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Healing The Emotional Scars Of Hurtful Parents

10/29/2015 12:26 EDT | Updated 10/29/2016 05:12 EDT
Christian MartA-nez Kempin via Getty Images
Father and son talking

Our feelings toward our parents can be complicated. What we feel depends on how they treated us when we were growing up and how they treat us today. Also, we often go along with how our society tells us we should feel toward our folks.

If we have loving, supportive parents, we love them back and appreciate everything they did for us. It gets more complicated when our parents were less-than-ideal. If they failed us in some way, neglected, rejected, or abused us, we grow up with emotional wounds and unmet needs for love, care and validation which then affect how we feel about our parents as adults.

Bad things that happened to us in childhood usually lead us to believe that it was our own fault. Society tells us to be good to our parents, and children typically blame themselves for any problems in the parent-child relationship.

Rather than holding our parents accountable for how they treated us, children take responsibility for what happened and then try to change themselves in order to finally win the love that Mom or Dad were unwilling or unable to give.

What children don't realize is that when our parents hurt or reject us, it has nothing to do with what's lacking in us and everything to do with their inability to love and accept their children.

It's easier for us to blame ourselves because it's preferable to facing the unthinkable fact that our parents have let us down in some way. This is an extremely painful realization to come to terms with. Most people would rather do anything than accept this truth. Not only is it painful; it's humiliating. Having hurtful or inadequate parents causes us to feel shame.

Even when we recognize that what we experienced in childhood was never about our own failings, we don't like the idea of admitting to other people that we grew up with parents who were hurtful or rejecting. There's always the fear that they'll wonder what we did to deserve it. It's also hard to silence the voice of the "inner critic" which tells us that it really was our fault.

Paradoxically, people who were loved and accepted while growing up have a much easier time separating from their parents than those who were neglected, rejected, or abused. A secure, loving attachment during childhood leads to a healthy ability to detach as an adult. People with a healthy attachment to Mom and Dad are able to see their parents as they really are and can challenge them and question them when necessary.

People who grew up with a poor attachment to their parents have a much harder time letting go as adults. They tend to over-idealize their parents and have enmeshed relationships with them in adulthood, as they try to curry favour and finally win the elusive approval of Mom and Dad.

The more our parents neglected or rejected us as children, the more we seek their approval through trying to please them as adults. Loving parents create confident, self-loving adults who won't accept mistreatment from anyone. Hurtful or inadequate parents raise children who are riddled with self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy, and who go on to be people-pleasers, first with their parents and then with the rest of the world.

Loving parents never make their children feel guilty for any of the love and care they're receiving, and never make the children feel responsible for taking care of the parents' emotional or physical needs. Dysfunctional parents, on the other hand, let their children know how "burdened" they've been by their children and how many "sacrifices" they've had to make in order to raise them.

Children who were well-loved don't feel indebted to their parents and aren't driven by guilt or shame to attend to their parents' needs as adults. Children who were hurt or neglected, on the other hand, believe that it's a child's ongoing role to care for their parents. These people are driven by a powerful sense of guilt and obligation.

Loved children grow into adults who are happy to be there for their folks when there's a valid need. On the other hand, loving parents are reluctant to impose upon their adult children; not wanting to be a burden on them.

Hurt or neglected children grow into adults who have a very hard time refusing their parents' demands. They keep hoping that by being "good," "nice" and "helpful," they'll finally get their parents to give them the love, care and validation they've been waiting for.

For those who grew up with hurtful or neglectful parents, they need to see that pleasing and care-taking their parents today won't bring them the love and validation they need. Even if their parents finally do see the light and become more loving and attentive, it won't heal their wounds of childhood or meet their needs for validation today.

Instead of being pleasing to their parents (or other people), those who grew up without adequate parental love and care must take responsibility for themselves and work on healing their emotional wounds and meeting their own needs, as adults. Counseling or therapy can help them do this.

If you grew up with inadequate or hurtful parents, you must understand that first, it wasn't your fault, and second, healing doesn't involve your parents. You can get over a painful or neglectful childhood, not by trying to get your parents to understand you or to change, but by doing your own personal growth work.

Trying to please your hurtful or neglectful Mom and Dad is, in a way, rewarding them for having been poor parents. Whether their behaviour was deliberate or inadvertent, it's not necessary or helpful to you to remain enmeshed with them as adults.

Instead of trying to get your parents to love and validate you today, you'd be better off facing the truth about them, giving up your futile attempts at winning their love and focusing your attention instead on developing the self-love and self-confidence that your childhood deprived you of.

If you do that, you'll be able to give up your people-pleasing and be able to have relationships with peers who are capable of loving and accepting you, just as you are.

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