How To Repair Your Relationship With Your Parents After A Rough Childhood
Around 2006, I was an emotional wreck.
My family was going through deep financial hardship. I felt like we had lost everything.
My father lost his business, I lost my chance at a college education, and every month we were on the brink of losing a place to sleep.
I was angry…really angry. It wasn’t even at one thing specifically — just an ongoing frustration and rage burning within.
I took my problems out on my girlfriend and some friends. But regrettably, my parents took the real brunt of it. They would often just say something, not even worthy of a terse response, and I would blow up on them.
I’m not proud of the things I’ve said and I’ve worked damn hard to manage my emotions and the ways I express them.
It was a long journey but now my parents and I are the best we’ve ever been. Here’s what helped me process everything and repair my relationship with them. Maybe my experience can help you fix things with your folks, too.
Understand that it’s not all on you
Back then, I blamed myself for everything that went wrong in my life.
I beat myself up because…
I was the irresponsible teenager who blew his money when he could have saved it to contribute to the family. I was the guy who was controlling and ruined his romantic relationships. I was a man who struggled with anger problems and pushed people away.
But what I failed to realize was that even though I was the one doing those things, those behaviors stemmed directly from my upbringing. Those habits were rooted in the influence of my parents.
And now I know that I’m not the only one who’s carrying around childhood baggage:
Men come to me feeling like socially anxious losers because their parents forced them to stay home and study instead of hanging out with friends. Some guys wrestle with sexual shame because they were raised with religious values that taught them sex was wrong and dirty. Other men can’t be vulnerable because they learned to protect themselves from their father’s vicious temper.
We are a product of nature AND nurture.
And as I’ve become more experienced in my career, I’ve seen just how much our childhood affects us well into our adult lives.
We need to work to overcome habits, beliefs, trauma, and abuse instilled in us by our caregivers. And sometimes that starts by putting some of the blame on them.
Find the source to forgive yourself
When you’re young, you’re like a sponge. You absorb whatever is thrown at you, and you’ve got little say in the matter.
It’s your parents’ job to protect you the best they can. That’s why you’re labeled as a “dependent” and a minor.
So when you’re being hard on yourself for your imperfections, you don’t need to shoulder the blame all on your own. If you trace your behaviors back to the source, you will most likely find your parents in there somewhere.
You need to forgive yourself for your shortcomings and show yourself compassion. Sometimes the first step to get there is digging into the role your parents had in your current struggles.
Remember how I was beating myself up earlier? When I traced those behaviors back to their source I discovered…
My father always had spending issues and therefore I never learned the value of a dollar. My mom chose controlling boyfriends while I watched helplessly, so I compensated by trying to control my own relationships. My mom had an unpredictable, fiery temper, so I felt it was reasonable to express my emotions in the same way.
Discovering this correlation gave me immense clarity and surprisingly…comfort.
For the first time, I wasn’t trapped by my demons. I knew I wasn’t the only one at fault. This guided me to the next step in repairing our relationship: getting even more angry.
Release the anger
We often sit inside our own minds, ruminating about our frustrations towards those who’ve wronged us.
So stirring up your anger may seem counterproductive when you’re trying to heal. But you’re already mad, so bottling it up and then exploding at people is not a solution. Instead, you’ve got to try and process it and release its hold over you. To start, you should…
Channel your anger wisely.
If you’ve never done it before, give yourself a dedicated day or week to get those feelings out. Write down all the reasons you’re mad at your parents. Journal about how they make you feel and how they’ve affected your behaviors. Then take those words and start saying them out loud.
Scream them alone in your room. Wail into a pillow. Hit a punching bag at the gym or push the anger through your feet on a run. Cry your eyes out or throw a temper tantrum.
My friend Jason is a therapist who recommends the “fuck everything” game. It’s where you take your feelings and say “fuck you” to everything you need to out loud. With your parents, it might look like “Fuck you dad for drinking every night and never paying attention to us.”
Give yourself permission to get out as much anger as you can. You will eventually wear down your fury and feel a sense of relief. Then you can take the next step and share the pain.
Share the pain and get some support
With anger comes pain. In the face of hurt, we men often want to be strong and self-sufficient. We can view asking for helping or talking about our struggles as a sign of weakness.
