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The Pain of Peer Parental Privilege

One of those “stings” we encounter on our relational trauma recovery journeys. 

Key points

  • Parental peer privilege is the experience that those from "normal" backgrounds may hold.
  • This kind of "privilege" can be particularly triggering for those from relational trauma backgrounds.
  • When we feel parental peer privilege pain, we can validate our feelings and connect with those who relate.

“Oh, we could have never afforded a home in Berkeley if our parents hadn’t given us the down payment!”

“I remember when I got my first job, my dad taught me how to negotiate my salary, set up my 401K, and make my first budget.”

“My mom is my best friend. Whenever hard things happen, I call her first.”

Each and every one of these statements is a comment I’ve had an acquaintance from my life say to me over the last five years.

And each and every one of these statements is an example of the parental privilege so many people who don’t come from relational trauma backgrounds hold and yet don’t often recognize.

Each of these statements can create pain, jealousy, and resentment for those of us who do come from relational trauma backgrounds and who are, very specifically, upwardly mobile and attempting to be a kind of first in our family (first to go to college, to break the poverty cycle, to hold a professional job and navigate middle-class structures and systems, to consciously and ardently attempt to raise our children in a non-traumatizing way, etc.).

I wanted to shine a light on this specific experience when we–as upwardly mobile individuals from relational trauma backgrounds–hear comments like these. The experience is one of those “stings” that so many of us encounter on our relational trauma recovery journeys.

A reminder and a rekindling of grief and frustration that we don’t necessarily have the privilege of functional, healthy, devoted, and resourced parents and guardians to turn to when life gets hard, confusing, or complex.

Instead, many of us could never even dream of letting our children have a sleepover at their grandparents’ house because of legitimate concerns about their physical and emotional safety.

Instead of being able to turn to a parent and get exactly the emotional salve we need, we often get the opposite (if not the total absence) of what we need.

Rather than being able to rely on grandparents for babysitting or a savvy parent to help guide us through making good financial decisions, we pay for our community and our support: a vetted babysitter, a financial planner, and a trusted, safe therapist.

I want to acknowledge that if you, like me, are upwardly mobile and on a relational trauma recovery journey, these contrasting experiences can sometimes (okay, often) feel painful.

It’s normal and natural to imagine how much easier life would be if you did have healthy, functional parents to rely on for emotional, logistical, and financial support.

It’s normal and natural to feel jealous, angry, and resentful of your peers for having what you do not and never will have (and them not even being aware of what an incredible privilege it is that they have this).

It’s normal and natural to feel the pain of peer parental privilege on your upwardly mobile relational trauma recovery journey. You will encounter others who had and have such incredibly different experiences, resources, and assets than you do.

I know this pain of parental peer privilege well myself.

And, inevitably, so do the bulk of the clients who choose to work with me as their therapist on their relational trauma recovery journeys.

And the question almost always comes up–for them and me–what do I do with this pain?

Am I just supposed to feel it?

Yes. You are supposed to feel it. It’s a legitimate and important emotion that’s being evoked (again).

One of the best ways we can support ourselves on our relational trauma recovery journeys is to allow ourselves permission to grieve the abstract losses of our life for as long as it takes.

The pain of parental peer privilege evokes those abstract losses, so, importantly, you must allow yourself to feel the anger, grief, and all other attendant feelings that come up when you’re triggered.

Letting yourself feel your feelings sends a message to the child inside of you that his/her/their feelings matter.

That they get to feel sad and angry. And that it’s okay.

You give yourself a reparative re-parenting experience when you acknowledge how upset it makes you that your peers with whom you now move in social circles have so much more than you.

And yes, I think there is a balance between feeling our feelings and employing cognitive tools to frame our thoughts, create more flexibility in our thinking, and shift us into different feeling states.

Two of the tools I like to use when the pain of parental peer privilege is evoked include:

  1. Reframing what it says about me and my capacities, given how far I’ve come and that I did it without parental privilege. Very few people truly get to wear the self-made or cycle breaker label.
  2. Getting in touch with and/or exposing myself to others who can relate to the experience of not having parental privilege so that my experience feels normalized and validated.

Generally, employing both of these tools can help shift my thinking and my experience to a more grounded, empowered, and validated state (but, again, I do always validate the painful feelings I feel first).

The next time the pain of parental peer privilege is evoked, try these tools after acknowledging and validating your feelings and see if they can support you.

And if you would like help from a trauma therapist to support your relational trauma recovery journey, the directory on Psychology Today is a wonderful place to start looking for a therapist.

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