Parents in Perspective

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are holidays that can bring up feelings of gratitude and appreciation for those of us lucky enough to have genuinely kind, loving and supportive parents. But for those who had parents who were emotionally, physically or sexually abusive or neglectful, it is harder to conjure up such positive emotions. Instead, resentment, grief and anger can be accompanied with family-oriented holidays. How can we deal with these negatively feelings constructively, especially when we’re reminded of not having had our developmental needs met well?

Sometimes it helps to put their behavior in perspective. There is an old adage that is almost a cliché at this point: “They did the best they could with the knowledge/understanding they had at the time.” This is true, usually, but it doesn’t do much for our hurt feelings. Let’s take it a bit deeper by considering what the parents might have experienced. What kind of people hurt others, intentionally or otherwise, repeatedly? Often they are people whose modeling for empathy, understanding, fairness and kindness were extremely flawed. These types of people learned to survive by being cold, self-centered, and ruthlessly dominant. They might have grown up in a situation where their survival depended on “dog eat dog” mentality and not had anyone show them that children deserve respect, dignity and kindness. This does not excuse their bad behavior, but it does indicate that they were disadvantaged from the start as parents, and as human beings. On the other hand, some parents were coddled as parents and never given any kind of realistic, consistent boundaries. They concluded that they could do whatever they wanted to whomever they chose, and would get away with it because their parents didn’t teach them any better. They may seem to have “had it good” because they were spoiled materially or in terms of favoritism, but again, they are disadvantaged in a different way. Having an unrealistic set of expectations about how others should treat them makes them entitled, narcissistic and very difficult to be around; as a result they were ill-prepared for socialization from the start. Having compassion for them is sometimes a stretch, but it’s ultimately more healing that holding onto grudges and lusting after revenge. Detaching from what they did this way might start the process of cultivating compassion for themselves and for yourself as well.

In either case, these parents lacked the basic empathy needed to be decent, loving parents and it doesn’t just affect their relationships with you. They are also unable to have truly deep, intimate relationships with mutual respect and enjoyment with other people as well. Their marriages and friendships likely have suffered from their limitations. When you consider all this, you realize that they have suffered as well, and while it doesn’t make your suffering any less or greater than theirs, you can acknowledge it as a damaging situation all around.

It also helps to think about how to protect yourself from being treated this way by them and other people as well. You might consider asking them to behave differently when interacting with you, for example. If they cannot do that, or do it consistently, then you might limit how much interaction you have with them. If they are particularly invasive and toxic, you might have to take a break from interacting with them until your boundaries become stronger and healthier, so that you can stand up for yourself when you’re around them and they do something objectionable. It’s important that you have options now, because you’re an adult and can support and protect yourself.

You may not have had the mother or father you hoped for, and Mother’s or Father’s Day might still be a difficult day. However, if you are able to step back from those hurt feelings, it might be an OK day in spite of your childhood circumstances.

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