- Continually blaming parents can keep an adult stuck in the past.
- Parents are not the only contributors to individual identity. Temperament, genetics, and other relationships and experiences are also influences.
- Expressing current wants and needs can improve a person's relationship with parents.
In therapy offices and casual conversations, it’s common to hear people complain about how their parents “messed them up.” Maybe the parents were too hovering or uninvolved, too strict or too permissive, too critical or too unaware, too demanding or not demanding enough. Or maybe the parents just weren't "there" for them in a way the adult child wished.
Adult children sometimes blame their parents for everything negative in their lives: lack of motivation, poor self-confidence, career uncertainty, overwork, fears, anger, loneliness, conflict, relationship break-ups, and more.
There’s a developmental shift in how we view our parents. When we’re young children, our parents seem god-like in their power. As teens working on creating our separate identities, we’re often acutely aware of our parents’ failings. Once we reach adulthood, ideally, we have a more balanced view of our parents, clearly seeing their strengths and weaknesses, in perspective and even with tenderness.
If you're an adult but still in the stage of focusing on your parents' flaws, maybe it's because what they did was terrible and devastating. Or maybe it has more to do with you being stuck in a blame trap that hurts you more than them.
Some parents truly are viciously abusive and horribly neglectful. Mental illness or addiction can create nightmare situations for children. In no way am I defending or excusing abuse. But that’s a different topic.
What I’m talking about are more ordinary but painful circumstances. Maybe your parents got divorced then remarried, and that was hard for you. Maybe your family moved at a difficult time for you. Maybe you had what felt like too much responsibility at home because your parents worked long hours to support the family, or you had a sibling with special needs. Maybe your parents expected more from you than from a younger sibling. Maybe money was tight, and you couldn’t do things your classmates got to do. Maybe your parents were often critical, or they sometimes teased you in a way that felt hurtful. All of these family situations are common, but they can be very stressful for kids.
Reasons to Let Go of Blaming Your Parents
I don’t know your particular situation, but here are some reasons why you might want to consider moving past blaming your parents, even if they did things that made you feel hurt or upset.
1) Blaming your parents is a dead end.
It might be useful to think about how your experiences growing up contribute to what’s going on in your life now but staying focused on blaming your parents keeps you stuck in the past.
You may be absolutely correct that your parents should have done something differently, but then what? Yelling at them and telling them they’re terrible won’t undo the past. Even if your parents admit and apologize for their every mistake, it doesn’t erase what happened. And it doesn’t get you where you want to be.
Dwelling on your parent’s mistakes can be defensive, and it may be easier than facing your fears, disappointments, and uncertainties about your own life decisions. In some cases, adult children can even get caught in a self-defeating pattern of making unhealthy choices because they want to “get back at” their parents and “prove” how much their parents harmed them. The more you focus on what they did wrong, the less mental energy you have to think about how you want to move forward with your life.
2) There’s no such thing as a perfect parent.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your parents always instinctively knew what you needed at every moment and were able to provide exactly that? Wouldn’t it be great if they were always cheerful, patient, and available?
Unfortunately, parents are human, and the job of being a parent is difficult. Raising children can be a joy, but it's also exhausting, stressful, frustrating, tedious, and unrelenting. Kids are often messy, noisy, and unreasonable. Plus, parents have other demands, such as jobs, housework, meals, carpools, and other family obligations that pull their attention and energy in different directions.
Expecting your parents to be perfectly attuned to you at all times is unrealistic. There’s also no such thing as a perfect childhood. Life is hard. You may wish that your childhood had been easier or better somehow, but everyone faces challenges. In close relationships, tension and arguments sometimes happen. People also respond in less-than-perfect ways when they’re tired or stressed. You've probably had moments of being irritable, impatient, insensitive, or annoying with other people in your life. Why would parents be any different? As Lisa D’Amour points out, “Parents are just ordinary people who happen to have had children.”
3) The context matters.
