Why Childhood Feelings Toward Your Parents Still Matter

Young child sits on a bench looking down, arms crossed over chestSome people say they do not want to come out of therapy blaming their parents for everything. After all, their parents did the best they could at the time, especially with what they were given—so leave them out of it.

A therapist once told me that if you end therapy still angry at your parents, then you haven’t gone far enough.

Some people come to therapy with a lot of apparent, upfront anger toward mom and/or dad. Others are wary of saying anything negative about the people who raised them. Rarely does either of these versions of parents represent a full understanding of who they were or who they have become.

Seeing Your Parents as If You Are Still a Child

A major task in treatment is to understand who your parents were to you through how you saw them as a child. I know, you’re not still a child, but often we didn’t get to express those full-throttle feelings when we were kids. Luckily, we get to do so now—and it can be extraordinarily helpful to us as adults.

As a child, perhaps you didn’t fully understand that a parent didn’t attend any of your baseball games because they had to work overtime in order to provide for you; you just experienced hurt and anger that they weren’t there. Your parent had a valid reason not to be there, but that doesn’t mean your feeling wasn’t also valid. As an adult (who may be missing your own child’s games because you have to work), there may be guilt on top of the anger and hurt you felt. Perhaps you’re ashamed you were ever upset. Seeing the situation through an adult lens, you think: “They were doing something for me, so how dare I be angry?”

Therapy says to let yourself be angry. Feel the anger. Feel it deeply. This way, you don’t squelch it and have it come out somewhere else, perhaps in passive-aggressive remarks to your own children; over-emphasizing every game, play, and recital your kids have; or avoiding conversations with your parents for fear you’ll “lose it” with them. Consequently, you don’t wind up judging yourself for having those reactions.

Attachment Style Without Logic

You also had an understanding of your parents pre-verbal memory. Did they come when you cried? Maybe they did most of the time, maybe they weren’t very quick about it, or maybe they never left you. You were an infant, so you didn’t know they were also taking care of a sibling, going to the bathroom, heating up your bottle, or just needing a rest. Attachment theory shows us that these early experiences, apart from the logical reasons behind them, matter a lot for us now.

Therapy says to let yourself be angry. Feel the anger. Feel it deeply.

I want to reiterate that the object is not to blame your parents. It’s not to be mad and stay mad.

We do damage to ourselves when we refuse to fully express and feel our feelings. That’s not a license to punch someone, break things, or intentionally hurt someone’s feelings. Therapy is tailor-made for the space to express your deepest self. It’s a safe space to face fears of abandonment, retaliation, or ungratefulness, any of which (and more) your therapist should be trained to be on the lookout for and provide an alternative to.

You may have felt any number of difficult feelings toward even the most loving, present, and available parent. Those feelings, your feelings, are valuable. And they’re not going to just go away.

So if it’s hate you felt, express it. So you can love even more deeply.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, MSW, LCSW, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Melanie

    August 4th, 2016 at 11:08 AM

    I hated both of my parents for a very long time. They got divorced when I was so young and then neither of them ever seemed really happy to me and I guess that sort of rubbed off on me and the way I felt about the both of them. Unfair or not we have always had a strained relationship and it has not been until pretty recently that we have all reconciled and have somewhat of a decent relationship again. I regret that I will not ever have that time back with them though.

  • Justin Lioi

    August 4th, 2016 at 2:23 PM

    Melanie, Thanks so much for sharing what must have been very painful. I’m glad you’re feeling better about the way the relationships are moving. Best, Justin

  • dustin

    August 5th, 2016 at 7:14 AM

    You think that you will outgrow these feelings but I think that as you mature into an adult many times the feelings only become more pronounced and even stronger somehow.
    I guess that as an adult you realize the true gravity of those feelings whereas when you are a child the main thing you might feel is hurt and sadness.
    I think that as an adult much of this will instead morph into anger.

  • Justin Lioi

    August 5th, 2016 at 4:52 PM

    Dustin, there are so many things that it can morph into, and anger is a very prominent one. Time doesn’t heal wounds, because avoiding doesn’t heal anything. Thanks so much for writing.

  • Herbert

    August 5th, 2016 at 5:23 PM

    Wonderfully written. I am working towards taking my MFT exam. Wow your amazing.

  • Justin Lioi

    August 6th, 2016 at 8:18 AM

    That’s very kind of you to say. Good luck with your test!

  • Mae

    August 6th, 2016 at 7:38 AM

    Of course they still matter.
    This is how you were molded.

  • Justin Lioi

    August 6th, 2016 at 8:26 AM

    So true, Mae. Thanks for your comment.

  • Jess

    August 8th, 2016 at 8:17 AM

    MY parents still treat me like a kid and I am 28 years old. What more can I do to get them stop being so overbearing? I am ready to strike out on my own, get married, have a family and I don’t want them constantly hovering like they both still do.

  • Justin Lioi

    August 8th, 2016 at 9:58 AM

    Jess, in therapy it’s rare for us to talk about getting other people to change. We focus on the person who’s seeking the help and what they can do to better activate the life they want. I don’t know if you’re in treatment, but counseling can help you with setting boundaries, learn to deal with the possible ramifications of doing so, and take the steps forward that you want to take. I’d start to think about any times that you’ve successfully taken steps apart from your parents and focus on the strength you showed in doing that. Then build from there. Best of luck. Justin

  • Roxanne

    August 9th, 2016 at 2:25 PM

    Because these are the feelings that run so deep! They are your parents and you are taught that you love them unconditionally but when you feel like this is not reciprocated there can be a whole lot fo confusion that surrounds those feelings!

  • Justin Lioi

    August 9th, 2016 at 5:01 PM

    Very true, Roxanne. Thanks for your thoughts.

  • Erika

    August 12th, 2016 at 2:14 PM

    No matter how old I get I am still the people pleaser, always doing things with little regard to how they make me feel, just trying to make everyone else happy.

  • Justin Lioi

    August 13th, 2016 at 12:51 PM

    Yes–often those patterns get laid down very early. Thanks for writing, Erika!

  • Hannah

    June 20th, 2018 at 5:57 AM

    Uh, no. I’m angry at my mother because she emotionally abused me and neglected my medical care (left me with a broken ankle for days) and would force me to apologise to my dad when he screamed at me for no reason. Oh and refused to believe me when he hit me. What freaking extra curriculars?

  • Sarah

    July 3rd, 2018 at 6:34 AM

    I would love an article on what to do now that I am the parent. I know my kids will have anger towards my partner and me as parents. What can we do to help them have the best chance of becoming adults with an emotionally healthy perspective on angry childhood experiences?

  • Åse

    July 4th, 2018 at 2:57 AM

    I am a child psychologist and I would recomend COS-P (circle of security parenting). It is a parenting reflection program.

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