Most parents have the deep instinct to protect small vulnerable beings, especially their own children. Some parents don’t. Some parents are too overwhelmed, unskilled, or caught up in their own point of view to notice when they are causing pain in someone else. Some parents enjoy causing pain.
Many people say we “should” remain connected to our parents no matter how much harm they caused, no matter how destructive it is to interact with them in the present.
It is true that there is a high cost to disconnecting from our family of origin and living without that foundation of support. Many people find it hard to imagine that sometimes the foundation of support was never there in the first place. The cost of remaining in contact can be higher than the cost of disconnection, even though disconnection can include profound loneliness.
Siblings from the same family can have completely different perspectives on the costs and benefits of remaining connected. One child might emerge relatively unscathed, while another child receives the brunt of overt abuse and becomes the family scapegoat. Because that child shows symptoms and names the problem, they are accused of causing or being the problem.
Often a person who works on healing from abuse appears “crazy” and broken, while other siblings continue to navigate family relationships as if nothing is wrong.
A survivor might choose different strategies for dealing with abusive parents at different stages in their life. When first remembering abuse, they might feel too fragile and too angry to interact with their parents at all. Or, they might love and need their parents alongside the abuse and remain in contact, perhaps in a more limited way.
Later, they might have more skills and resources to navigate the challenges of relating to abusive parents. Perhaps there are family members they enjoy, and it is easier to see everyone together. Or, they might want more distance than before.
Some abusive parents turn out to be great grandparents, and might behave better to ensure they get to see their grandchildren. Or, some survivors fiercely protect their children from exposure to grandparents who continue to be dangerous.
Change for the better
Perhaps the parents have openly acknowledged past abuse, apologized, and made amends as best they can. (Heartbreakingly, this is not the way to bet.) Even if they are still abusive, perhaps setting firm boundaries keeps them in check enough to forge a workable relationship.
Sometimes one person’s healing work is enough to shift a relationship into a better balance. Note: If a relationship does not improve, it means the healing person is not the source of the problems, not that they are not trying hard enough.
Sometimes abusive parents remain too dangerous for contact. They might continue to commit physical or sexual assault on a grown child.
Often they are still emotionally dangerous. If there is no acknowledgement of abuse, there is a powerful gaslighting effect when everyone acts as if nothing happened. It can also be triggering to visit a childhood home. A survivor can be catapulted into feeling as trapped and helpless as they felt as a child.
Difficult to leave
Even if the relationship is still damaging, some survivors are forced to remain in contact through financial ties or emotional enmeshment. Like other abusive relationships, there are complex reasons to stay, and leaving can be a long process. Whether it leads to eventual lack of contact or not, clarifying boundaries both internally and externally can help over time.
In his book “It Didn’t Start With You,” Mark Wolynn explores the idea that trauma is transmitted across generations, not just directly via unskilled or damaging parenting, but indirectly with mysteriously matching symptoms popping up unexpectedly.
He also explores parental bonds that are fractured by early childhood trauma or separations, even though the parents meant well. In that case, it can be deeply healing to reconnect with parents as an adult.
We can walk away from abuse. We can work on healing and acquiring the skills we missed growing up. We can do our best to create chosen families. We cannot erase our roots. Those are still the people who bore or adopted us, the family we came from, the details of what home tastes and smells and looks like imprinted deep in our bodies.
Whether it is possible for us to reconnect with our parents or not, it is useful to turn toward our roots and explore what trauma we might have inherited. We can explore our heritage of resilience as well, taking note of the survival skills we inherited.
Look for connections
Mark Wolynn suggests writing about a core issue or fear for a few minutes, allowing the words to flow onto the page. Take a break, and then read it over lightly, looking for phrases that seem especially charged or larger than the original issue.
For example, Sandy, the child of Holocaust survivors, carried an intense fear of closed spaces. Her writing included, “I can’t breathe. I can’t get out. I’m going to die.” She was carrying the terror of relatives who were murdered in gas chambers.
The historical connection might be clear, as in Sandy’s case, or it might take some family research to turn up a connection. If more family information is not available, we can “make up” a story to work with. We often know more than we realize, so the story can contain seeds of truth.
When we find or imagine a connection with a relative’s story, we can contact that relative in our imagination and kindly return their story to them and ask for their blessing. We can also simply return what is not ours to the earth.
Parents in context
We can use a similar process to see our parents in context. What traumas might they have inherited from past generations? What got in the way of their ability to parent with kind attunement?
What age are they in your memories of them? Perhaps you are older than that now and can see them as struggling young adults. Do you know of events around that time that might have affected how they treated you?
Seeing parents with compassion is not meant to erase childhood pain or justify their behavior. When we step back to look at childhood abuse in a wider context, we see that even though we were personally hurt, it was not about who we were or how we behaved. No one deserves abuse, no matter what.
Are there emotions or stories that you carry that belong to your parents? Imagine returning them to the earth and moving forward unburdened.
Whether we connect with our parents every day, once a year, or not at all, we can reduce the internal charge we carry toward them. When we see that abuse was not about who we are, we can release deep shame about not being seen and accepted. As we explore the history of our family, we can see ourselves held lovingly by past generations who wish us to be well and happy.
- It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn explores inherited trauma and tools for releasing it.