It’s important to understand whatever mistakes your parents made in the context. That context includes the stresses and resources they had at the time, including their own upbringing. It's harder for parents to respond in healthy ways to their children if they have no model of how to do so because they never received caring responses from their parents. Understanding where your parents came from doesn't excuse bad behavior, but it makes it easier to let go of blame.
We all bring a unique set of strengths and weaknesses to the job of being a parent. Your parent might have been a terrible housekeeper but a great playmate, or a poor playmate but great support in a crisis, or a wreck in a crisis but an inspiration for your love of nature and always kind to your friends. Focusing on what your parents were able to give you may help lessen your anger about their mistakes and move away from all-or-nothing thinking.
Intentions also matter. Few parents deliberately try to make their kids suffer, and they do the best they can, given their abilities and circumstances. Sometimes, even with good intentions, they do things that hurt their children’s feelings. For example, critical parents often believe that their comments are helpful, not hurtful. This doesn’t make their comments okay, but recognizing their intention makes it easier to deal with them and talk about them. Love means trying again.
4) Your parents aren’t the only factor influencing you.
Our parents are our first relationships, our first role models and our first mirrors, helping us figure out who we are. But they are certainly not the only contributors to where we are today!
We are all born with a particular temperament and genetically based characteristics. We have other relationships with friends, relatives, neighbors, classmates, teachers, coaches, sweethearts, coworkers, bosses… We also make decisions about what we want to do and how we want to act.
The older you are, the more your current life circumstances have to do with your own choices (including, perhaps, the choice to seek therapy)—plus a certain amount of luck—rather than what your parents did or didn’t do. Choose wisely.
5) Are you being judgmental?
Most parents love their kids and care deeply about being good parents. Although it may not be intentional, you may be passing judgment on your parent by insisting, “You were a bad parent!” This is hurtful, and feels the same as saying, “You are a terrible person!”
It also comes across arrogant. Would you want someone to sit in judgment, picking apart imperfect things you’ve said or done?
Putting your parents (or anyone) down is not kind, and not helpful to you or them.
Focus on Moving Forward, Beyond Blame
So, does this mean you should ignore whatever your parents did that upsets you? Of course not. You don’t have to get trapped in false choices between blaming your parents or blaming yourself, cutting off contact with your parents, or lashing out at them. Here are some other options:
1) Ask parents for what you want or need now.
No one can change what happened in the past, but you may be able to improve your relationship with your parents now. Tell them, “I need you to _______ because _______.” Notice that this statement starts with “I” rather than an accusatory “You.” It also focuses on what you want them to do, rather than what they shouldn’t. It will be easier for them to hear you if you tell them calmly, at a neutral moment, rather than yelling it in the heat of an argument.
If the problem has been going on for a long time, you may need to say this more than once. If your parents dismiss your request, repeat it. If they forget, remind them. “I mean it. This is important to me. I really need you to ______ because _______.” Long-established patterns probably won't change instantly.
Other phrases that might be useful include: “It would mean a lot to me if you would ________” and “It upsets me when you _______. Could you please ________?”
2) Connect based on what you can share
You’re not a kid anymore, and you’ve changed. Your parents probably have, too. It may be possible to create a new and different relationship with them by focusing on the areas where you can connect. Often people who weren’t great parents can be wonderful grandparents. Or, you may find that your relationship with your parents works best if you concentrate on certain activities or avoid others. For example, it may be easy to chat about sports, but best to avoid political discussions.
3) Look at your parents with kind eyes
Try to find compassion for your parents. They probably did the best they could, under the circumstances. You can condemn the behavior without condemning the person. You can forgive someone for hurting you, even if they don't recognize their wrong-doing, just because you don't want to carry the burden of resentment. You can choose to see your parents as flawed and struggling but also well-meaning and lovable human beings, just like you.
A side benefit of seeing your parents with compassion is that it may become easier to find compassion for yourself.
© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD