Friday nights as a teenager were often a dull affair. Sometimes I’d have a friend over to watch a movie. Other times I’d play video games or read on my own. If I was lucky, I might have even found myself at Tim Horton’s with a friend. The joyrides and house parties that characterized adolescence for many teens were rare for me.
On the odd occasion I did go out, I’d come home to my mom peering out through the blinds as I pulled my car into the driveway. She’d greet me as I came in and ask how my night was. If I responded in a chipper, upbeat tone, she’d be satisfied and saunter to bed. Otherwise, she’d interrogate me to figure out what was wrong and if I was hurt.
As this trend continued into my early 20s, I started to question her on why she’d stay up past midnight waiting for me—to which she’d respond, “I can’t sleep if I don’t know you’re safe.”
Most outsiders can probably see how stifling and anxious her behaviour was. They might even suggest that I should have been more defiant or assertive about my boundaries. But at the time, I felt like I was in the wrong for causing her to worry so much.
I’m a first-generation Canadian—raised by two European immigrants. And while my familial values have certainly played a role in my perception of my parents, I suspect my feelings are fairly common.
When we start going to therapy or focusing on self-growth, chances are that we’ll have to dig into our relationship with our parents in order to better understand why we are the way we are.
But if that’s true, why is it so difficult for some people to put their parents under the microscope? After all, questioning or reflecting on their past behaviour in the privacy of our own thoughts can’t hurt anyone.
Unconditional love vs. betrayal
It’s not uncommon to have an emotional blindspot when it comes to our parents. From an early age, we’re raised with the idea that we owe them unconditional love—so it’s easy to overlook their less desirable behaviours or even blame ourselves for any negative reactions we might incite. Even in extreme instances of abuse or neglect, many children maintain a steadfast commitment to seeking love, affection, or acceptance. To that end, entertaining the idea that our parents could ever be in the wrong can feel like an outright betrayal.
Guilt and gratitude
It’s hard for our parents to acknowledge that we have it worse off than they did. Whether they were immigrants or members of a lower income bracket, many of them regale us with stories of how hard they had it. These stories are sometimes met with a sarcastic eyeroll, but they can also instil a sense of guilt, making us feel like we don’t have the right to express a sense of unfairness. Comments like “You should be grateful” can reinforce the idea that we should simply accept what we’re given and not question our parents.
Becoming the caretaker
Even before we develop speech, we’re on the lookout for predictable patterns in our environment so we can better understand the world and our place in it. Because our physical survival depends on our parents, creating a stable bond is crucial. In cases where parents are emotionally mature and attentive to our needs, this usually happens without any issues. But when a parent is emotionally unpredictable, we become more in-tune with their needs so we can better anticipate their behaviour and respond accordingly. When we get used to thinking this way for so long (i.e. putting the needs of our parents before our own), it can be hard to shift the focus to ourselves.
Finding the common thread
For many of our parents, the idea of emotional safety wasn’t a thing. My parents, for example, are two of the hardest-working people I know, but vulnerability isn’t their strong suit. Emotional safety is the idea that people feel secure to express their feelings and authentic self without fear of judgment or punishment.
In parental relationships where emotional safety isn’t fostered, we’re more prone to repressing our feelings or acting out since we don’t feel safe enough to express ourselves openly and honestly. This is especially true if our parent is the source of the our anger or hurt.
Unless we make a conscious effort to delve into unresolved feelings towards a parent—either through self reflection or with a trusted friend, family member, partner, or therapist—these feelings will likely remain inaccessible to us.
Even if reflecting on our relationship with our parents doesn’t feel like a treacherous act, dredging up memories from our childhood or changing how we perceive our parents isn’t easy to do. But as long as we feel emotionally safe, doing so can provide us with a much deeper understanding of who we are.