When Parents Don’t Know Best

By: Katharine Parker

In season 4 episode 3 of “Girls,” Hannah circles around her writing group at a party. She calls out her peers for the sticks up their asses and reminds them of just how ordinary they are. Hannah begins with Jeffrey and exclaims, “What a little rich whiny white guy. Thinks he’s Updike. Thinks he’s a revolution that he hates his parents.” It immediately got me thinking, and reflecting on the culture around hating our parents, for those of us who do.

Hating our parents or family is not out of the ordinary. It’s a phase that many angsty teenagers experience, or countless twenty-somethings work through, generally with the help of some extensive therapy. For one reason or another, maybe heightened by media, some teenagers and twenty-somethings believe it’s edgy, cool, or unique to hate their parents. They like the idea of “look what I’ve been through and I’m tough and independent because of it now.” It’s almost like a competition to see who has been through worse and who has the unhealthiest family. What we need to realize is this is in fact not cool, it’s immensely sad. Hating our family should not be a competition, exploited, or used to justify inappropriate and hurtful behavior. Hating our family needs to be overcome and worked through in order to bring out the better side of ourselves.

In general, it often takes people until their late 20s or early 30s to realize that they’ve been carrying their family dynamics around, allowing them to interfere with healthy relationships, both intimate and friendly, justifying bad behavior for how they’ve been brought up. But what happens after you’ve overcome the turmoil inside of you? When you’re left on the other side realizing that even after the anger, having nurturing relationships with your parents or being best friends with your mom is still not an option? My therapist and I are currently working on the issue of never truly experiencing that foundational love only exuded through immediate family relations. What happens when you realize that you are someone who will never experience that kind of love and nurturing?

We frequently see articles titled “A Mother Knows Best,” “10 Reasons Your Sister is Your Best Friend,” or “What My Parents Marriage Taught Me.” It’s encouraging to see these as possibilities, especially when I think about having my own children. They’re hopeful in the sense that painful family dynamics are not the norm. Simply because one person experienced immense neglect, witnessed traumatic events, or grew up in a home of mental instability and substance abuse does not mean that these events have to continue throughout adulthood. Or carry over into the families we’ll eventually build ourselves.

When I sat down to write this article I thought, “Maybe it’s not about what our parents directly taught us. Maybe it’s about observation and looking into their patterns of behavior, and contemplating the source of their thought processes.” When I began working through my family dynamics, my therapist focused our first few weeks on creating narratives about each member while at the same time recognizing that these are the stories, or truths, in my head. She wanted me to step into their shoes, show some empathy as difficult as that may be, and walk through the events we all experienced but from their perspectives. Suddenly, I felt myself begin to separate. I began to see that my childhood was not intentionally disrupted, but simply a situation created by people who didn’t know any better. Although I still believe there is some irresponsibility associated with having kids before figuring out how to be your best self, I now understand that some people simply do not have the skills to self reflect and therefore change.

Does it justify their behavior, or subside the immense anger I had, and sometimes still experience, for not having ideal family dynamics? Absolutely not. But it does help in creating an illusive bubble around myself, allowing me to protect myself because that is my own responsibility. For me this family dynamic will never end because that’s what mental disease, substance abuse, and living in the past does. But recognizing that these people don’t have the same skills that I’m currently working on helps separate some of the words they may say, or the actions they may take. Does this mean that they’re allowed to berate me, or bring me down into their pit with them? No, because as well as separating myself from them mentally, I’m setting up loving boundaries in order to maintain a presence in their lives without being sucked into it.

Running  to a new state and cutting off ties is always an option. I think about doing this frequently. But I recognize that running doesn’t necessarily mean freedom. Our thought patterns will always be there, and we’ll always experience things that remind us of painful events. Unfortunately, you can’t run away from memories. Figuring out which route is best for you is a personal choice, and this article is not meant to make you stay in a situation that is unhealthy. I maintain a presence within my family for my younger brother who should never have to divide his time among family because of their disagreements. I stay because in my heart of hearts, I understand that the trauma experienced in my childhood was not intentional. Sometimes parents don’t have the skills that their children do.

Sometimes parents don’t know best, but that doesn’t have to coincide with hatred towards them. Growing up and being healthy involves forgiveness, empathy, and boundaries. I know that as of right now I only have the strength to speak to my mother once a week. I know that I will never have the patience to have a relationship with my older, alcoholic sister. I know that before and after being in a room with family, I have to identify three emotions along with their source. That way I relieve some of the potential energy that leads to panic attacks that are a result of being in close proximity to them. I have to deeply know myself to understand my triggers as well as tools that will help me express empathy and not journey down into the pit with them.

The process and work it takes to separate family hatred from acceptance is difficult. I strongly believe that we make our own families. But that doesn’t excuse us from leaving our families behind. Or excuse us from carrying that hatred into our future, which affects our relationships, and our potential parenting methods (if you’re someone who decides to have children). It is extremely unfortunate and sad that parents sometimes do not know best, but that doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from them. And with that, they deserve some thanks for helping you have the courage to be your best self.

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