But that’s just pride getting the best of us. We are social animals — we need community, support, and love.
So you should talk about your baggage with someone you trust. That’s the only way to lessen the heavy weight on your shoulders.
Just the act of vocalizing your feelings helps you begin to process them. When you have to put them into descriptive, emotional sentences, you gain more clarity. And by talking about them with another person, you get to have someone validate or relate to the way you’re feeling.
You can talk to a professional like a therapist or a close friend. For me, I leaned on friends.
I told a few select people about the pain I felt from my parents. I told them how I felt they compromised my chance for a better life.
In turn, my friends told me they recognized my potential and encouraged me not to give up. They reassured me that I wasn’t being irrational and that they’d had similar experiences. And again, they showed me that I always had people I could count on.
And as I worked through my anger and my pain, I paved the way for the next stage: understanding.
Consider their story, too
You can’t just point fingers and blame others endlessly. If you’re forever holding onto the feelings of injustice and resentment, you’re the one suffering.
Still, you might be thinking, “How am I supposed to get over my parents messing me up?”
I’m not asking you to absolve them of their wrongdoings. I’m not telling you that you need to “let it all go” and live happily ever after together.
I just want you to look objectively at your parents.
Because all of us hold our parents to a certain unattainable standard. When we’re young, they’re supposed to be these infallible, selfless caretakers. So when they wrong you, it feels like they’ve absolutely violated that agreement. It feels like they’re being intentionally harmful and malicious.
When in reality, your parents’ actions were often due to their own demons. You’ve got to also see them as the broken, hurting, insecure, ignorant humans they are — just like everybody else.
To give you some perspective…
My father grew up as a poor street kid in Greece. By the time he was 12, his dad had passed away and he was the head of the household.
He had so little for so long. He always dreamed of having “the good life” and worked for decades to build it from nothing. When he finally found the American Dream, he couldn’t help but yearn to experience everything he had missed. As he tasted what life had to offer, his desire to keep that up and give his family a future he never had overtook him.
So he worked 14 hours a day, 7 days a week most of my childhood. He spent too much money on lottery and scratch tickets with the hope of hitting it big. He mismanaged his business’ finances and it became his downfall.
My mother grew up in a small village on an island off of Portugal. Her family could barely put food on the table. Her father was a physically and emotionally abusive monster to the whole family. He would starve them, force them to sleep in the cold, and forbid them from getting a proper education. When she finally escaped, she left with deep emotional wounds and struggles with anger, anxiety, and insecurity.
In turn, she never got to see what healthy relationships looked like. Her mental health issues and the conflicts they created influenced my parents’ divorce. After that, she sought out men who mistreated her just like her father did.
The end result? I had absent parents who broke up our family, took out their problems on us, mismanaged their children’s futures, and chose crappy partners and work over the most important years of my development.
But by reflecting on their personal experiences, I was able to empathize with them. I started to understand how hard their own lives were, how their parents fucked them up, and that they had personal limitations. They often didn’t have the knowledge or emotional development to do any better.
This helped me further accept that my parents’ actions weren’t always coming from malice or a lack of care. While that didn’t make all the pain go away, it helped me be more fair when looking at our past.
From there, I had a choice: to try to rebuild a relationship with my parents or to move on from them. You might be facing that same choice, and I’m here to say both are valid.
Prepare for a hard conversation
For me, I wanted to try to rebuild a healthier relationship with my parents.
Yes, they had made mistakes. But I knew, deep down, that they loved me and didn’t intend to hurt me so much.
And because I had done the self-reflection and emotional processing I wrote about above, I knew what I wanted t o say to them. But having that hard conversation is fucking terrifying.
You have to balance being honest while not triggering their (and your) emotional defenses. Because once everyone’s feeling attacked and overwhelmed, there is no conversation to be had. There are a couple ways I’ve found to best ease into this:
Practice with a friend or inanimate object. So much of what we want to say gets trapped in our head. Then the only time it comes out is in the heat of the moment, when it’s emotionally charged.
If you can, imagine your parents in front of you by using a placeholder object. Try to speak freely until you find words that clearly convey your feelings. Practice this a few times and when the moment comes, you’ll be more measured and sure of yourself because you’ve done it before.
