NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Now That You're An Adult, Your Parents Have Changed Into the Parents You Wanted As a Child

As a psychotherapist in New York City, I hear many adult clients tell me that they have problems reconciling who their parents were in the past to who their parents are now.

In these situations, psychotherapy clients often say something like, "My mother was so abusive when I was growing up, but now she's a sweet, kind lady. I can't believe she's the same person. I'm glad she's changed, but I'm having problems reconciling that the mother from the past is the same mother in the present.  Why wasn't she kind to me when I was a child?" (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From An Adult Perspective).

Now That You're an Adult, Your Parents Have Changed Into the Parents You Wanted As a Child
This change often presents a dilemma for clients attending psychotherapy.  They are traumatized, they are affected in their current life by the childhood abuse.  But many of these clients also feel a sense of guilt for complaining about their parents' past behavior because their parents are no longer like that.  Not only do they experience guilt, but they also feel confused about the change.

On an intellectual level, most clients understand that people often change and who they were in the past is no longer who they are in the present.  But on an emotional level, especially if the past trauma is getting triggered in their current circumstances, it's hard to reconcile the change (see my article: Coping With Trauma: Becoming Aware of Emotional Triggers).

These clients often experience anger, sadness and resentment for the love and nurturing they didn't get as a child.  Many of them also express surprise to discover that their parents have changed because they never thought their parents would ever change.

In many cases, the change becomes evident when these adult clients have their own children and their parents, as grandparents, interact with their grandchildren in a much more nurturing way than they ever did with these clients when the clients were children.

This sometimes creates a dilemma for these clients because, on the one hand, they feel somewhat envious that their children are getting the love and nurturance from the clients' parents that these clients wanted for themselves as children.  But, on the other hand, even though these clients' feelings are understandable, no one wants to feel envious of their own children.

A Fictional Clinical Vignette: Your Parents Today Have Changed Into the Parents You Wanted As a Child:
The following fictional clinical vignette is typical of this issue and illustrates how psychotherapy can help:

Describing a horrific childhood with both physical abuse and neglect, Beth, who was in her 40s, told her psychotherapist that, she recently gave birth to a baby girl, Cindy.  She said that, after being estranged from her parents for many years, she and her husband were considering whether or not to contact her parents about Cindy's birth.

Beth described a traumatic childhood where she and her younger sister, Sandy, often cowered in their room when one or both parents lost their tempers and hit them with a belt.  Other times, her parents would leave them alone at home over the weekend with no food as the parents went to a resort in Upstate New York.

Beth said that neither she nor Sandy ever told anyone about the abuse or neglect because they were both too afraid of the repercussions.  As a result, they endured the abusive and neglectful behavior until they were old enough to leave the household.  Beth even delayed going to college for a year so that she and Sandy could leave the household at the same time.  She feared that if she left Sandy alone with their parents, they would unleash all their anger on her after Beth was gone.

Beth's husband, John, who had heard the horrific stories of Beth's childhood, would have preferred that Beth not contact them at all.  He feared that they might want to be involved with Cindy, and he definitely felt uncomfortable with that.  But he left the decision about contacting her parents up to Beth.

Ultimately, Beth decided to send her parents a note.  She would rather that they hear about Cindy directly from her rather than hearing it from other relatives who were still in Beth's life.

Based on their experiences with their parents, Beth and Sandy both doubted that their parents would want to be involved in Cindy's life.  So, Beth, Sandy and John were shocked when her parents wrote back that they were thrilled to hear that they were grandparents and they wanted to reconnect with Beth and Sandy and see the new baby.

At first, Beth wasn't sure what to do.  Before she contacted her parents, she knew there was a possibility that they might want to meet Cindy, but she thought of it as a very remote possibility.  She was shocked that her parents would even care enough to want to reconcile and meet Cindy.

When she talked it over with John, she understood his reluctance.  He had never met her parents and, after hearing about Beth's traumatic childhood, he hoped he would never meet them.  He was angry for the hurt that they caused Beth and Sandy.

