who tried very hard – and who love you. And once you see that and only that – you just feel love for them. You can give of yourself to them and just enjoy being with them, even as they spew their weird ism’s. It’s the reaction in you that disappears. And what’s amazing about that stage is you stop fulfilling the other half of the “yang” to their “yin.” You might even inspire them to see you in a new light: someone strong, healthy, grown up – not their child they need to protect. Someone amazing they should get to know again. So I know I’ve given you a lot to think about – and it’s an emotional subject, so if you have an estranged relationship with a parent – as you go through your reflection of this information, I will leave you with this topic to consider.
How would you wish to relate to parents moving forward? If it were possible. Minus the pain. Ask yourself, is there a chance you’d regret not doing things differently at the end of their life? What about the end of yours? Do you think at any point in your life that you think you might feel differently about them than you do now? Imagine when you’re 60 and they have passed away. Do you think there’s a chance you’ll regret not moving past this pain? Or embracing a better relationship with them? Because time changes a lot and sometimes your perception shifts. The reason to plan ahead is when they pass, often it brings up a whole slew of feelings we had stuffed deep down, refusing to address. So leave your options open – you don’t have to decide now, but at least allow yourself the option to consider it. Plan for the gifts you want to have in your lifetime in its entirety, now. Think on that long and hard. You don’t want to give up this time “just to be right” and things change. We grow and shed our anger. And one day you might wish something were different. You have a chance to decide that now. And if you want something more with them, work backwards from that goal. You can work toward a scenario that will accommodate your needs.
If this is too overwhelming and shrouded in pain, start by writing a list of your priorities for yourself – your pros and cons. For example, if it’s a big event coming up, what’s the biggest loss with and without them. But whatever you do, don’t decide your life based on hurt and punishment and resent. Because that’s just hurting you. Decide it based on what you want. Work backwards from that. And build the structure for yourself that’s required.
Because just like with any personal growth, you have to decide to do this healing. Then it takes doing the work. For YOU. So if you want to let it go of and hurt and resent, you can so that you can choose to have a better relationship moving forward. Even if that means you don’t interact with them – it’s just so YOU don’t have to hold onto the pain as a thing that’s allowed to currently hurt you. That’s the point of forgiveness: you deciding to let go of stuff that hurts you, so that you can be you – minus a deep wound. In a lot of situations, as you might imagine – you’re cutting them off as a way to punish them! As a way to make them know you are hurt and that they don’t deserve you. And in a lot of cases – they will hurt, and sometimes – not at all. They will be blind and broken, and totally in the dark.
Regardless, this is not about them. It’s about you. And your one life. What do you want for that life? No parents? Or flawed parents with a new different kind of relationship that works for you, minus the pain – and a relationship, nonetheless. Start with that question and work backwards to your answer. For you and your happiness.
Part 2: For the under 18 crowd still living with their parents.
How to deal if you’re living in their household or you are not old enough to take care of yourself:
Try to involve your parents. Tell them what you need. If you can’t do that for whatever reason:
- Find surrogates for what you are missing. Make sure you reach out to others who can help you. The worst thing you can do is isolate yourself because that’s when you get into a corner you can’t get out of on your own. When it comes to parents with denial, that’s a dangerous and devastating place to be – solo. So quite simply, begin finding role models, friends, teachers – whoever you know who you trust and that is stable, and grow a connection to them. Talk to them, be open about what’s going on in your life that you are struggling with. That means seek out adults who can support you if you need it: emotionally resource wise, and in an emergency. Get their cell phone numbers.
- Do your homework. Reach out to support groups online – don’t just lightly peruse topics, but curate the right research. I know that can be tough to sort through – especially when you’re alone and you’re a kid. So if you need help doing that homework, write to me! I will try my hardest to help you sift. There is a tribe out there for you. One who thinks just like you. You have to put in the time to sort accordingly. Don’t get discouraged at first-glance if you don’t see anything or anyone who thinks like you. I think a great way to find answers is message boards on related topics. Put in a call for help and people who have done their homework will often answer you. I know when it comes to particularly shame-inducing problems, it can be very hard to even ask an anonymous question to total strangers on the internet. Don’t let that get to you. Keep it anonymous! Push yourself to gather information! Be proactive about your own self-care. You cannot afford to not have the right help when you need it the most. Do not isolate, empower yourself. And know that in the long run, this will bring so much more to your character that you will be soooo grateful for. Literally – you will grow into a more interesting and powerful person because of this. As painful as it is, it’s almost a gift in disguise.
- Stay open and vocal as all hell! Your voice is your power. Stay connected to others and stay loud. Tell others when you need help, when you are scared, when you are suffering, when you are unsure of what to do. Get in the habit of being vocal outside of your comfort zone. EMPOWER YOURSELF and use that set of pipes!!! Don’t stop until you find the person capable of helping you and don’t get shy if people tell you to hush up. NEVER hush up – you have a right to take care of yourself and if you need help, there will be someone out there who can do what needs to be done.
I will be thinking of you and cheering for you– and know that you will be the coolest, most empowered adult because of this experience!
To you and to everyone, I send you my love and well wishes of support. And if you think there’s someone else who might benefit from this, by all means please share it! You are loved, you will be happy with or without their love. And you are worth loving. Smile y’all.
This one’s for Ken – thanks for the suggestion! This is a big topic and is sure to reach a lot of people – thank you!!
For more of my writing head to Teaspoonofhappy.com
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