Why We Talk About Parents in Therapy

*I’ll be using “parents” throughout this post, but I’m referring to any person who was central to raising you (e.g., foster parents, relatives, family friends).

Periodically, I’ll be mid-session with a client. We’ll be talking about something seemingly unrelated to their parents - a job, a romantic partner, finances. Suddenly they will begin to laugh because they can see the direction we’re moving in. We're approaching that great therapy cliche of talking about their parents.

That cliche exists for a reason. Not every session focuses on parental relationships. In fact, for some people that’s simply not central to what is bringing them into therapy. However, nine times out of ten, when exploring our beliefs about who we are and how we relate to other people, we’ll come back to the originators of those beliefs - our parents.

Parents Teach Us Who We Are

When we are babies and startled by a crash of thunder, a parent may pick us up and say, “Oh, you’re afraid, but it’s ok” and soothe us. From this and a thousand more interactions, we start to learn that this sensation in our body is called fear.

Our very ability to recognize and identify our emotions and their origins come from our parents. Parents who are dismissive of our emotions or overreact to them have a big impact on the way we experience our emotions on a fundamental level. For example, if we were raised being told that it’s weak to be afraid, we will likely feel guilty when we are afraid or try to actively deny that feeling to ourselves.

We also learn based on these experiences how we can expect others to treat us when we need them. For example, if our parents are only there for us when we are in severe crisis mode - we may develop a sense of the world as scary because during more day-to-day stressors we feel very alone. We may even perceive ourselves as inherently unlovable and vulnerable. We may need to cry louder to be taken care. As an adult we may still believe like we need to cry loudly or yell for anyone to hear our needs.

Alternatively, if our parents are just about never available to us, no matter what is happening - we may come to expect that we will simply always be on our own in this world. The idea of anyone helping us out may seem foreign and only for “weak” people.

For many people with who experienced childhood traumas, their own parents were quite scary at times - either because they were abusive or because their own pain got in the way of effectively parenting. As a result it can be confusing to know what to expect when we need someone. We may see fear and love as inherently intertwined. We may also feel like there are no safe havens in the world.

There are numerous people who influence us throughout our lives - friends, teachers, mentors. Yet, our parents have a special place because we take in their lessons at a tender age, well before we have any ability to critically assess how much their own problems may be impacting the way they experience us.

The Role of Therapy

Much of therapy is about identifying the lessons we learned from our parents, which may not be meshing well with our current social needs or how we would like to see ourselves.

Maybe a partner wants us to open up more or they want us to recognize when they are present and here for us. But we may still be stuck in the past, in those original lessons taught by our parents about who we we are and what we are allowed in life.

Talking about parents can be difficult. We may become overwhelmed when remembering bad times or worry we are minimizing the good times. That’s all normal and perfectly ok. How you see your parents is unique to you and may or may not evolve over time.

Despite the difficulties of talking about parents, doing so can be a deeply healing process. Getting to really know yourself, accepting who you are and what you need out of life can change everything. It can allow you to actually give yourself the help you need, take in the reality of how your present day relationships treat you, and you can also (if you want to) forgive your parents for their mistakes.

It’s not an easy process, but I’m here to help.