After they talked it over and Beth discussed it in several therapy sessions with her psychotherapist, Beth and John decided to have a short visit with her parents in a nearby park rather than inviting them over to their apartment.  Sandy decided that she didn't want to see her parents, so she told Beth that she wouldn't go.

With much trepidation, Beth and John waited for Beth's parents at the area they designated in the park.  While they waited for Beth's parents to show up, they both wondered if they were making a big mistake.  But it was too late to back out at that point.

During her next psychotherapy session, Beth told her psychotherapist that she was amazed at how pleasant and nurturing her parents were with Cindy and with her and John.   Not only were they thrilled that they were now grandparents, they both said how much they missed Beth.

Afterwards, Beth was so surprised that she could hardly believe that they were the same parents who were abusive and neglectful with her and Sandy.

Her amazement was so great Beth told Sandy that when she was with their parents, for a second, she wondered if the abuse and neglect had ever happened.  She wondered: How could these be the same people?  But she was relieved that Sandy, who was also shocked to hear that their parents were pleasant, confirmed Beth's sense of reality about their childhood.

John was also surprised.  After hearing about Beth's childhood, he wasn't sure what to expect when they met for the first time.  But he wasn't expecting such a warm response from them.

Aside from needing help to reconcile her parents of today with her parents from the past, Beth also started therapy because she wanted to work on her unresolved childhood trauma.  But, after reconnecting with her parents, initially, Beth had difficulty processing the earlier trauma because she felt like her parents were such different people now, and she continued to have doubts regarding her perceptions of her childhood.

She felt a guilty complaining to her therapist about her parents when they were now behaving in such a loving and nurturing way with Cindy.  Even though Sandy confirmed her sense of what happened when they were children and she knew, on an intellectual level, what happened, there were still times, on an emotional level, when Beth felt like she might be "exaggerating" or "making a big thing out of nothing."

Beth's psychotherapist provided her with psychoeducation about how adults, who were abused and neglected as children, often have doubts about their childhood history--especially if their parents had changed.  Knowing that this was a common experience for many clients, Beth felt somewhat relieved to know that other people had similar experiences.

In addition, Beth had many mixed feelings about her parents.  She told her therapist that, when she was a child, she longed to have parents who were as loving as her parents were now to her daughter.  Although she was glad that they were able to be loving towards her daughter, she also felt a lot of grief for what she didn't get emotionally from her parents when she was a child.  She told her therapist that she was felt guilty to admit that she sometimes envied Cindy because her parents could be so loving towards Cindy.

Her psychotherapist used EMDR therapy to help Beth to process her traumatic childhood (see my article: Experiential Therapy, Like EMDR Therapy, Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

The work was neither quick nor easy.  As part of her trauma work, Beth grieved for the love she didn't get as a child.

In the meantime, as Beth was resolving her childhood trauma, she and her husband were making decisions about how much contact they wanted Cindy to have with Beth's parents.

People are often amazed when parents, who were abusive to them when they were children, can now be kind and loving as grandparents.

There can be many reasons for this, including:
  • Abusive parents often mellow with age.  
  • Grandparents are usually under less pressure with their grandchildren than they were as parents.  Often, they can have a good time with their grandchildren without the stress they felt when they were rearing their own children.
  • People change, and abusive parents might have regrets about their behavior.  
  • Grandparents, who have regrets about being abusive parents, often see grandparenting as a way to make up for the abusive way they treated their own children.
Of course, every situation is different, and each person needs to make his or her own decision about whether to allow a formerly abusive parents back in his or her life.

It's also true that, even when there aren't grandchildren involved, abusive parents can change over time, and their adult children have many of the same problems reconciling the parents of the past with the current parents.

Getting Help in Therapy
Coping with a history of unresolved childhood trauma is difficult, especially when, as an adult, unresolved trauma gets triggered in the present.

Psychotherapy with a skilled trauma therapist can help you to overcome unresolved trauma, so you can free yourself from your history and live a more fulfilling life (see my articles: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I am a trauma therapist who works with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to overcome unresolved trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.