Write it down. If you’re not on speaking terms or can’t handle an in-person conversation yet, try remote communication first. Start an email chain where you check-in with them or update them on your life. If they engage, continue opening up a little more over time.
If and when you feel like they’re starting to be more vulnerable, hint that you want to talk to them more seriously. “Hey, so I’ve been trying to work through some things, especially between us. I want to talk about it sometime if you’re open to it.” At that point, they’ll either agree and continue over email, suggest a more personal method, or they’ll back out completely.
Now that you’ve gotten a bit of practice in, it’s time to speak up.
Have that conversation as best you can
It’s important to remember what you’re trying to accomplish from this conversation.
If you’re actually trying to repair a relationship, then your primary motive CAN’T be to attack your parents and make them feel terrible. Your goal should be to communicate your adult struggles, how you feel they originate from childhood, and that you’re trying to work through them now.
Use “I” statements about your feelings and experience, not “you” accusations. More like, “I think I have a hard time opening up to people because of how difficult it was to talk to you about my problems.” instead of “You always shut me down when I came to you for help and now I can’t trust anyone.”
This is the best way to get your parents to empathize with your experience rather than feel criticized and on guard.
In my case, I spoke to my parents about how I wished they were around more. I told them how I felt frustrated with our financial situation because of their actions. Both of them expressed their regrets and how much it hurt them to hear how they hurt me.
And that’s all I needed. Telling them how I felt and having those feelings validated lifted a huge weight off of my shoulders. I stopped secretly holding onto resentment, which opened the door for me to experience new feelings with them.
Of course, things didn’t magically change overnight. I still have moments when I get a little too terse with my parents, but they’re less frequent and we recover quickly. My mother still struggles to control her emotions, but I’ve accepted that she’s trying her best.
In general, I’ve spent more quality time with them over the past few years than ever before. We’ve had family trips, movie nights, and more open talks about our lives and feelings.
It’s up to you to decide what you need for reconciliation or closure, or when to stop trying if you’re not getting it.
Or accept that there’s nothing more to discuss
In an ideal world, we would all have the hard talk with our parents and come out hugging. But life isn’t a zany family sitcom.
For some, repairing that connection may never happen, and maybe shouldn’t even be attempted. I know some of you have experienced much more violent and/or intentional abuse.
You’ve tried to look at things objectively and realized your parents are too far gone. Or you attempted to have the honest conversation without any progress.
And in those cases, you might decide that the best course of action is to move ahead without trying to reconcile. That’s okay.
No matter what, it’s still important to do the hard work of releasing your anger, sharing your pain, and forgiving yourself. Doing so will help you realize how much you’ve grown and will still grow in the future. You will see that you are strong because of your hurdles, not just in spite of them.
You may not get the chance to attain true “closure” or “answers”, but you have the knowledge of what it means to be a loving, caring person in your own relationships.
Then move forward in your own way
A few years ago, my mother heard her father had passed away. She hadn’t seen him in a very long time, and even then only for a couple of minutes.
She never told him how she felt. They never reconciled. And it’s largely because he was so disturbed, there was no chance for a relationship. But I also think it’s because he was the monster she never had the courage to face again.
So when she got the news of his funeral, she wrestled with what to do. She asked me, “Should I go? I don’t even know if I want to.” I told her that she had no obligation either way and that she had nothing to feel bad about.
She decided to attend the service and afterwards she told me about the experience. She had no idea what to expect when she would see him. And when that reveal came, she felt…nothing.
She saw a man lying there who was nobody to her. She didn’t feel shame or regret for not visiting him. She didn’t reminisce about their past.
This guy terrorized an entire family with his primary motive: control.
In that funeral home, my mom stood there, unafraid. She was resilient, a survivor, and was the one left standing. And she knew once and for all, he would never hurt anyone again.
Then she came home happy to spend a nice family dinner with her children. She was free from his control and finally at peace.
Sometimes, the best way to repair the relationship is to let it go.
I love you mom and dad. I think you’re really strong and I know you did your best.
I am the man I am today because of you and I wouldn’t have changed a thing.