As kids, we typically look up to our parents for guidance, knowledge, and support. After all, we are born helpless and dependent and they have the height, the life experience, the keys, the driver’s license, the wallet, etc. This positive view of our parents can be psychologically adaptive; the belief that our parents are solid, equipped, and capable individuals helps us to feel like we are in good hands, supported by a solid foundation. Indeed, kids who sense that their parents are emotionally or physically unwell may feel anxious and try to take care of their parents or avoid adding stress to their parents.
In adolescence, we often develop a more ambivalent view of our parents. On the one hand, we are not ready for complete autonomy, as we still rely on them for some things. On the other hand, we yearn for more independence than we had as children, and start to value peer relationships over family connections. We may start to feel irritated with our parents, and this anger can help teenagers in their developmental task of individuating and developing a sense of self independent from the families, a precursor to healthy adulting.
If children sometimes idealize their parents, and teens sometimes devalue their parents, where does this leave adults? In short, it depends. Some adult struggle to work through the disillusionment and anger they feel toward their parents. This anger is valid; parents are not the idealized figures we thought they were in childhood. They have done a lot right, but they have also made some not-so-great decisions. How do we wrap our heads around the idea that our parents, who we love and who love us, have let us down in significant ways?
This can be especially tricky when we become parents ourselves, and reflect on how we were parented in the past. Often, adults will feel baffled and angry by the discrepancies in the care they strive to give their own children, versus the care they received as youth themselves. However, as parents, we are also increasingly aware that we are not fully formed perfect human beings as we raise our children, and sometimes this leads to an increased sense of empathy for the parents who raised us, often without access to parenting blogs, internet, therapy, or social support.
We can learn to hold both things as true at the same time; our parents love us and did their best, and also, they made some decisions that hurt us. The concept of Radical Acceptance from Dialectical Behaviour Therapy can be very useful here; namely, understanding that our parents are who they are, for many reasons that precede our very existence. In considering those factors, we may understand how they became who they are. We can learn to view our parents outside their role as our parents. We can remind ourselves to view them as three-dimensional humans with their own upbringings, families of origin, life stories, unprocessed wounds, strengths, and challenges. Like us, they do their best with the skills they have at the time, which can sometimes be limited.
As such, the goal is to view our parents in a middle-ground way, not with the idealized pedestal of childhood, and not with the devaluing rage of adolescence. This doesn’t necessarily mean forgiving our parents for things they have done. However, it does mean accepting (and grieving) that our parents may be able to show up for us in certain ways but not in others, that they are who they are, and letting go of expectations for them to be another way.
One thing that helps with accepting our parents is that, as adults, we are now capable of parenting ourselves. We can show up for ourselves in the ways we wish others would. For some, this means validating our emotions compassionately without minimizing or dismissing. For others, this can mean reminding ourselves that we are capable and resilient people who can do hard things. We can also choose reparative attachment relationships where we feel secure. Therapy can be one of those reparative experiences, as can friendships or other close relationships. The fact that we are no longer dependent on our parents in adulthood can free us up to accept our parents as they are – individuals who love us, and did the best they could with what they had at the time. This can be emotional to process, and can bring up a lot, but the relief that accompanies acceptance can be well worth the work. J
 McKay, M. (2019). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance.