Q&A: "Should I Talk to My Parents About My Childhood Hurts?"

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

This is the first entry in the new series, "Self-Archeology Q&A," where I answer a question or respond to a comment. The first question I want to tackle today is a very common one. I’ve gotten this question from a substantial amount of people, and I have observed many struggling with it, so I will share my thoughts on it in a form of a structured article in hope that it will be useful to more people.

Should I, as an adult, talk to my caregiver* about my hurtful and otherwise problematic childhood experiences?

First, it is worth noting that the question itself is formulated incorrectly—not from a grammatical but from a psychological perspective. The word 'should,' by definition, indicates an obligation, a lack of choice. You are not obligated to talk to your caregivers about anything, nor you are forced to do so. You can if you want to—but there is no should here. I’m not going to talk about the argument why this is the case in great detail here, but there are very few SHOULDs in life, and this is not one of them. In short, you are not responsible for your caregiver, you don’t need them to survive anymore, and you don’t owe them anything. Actually, one example of a moral SHOULD would be meeting your child’s needs, which is a caregiver’s responsibility, even though in way too many people’s minds a role-reversal has happened when a person was still a child—which is exactly what is happening here psychologically.

When I bring these points up, people usually gain a more realistic perspective, and with that more clarity. Although sometimes some still try to manipulate their language by using different words to imply they actually don’t have choice—even when on an intellectual level they just accepted that they do have a choice and that there is no obligation. That’s how deeply ingrained in one’s psyche such beliefs are. If a person feels they should do something in regard to their caregiver, usually that’s a big—if not the root—problem in itself they may want to work on separately and in great depth.

Now, lets talk about the second and main part of the question: should I talk to my caregiver about my childhood hurts, about their inadequate caregiving, and other problems that were prevalent in the relationship? Well, again, the word 'should' doesn’t make sense here. If we change it into something more appropriate, like, "Would it be beneficial to...?", then the answer is a little bit more evident.

When somebody asks me such a question, my response is: I don’t know; it depends. Should I buy a combine harvester? Well, I don’t know—it depends on your situation. Why are you thinking about buying one? What will you do with it? What kind are you looking for? What’s your end-goal?

So the questions that may arise now regarding a potential conversation with your caregiver are: Why do you want to talk to them? What are your motivations? What exactly do you want to talk about? What do you want to say to them and for what purpose? What are you trying to achieve here in general? After you explore those questions honestly and in depth, you will have your answer.

But to give a more general answer, usually there are a few more legitimate and some less healthy reasons why a person wants to have such a conversation with their caregiver. Let’s start with the less healthy motivations. One, a person still has a strong psychoemotional dependency on their caregiver and deep down wants a loving, ideal parent. So, in their mind, they need their caregiver to understand how they wronged them, for the purpose of having a fulfilling relationship.

Two, a person wants to “save” their caregiver by “helping” them realize the truth and make them better. Again, role-reversal, Stockholm syndrome, dependency, and a fantasy of a wonderful parent. There possibly are more reasons that fit in this category, but most of them are related to denial of, or inability to, fully accept the truth about their relationship, both past and present. It’s an unfortunate, dependency-based dynamic, where a person feels they need comfort, attention, and understanding from the very person who hurt them in numerous painful ways.

Two main, more positive reasons for having such a conversation with your caregiver could be the following. One, a person wants to gather factual information about their childhood and about their caregiver for personal growth purposes. By talking to your caregiver about your childhood you can get information that wasn’t accessible to you before or that you forgot. So you may get some facts about your childhood environment and about your caregiver’s life at that time. Additionally, it may provide you psychological information about your caregiver. Meaning if you are attentively listening and analyzing what is said and how your caregiver is interacting with you in this very moment, you may get a more realistic perspective about how they are as a person, and possibly how they were when you were a child. Something to keep in mind, though, is that the information they would provide is based on their ability to accurately recollect and process their experiences and on their level of honesty and courage. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they will lie about everything or will try to manipulate you every step of the way, but not everything you gather may be 100 percent truth or valid. Stay aware and analytical.

Reason number two is more clarity. When they just start exploring their relationship with their caregiver, people—possibly without exceptions—feel very confused or at least somewhat unsure about it and its future. The very question you raise shows indecisiveness. Talking about it can provide you with more experiences, which, ideally, converts into more information and a more realistic perception of the situation. Often people are afraid that the conversation may reveal that the relationship is very unhealthy or that there is no hope for the future. Others are scared of their caregiver’s reaction, which in itself tells a lot about the quality of the relationship. These fears are understandable. At the same time, if the goal is clarity and happiness, not delusion and misery, then one eventually has to accept the reality as it is. It’s not that if you pretend that the relationship is better than it actually is it magically becomes better. So, if your goal is truth and clarity, then gaining more information can help you achieve this goal, even if that information may be emotionally uncomfortable.

At the end of the day, whether you decide to talk to your caregiver about it or not is completely up to you. Some may think, “Just tell me what to do! I read the whole article and you still didn’t tell me should or shouldn’t I talk to my mother about how she was abusive to me when I was a child!” People want quick, direct answers. It doesn’t work like this. I’m not going to tell you what to do. Remember, you’re an adult now. Nobody can tell you what to do. If I—or anybody else—were to tell you what to do, that would be a sign of poor boundaries. Actually, I would kindly suggest you to consider avoiding people who tell others what to do, and to refrain from asking for direct advice. It indicates a lack of self-responsibility—and one of the main goals of personal growth is psychological independence, or individuality. It’s your life; it’s your choices. Other people can only offer their knowledge, their experience, and their perspective. It’s your responsibility to come to your own conclusions and make your own choices.

So, you can try to frame the question differently (Do I want to…?), to ask yourself additional questions (What are my goals? What are my motivations? What exactly do—and don’t—I want to talk about, and why? How do I see the future of our relationship based on what I now about it now?), to explore those questions with a professional if necessary, and to make your own decision. In addition, it is useful to explore your fears, worries, emotional experiences, expectations, realistic predictions, and thoughts related to this. Also, if you decide to have this conversation, preparation helps, too—in other words, acting impulsively probably would be less effective.

Good luck!

*In my works I usually use the term 'caregiver' to refer to any person (or people) who is (are) mainly responsible for the well-being of the child.
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  1. Hello Darius,
    "One, a person still has a strong psychoemotional dependency on their caregiver and deep down wants a loving, ideal parent. So, in their mind, they need their caregiver to understand how they wronged them, for the purpose of having a fulfilling relationship." Why is wanting to challenge my abusive mother, who is still in denial about what she did to me, in your words "unhealthy"? That is a value judgement and you could only state that as universally true if you had undertaken universal research.

  2. Hi Jack Rainbow,

    I am saying that a person who is mentally or otherwise dependent on their caregiver feels that they NEED the relationship. And so they feel they have to make the relationship work and their abusive caregiver HAS to understand how they were wrong. What I call unhealthy is the dependency, because as an adult you don't NEED your caregiver, and so you don't NEED for them to understand what they did wrong. Just like you don't NEED for a rapist to understand how rape was hurtful to you, because maintaining a relationship with your rapist is not vital. (Apologies of an extreme example but it often helps to convey a point.)

    I hope that helps!