Talking about your parents in therapy does not mean that you are blaming them.
One of the first steps of therapy includes what is referred to as “History Taking”-your relationship with your parents is a part of your history. The information gathered around that will help guide and create the most effective treatment plan for you.
The things that happen to us in our childhood have a profound impact on who we become as adults, so why would we resist exploring it?
Here are some common reasons you may feel resistant to talk about your relationship with your parents in therapy...
1. “I’m not here to talk about my past- I want to fix my present.”
Sometimes the fastest way forward is achieved by going backward. The issues that we are struggling with in the present are most often patterns that have been playing out in our lives since childhood. By understanding the origins of these patterns, we can learn how to effectively deal with them.
We learn how to handle situations by the behaviors of those around us. The earliest examples of this in most cases would be our parents. Beliefs, thoughts, and behaviors can be passed down generationally- in other words, our past makes up a part of who we are today. In order to change these patterns that have been passed down which are no longer serving us, we have to understand where they came from.
When we have experienced trauma or any form of distress, parts of ourselves may become stuck. These stuck parts may show up in our present day in the face of triggering experiences. If we ignore our past and don’t acknowledge and attend to these stuck parts, how can we expect to become "un-stuck"?
2. “I’m not a victim- my childhood was fine.”
Identifying pain doesn’t mean that you are a victim- it just simply means that something happened (or didn’t happen) which caused you to feel distress. Your childhood doesn’t have to be defined as “traumatic” to earn space to talk about in therapy. It’s okay if you had a “fine” childhood and you still need therapy.
It can be helpful to talk about the good times as well as the not-so-good times. The happy memories may help to offset any feelings of shame that come up when talking about the tougher stuff. The positive experiences and connections we have/had with our parents can serve as a window into present day (attachment) resources that we are needing.
Just because you may be talking about negative experiences or feelings toward your parents doesn’t equate to hating them or thinking that they are innately bad. It’s impossible to be happy with someone 100% of the time. You shouldn’t have to hold yourself to this standard with your parents simply because their title is: "parent".
Talking about your parents in therapy is not about criticizing them. It’s about finding acceptance and compassion for their limitations and how those limitations affected how you view yourself and the world.
There may be a moment that comes up where we feel the need to say: “But, they’re not all bad.” I invite you to notice the desire to protect their character- but allow yourself to not play into that role for a moment. You’re allowed to be upset with parts of them and speak your truth without needing to defend them afterward.
3. “I always had a roof over my head and a meal on my plate.”
It’s not just about whether your physical needs were met, it’s also about whether your emotional needs were met. Physical needs and emotional needs are two separate things. Trying to compare them is like trying to compare asparagus to anxiety- it just doesn’t make sense because they have absolutely nothing in common with each other.
Assessing for emotional needs looks like:
-Did you feel safe?
-Did you feel seen for who you are as a person?
-Did you feel like your feelings and opinions mattered?
Just because someone provides for you physically (or financially) doesn’t mean that they gave you everything you needed. We can have our physical needs met and still feel neglected emotionally.
A message that has been given to a lot of us is: if you compare your pain to others your pain won’t feel as bad.
Examples of this could look like:
-If you fell and scraped your knee and your parents said: “Well you didn’t break your leg- so how bad is it really?”
-You expressed sadness about losing a grandparent and your parents said: "Well at least you had time with them- some kids don't even get to meet their grandparents, so you should just be grateful."
-You became upset about something (big or small) and instead of curiosity or comfort your parent's said: "I'll give you a real reason to be upset."
Yes, sometimes it is helpful to widen our lens and explore comparisons to help regulate ourselves. But this shouldn’t be the only way we digest or make sense of our experiences. Doing this too often may create a pattern of ignoring your emotions like: disappointment, anger, sadness, or anxiety.
Sometimes, the pain is just bad- no matter who you compare it to. It's okay to validate that something is painful without dulling it by comparing it to someone else's experience. These emotions (as uncomfortable as they may be) are important to feel and experience because they help guide us to make safe decisions that align with our core self and values.
4. “I don’t remember much from when I was growing up.”
Our brains naturally tend to block out or blur painful memories and experiences. Sometimes, it can feel "easier" to believe that we are “fine” than to face the reality that we may be struggling.
This serves as a protective function that may have helped us survive thought a traumatic experience. It is not uncommon for people to gloss over difficult experiences, pretend they never happened, or have dissociated fragmented memories.
It may be painful to talk about our past, and that’s an understandable reason to be avoidant of the topic. Resourcing or developing coping tools and skills may be a necessary first step before you and your therapist begin exploring your relationship with your parents.
It is important to acknowledge that the resurfacing of these memories may cause increased distress. Sometimes it feels worse before it feels better. This is why it is important to discuss containment strategies or other resources to help manage potential dysregulation.
5. “We don’t talk about our family business to strangers.”
There are a lot of families who have unspoken rules about not discussing certain topics with outsiders. This could be because there is a lot of shame or secrecy surrounding the topic. Maybe it’s something that’s seen as embarrassing, or maybe it’s just too painful to talk about.
There are many different cultures that encourage and embrace this message. Remember that your therapist isn’t a stranger- he/she is a safe person/place to share with. The foundation of therapy is built on the belief that everything (except risk of harm to self or others) will be kept confidential. Only you and your therapist will know of the content shared within a session.
It’s natural to want to protect your parents from pain, but the goal of therapy is for you to feel better- not for them. It’s okay to talk about the tough stuff. It may be difficult at first, but it will get easier with time. Therapy can and should provide a safe space to explore these topics in more depth because as we said before: Sometimes the fastest way forward is by going backward.
Annabella Lipson is a Mental Health Counselor at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
She enjoys working with young adults & adults who are dealing with stress, anxiety, grief, PTSD and other challenges.
Annabella incorporates a combination of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), EMDR Therapy, Ego-state Interventions and Mindfulness practices with her clients.